Watch Out for Weaponized Praise

Your bosses might be using compliments against you.

Her boss expressed some concern. Not really about her. No, she was doing a great job. It was just that…she used to push other people to work harder. Now she didn’t. What happened?

He said, “You’ve lost a little of your enthusiasm.”

A look of abject terror spread across my friend’s face. Her boss caught himself. “I mean, your work is better than ever. But you just seem, I don’t know. Tired. We don’t want you to burn out.”

Basically, my friend’s boss wanted her to keep doing everything she’d been doing. Plus manage everyone else.

Essentially his job.

Even worse, he was using praise to manipulate her into doing more work. And he wanted her to hide how much she was doing, by faking her old energy. He needed her to alleviate his guilt.

Praise usually covers up something more sinister, like the prolonged absence of a promotion. It often serves no other purpose than keeping people in line.

This is the kind of crap bad bosses like to pull. They condition employees to work harder for the sake of everything else but themselves. They extol the virtues of self-sacrifice, but rarely reward that with increased pay or benefits. I’ve been here myself, recently. Extra work that I’ve taken on has become part of my essential job duties now. My bosses tell me how fantastic I am all the time, until I mention workload adjustments.

Or pay raises.

Then they start lecturing me about my commitment. They try to tell me how to delegate more. But what they really mean is that I should try to find someone else to split my extra work with, for free.

This ain’t sustainable.

On the plus side, it’s forcing me to face some hard truths about work and life. Namely that praise isn’t enough. In fact, praise might just serve the purpose of keeping people in line, and extracting more labor from them. I’m learning the limits of praise the hard way.

Consider my friend, the one who’d lost some of her pep. She’d somehow become a shadow boss, someone who manages all the details that the department chair found so distasteful.

Not only that, but she also had to keep everyone else on track when it came to important service work — committee meetings, scheduling, assessment, teaching observations. Since her boss didn’t like dealing with the fine print, she was the one who had to keep spreadsheets on everything and send out reminders about upcoming deadlines.

She was the one who wrote press releases and updated the company’s website. Even if that wasn’t her job.

Everyone told her thanks.

They really appreciated her hard work.

Nobody asked her to do these things. She just knew they had to be done. In a fair world, this kind of self-motivation and organization brings about some level of tangible acknowledgement. A promotion, maybe. A bonus. At least an award with a nice little plaque.

If your employer rewards performance only with increased responsibility, stop volunteering for more work. Start looking for another job.

Instead, she was compensated only with more work. After two years, she finally realized it wasn’t worth the hustle. Nobody really cared what she was doing, until she stopped. Her lesson: If your employer rewards performance only with increased responsibility, stop volunteering for more work. Start looking for another job.

This kind of invisible labor falls on women, but men can shoulder unfair expectations, too. Especially if they’re not the stereotypical, macho-style alpha male that dominates board meetings.

A flexible, open-minded man can also get screwed over. He can fall victim to the same weaponized praise.

Another friend — a guy — tells a similar story. He’d spent an entire year herding jaguars to get a program re-accredited. Nobody realized how much he was doing until he turned the reins over to a colleague, who let the program fall apart in less than a year.

I’ve got my own stories about invisible work and weaponized praise. My first two years on the tenure track involved lots of service, and an open-door policy. Which meant constant interruptions.

All of my research and writing time happened on nights and weekends. So did most of my grading. My daylight hours went into lesson planning, teaching, meetings, drop-in appointments, independent studies, and mentoring. I was expected to be available all the time.

If you’ve ever found yourself doing your “real work” on nights and weekends, that’s invisible labor. You’re facilitating your own exploitation. Maybe you don’t have a choice. But at least admit it to yourself.

Personally, I prefer to work at night. So I’m always going to be at risk for doing extra during the daytime, to make myself appear productive. I’m trying to do less of that now. For lots of reasons. I’m trying to do my real work during the day, so I can actually spend time with my family.

It’s been a rough transition, but a necessary one.

If you’ve ever found yourself doing your “real work” on nights and weekends, that’s invisible labor. You’re facilitating your own exploitation. Maybe you don’t have a choice. But at least admit it to yourself.

Once, I literally finished one major project right before a student walked into my office and asked me to mentor him. He said, “Professor Higglesworth said you’d be the best person to help me revise my novel. He said you’re extremely accomplished as a fiction writer.”

Why me? Because Professor Higglesworth guarded his time. He was tenured. I wasn’t. Which meant I couldn’t say no.

Professor Higglesworth also apparently coached this student in the ways of weaponized praise.

Women and men alike have done excellent work for their companies and yet always somehow wind up sidelined. Not all of us have the personality to demand promotions and raises.

So what can you do?

You can play along. Accept your boss’s praise. Politely decline extra work, and try to offload what you’ve already taken on. This strategy might work better than starting a conflict that you know you’ll lose.

If you say no, preempt a conflict by reminding your boss what you’re already doing, i.e., “Sorry, I can’t take care of that because I’m already doing X with Y deadline.” Yes, it works.

Continue developing your skills. Only take on the extra projects that will increase your knowledge or value. Take this approach especially if you don’t know how much longer you’ll be hanging around.

Most of us can’t afford to risk losing our jobs by complaining openly about unfair workloads and invisible labor. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept what’s happening. We can strategize.

Find ways to dodge the busywork you’ve gotten used to taking on.

Find out who should actually be doing that other work, and redirect. That might sound like more labor, and it is in the short term. But hopefully you’ll establish new norms, and people will stop dumping on you.

Keep an eye out for openings and promotions. Actually apply for them. You might’ve hit a ceiling at your current job. To know for sure, you have to explore your options.

Almost everyone winds up doing more than they originally signed up for. You shouldn’t whine about that by itself. But doing extra work should eventually lead to some kind of reward. Something more than hollow praise. If you’ve noticed a pattern of pats on the back, followed only by “a new responsibility” or a “new challenge,” you’ve got a problem.

Most of us can’t afford to risk losing our jobs by complaining openly about unfair workloads and invisible labor. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept what’s happening. We can scheme. We can strategize. All without ever truly having to confront the system head on. Usually, you can’t strong arm the system. You have to outsmart it.