“Praise in public, criticize in private.”
Yep, we’re back to talk about praise again. It is worth hammering on this one, because it’s so prevalent, and there are some specific aspects that make it worth talking about in detail.
Take any feedback training, read any management book (this one excluded), this is the advice you’ll find: praise in public, criticize in private. It’s so wide-spread that it’s just considered fact. This how things ought to be done. Period.
But should it?
Think back to your school years. You sit in the classroom and your teacher is handing out the graded papers you submitted a week earlier. He stops in front your desk and rather than giving your paper to you, he holds it up in the air. “Kids,” he says, “this particular one was an excellent piece of work. The best paper by far. Well researched, well written. An example to all!”
How do you feel? I bet it feels great, doesn’t it? You feel seen, your work is acknowledged and appreciated.
A month passes. You sit in the classroom and your teacher is handing out marked papers you submitted a week earlier. He stops in front of your desk and hands you your graded paper and moves on. Then he stops at the desk next to you and pauses, holds up your neighbor’s paper in the air. “Kids,” he says, “this particular one was an excellent piece of work.” You get the drill.
How do you feel? Not as great as the month before. For one, you worked very hard on this paper as well, probably just as hard, or even harder than on the previous one, but you get nothing in return. You were “featured” before, but not this time, so… how should you interpret this piece of feedback?
Second, you’re now in a similar position as everybody else in the classroom a month before. Somebody else gets public praise, but you don’t. Implicitly, you’re being punished. What mindset does that put you in? Is it a constructive one?
“Oh, John was praised for his paper, for sure I will talk to him to figure out what he did well, so I can learn from him and be just as awesome as he!”
Haha, very cute. Phat chance. More likely:
“What’s the point? I worked so hard, and I’m not appreciated.”
“Everybody knows John is the teacher’s pet, so of course he gets picked.”
“I worked with John, and I actually gave him the idea for his paper. Why does he get all the credit?”
And… this is not specific to school, the same thing happens at work.
I’m sure your company has some sort of internal newsletter, calling out of specific people during all hands meeting, some sort of “employee of the month” type thing.
Do they work?
In fact, what does success look like for this type of public praise?
As far as I know, the intention is to highlight cases (people, projects) that are good examples of our expectations — role models. The intended impact is to kill two birds with one stone:
- Praising people publicly should reinforce the people mentioned to feel acknowledged, appreciated and encouraged to keep going in the same manner, or even step up more.
- It should encourage others to have a role model, to clarify what’s expected, and to grow to perform at a similar level.
Is that what happens?
For the people highlighted: in the previous chapters we spoke a lot about extrinsic motivation and its detrimental effects. Praise is a reward, and as a reward we know about its detrimental effects.
That’s for the one person highlighted, what about everybody else?
Let me summarize my extensive experience attempting to publicly praise certain teams and individuals for their contributions — the experience spans multiple companies, multiple cultures.
The result: praise always, consistently backfires to some degree (sometimes visibly, sometimes quietly with a slow burn).
Here’s a typical public praise announcement to the company in a company-wide e-mail:
We launched product X this week. This is an amazing achievement, and we’d like to thank Hank, Simone, Joe and Hannah for their hard work!
10 minutes later, some replies:
You forgot to mention Freddie and Jamie!
Product X couldn’t have been launched if it weren’t for team Y, should you not mention them as well?
Our product Z also launched, but it’s not mentioned. Are we not that much of a big deal?
I realize that product X team is closer to you, and therefore gets all the attention, but please don’t forget about everybody else that just work hard to keep this company going!
The idea behind this announcement was: “we care about delivering stuff, so we should highlight successful cases of delivery.” Did it work, though? Do you think other teams are more motivated to push their products live too?
While the intention of public praise is good, I don’t believe it actually achieves our intended goals.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Note that public praise comes in many shapes. It could be public thank yous, badges, prizes or awards. This likely applies to everything that is…
- Positive feedback
- Scoped to at a limited set of people (“thank you X, Y and Z")
So, what’s the alternative?
The baseline alternative is to simply not do it. Stop praising in public. That’s easy. What would we lose if we would?
For the people not excluded from the praise: probably this is already a win.
For the people no longer receiving praise: they will feel less seen.
“I put in all this effort, all these long nights and weekends and… crickets. Why would I even bother?”
Feeling seen and appreciated is a basic need, so we should not dismiss it. How about private acknowledgement instead? Not even private praise, but just listening to their story, showing we care about their efforts?
Time is the only truly limited resource in life — the ultimate currency, and people know it. You can pay somebody a bonus without significant effort, you can send an email praising people in a few minutes, but it all feels cheap because it is: it doesn’t really cost you time.
So how about this instead — spend time with the people who you would otherwise praise. Listen to their stories. Ask questions. Have them show you the work, explaining why it was hard. This can be in the office, on a zoom call, during lunch, during a dinner.
I’ve done this, and it’s appreciated a lot. Why? Again, people know time is naturally limited, your time is probably perceived to be even more limited. The fact that you show up and dedicate your time says it all. There is no need to judge, no need evaluate. No need to say “good job.”
What about publicly reinforcing that we care about teams delivering stuff (in this case), can we achieve that goal without public praise?
I’d say so, just cut the announcement down.
It was a good week in terms of delivery this week. We launched product X, as well as product Z!
We should still make sure that once we mention even one example, we mention all, but praising specific people and teams isn’t essential to emphasize the “we care about delivering stuff” message.
But More Pragmatically…
“That’s cool, Zef. But my company is littered with praise. Praise, praise all the things! Should I now not praise my people, my team?”
Yeah, this is a big challenge. The moment any praise happens, others will feel excluded when they’re not praised too. The assumption will be that you don’t appreciate your people as much as others do. That’s not good.
So anything more pragmatic we can do until we get there?
In terms of praise targeting: throw the net as wide as possible to reduce the risk of missing out on people. Praise the whole team, not individuals. And as a preventative measure always acknowledge “and everybody else who contributed to this in any way!”
As for praise content: dial down the judgment. It will likely be hard not say anything along the lines of “did an amazing job” because that’s expected, but beyond that, focus on impact and how it aligns with company goals:
Team T did an amazing job delivering feature X, which has been long requested by our customers and will help them to do Y. This matters to our company because Z. A big thank you to team X and everybody else who contributed in any way!