On dogs, cats and employees’ loyalty

Recently I learned the difference between dogs and cats in an interesting way: if you praise a dog for its efforts in a game it will be greatly encouraged. It will work all the harder in order to receive further praise as a reward. It is happy.
Its behavior conveys the message: “My owner loves me. He/she is my god!” On the other hand if you praise and caress a cat, it will purr with pleasure, stretch and think: “My owner loves me. I believe I am god!” And then the cat does exactly what it wants.

I realized that people react just as differently.

There are the employees in the ‘dog’ category who can be encouraged to improve their performance through praise and rewards. I still remember them from my long professional experience in Europe. Close ties developed over decades.

Initially transferring this experience to Asian countries was not very well thought through. Praise is not part of the working culture here. Unaccustomed to being praised by their “boss”, employees here react more like “cats”. “He has praised me!”, says the employee in amazement, “I must be a star. Now I can make less effort and demand more money.”

Anyone who uses praise in Asia simply for the purpose of being a “nice boss”, will often simply generate an exaggerated sense of self-worth with this praise rather than motivation.

And also those employees who react to praise like the “cat” does, will be harmed by it in the long-term. They don’t work as hard, do what they want and increasingly disqualify themselves for their work.

Novice westerners in particular, often regard effusive praise as special politeness or even a kind of “adaptation to Asian friendliness”. This is a fallacy. You are more likely to achieve your objective with restraint when it comes to any expression of appreciation, together with suggestions for improvement.

Even here in the West finding the right balance between beneficial and harmful praise is not always easy: I appreciate American schools because they reward good performance and accordingly motivate their pupils to greater efforts. However, I wonder whether it really makes sense to carry an 8-year-old little fatso fed on “Double Whoppers” shoulder high through the stadium because he has finally finished an 800 m race, one and a half laps behind the other runners. Somehow the little loser should be taught that this doesn’t give him the right to regard himself as a future Olympic champion.

In contrast, in Germany, the balance between praise and blame is confused by egalitarianism. Of course I accept that in the reference you give to an intellectually challenged apprentice you can’t simply write that he is as thick as a brick and because of his lack of personal hygiene placed a daily strain on the sensory organs of his colleagues.

And you don’t need to express in so many words that in order to avoid him coming into contact with business guests he was generally, as a precaution, sent off to find a left-handed screwdriver.

But in a reference, do I really need to praise the “amazing accomplishments” of a dunce, the “self-confident manner” of an egotist, and the “entire company’s dependence” on this total incompetent, together with the sincerely held belief that we are saying goodbye to a future industrial tycoon, simply to avoid being dragged in front of an industrial tribunal? However, this is usually how the obligation to issue a “benevolent” testimonial is interpreted.

In such cases no praise at all is better than such artificial laurels. In fact many Asian employees look at the subject of praise and blame in a highly pragmatic way. If the widespread “cat” is praised but is then expected to continue to work for no more than the appropriate wage, it will look for a new job. And employees who are reprimanded simply don’t turn up the next morning. In this way the outcome of praise and blame is unified.

And by the way, in some Asian world of work, employees normally don’t even wish to have a reference. Because of a lack of legal safeguards there is a risk that such a reference might contain the truth: Namely that the “Master of IT science” can just about find his way to Facebook on the Internet, and the language skills of the “Master of English Language Science” might just be good enough to get him into difficulties but not good enough to get him out of these difficulties again.

Both of these disadvantages would of course be enough to make sure that the employee would, once they are discovered by an HR manager initially blinded by fancy titles, be requested to leave the company immediately and without notice. And anyway, what’s the problem if you switch companies for the ninth time after 7 to 12 months? You learn during your studies that your next victim (sorry: “employer”) will receive the impression that you have wide-ranging professional experience.

And anyone in this beautiful country who really wants to have a reference, generally receives it gladly and with great praise, because he or she probably has been very good. And because of the lack of competition they will then soon get the top job, in which the “cat” can enjoy its status as a “god”.

And so we have come full circle.