“Praise in public, criticize in private.”
Take any feedback training, read any management book (this one excluded), and 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 your 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 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 pretty basic need, so we need to fill it.
How about private acknowledgement and appreciation instead? Would that be that be less effective for the person in question than public praise?
I’ve been referring to this as context hugs. Rather than using praise: “Good job on that delivering that feature!” I connect it to purpose: “Our customers will be so happy to finally be able to use that feature, they have been asking for it for years!”
It’s a simple concept, and it only requires a bit more effort to implement than the default “Awesome job!” “You’re awesome!” “Good code typing!” Pat on the back.
“Congrats on launching product X, Hannah! We see how much effort you and your team put into this, it’s a critical project for the success of the company, and appreciate it a lot.”
Does that check the “feeling seen and appreciated” checkbox? I’d imagine it does. It would for me. It’s only if we have comparison (“why do you do this privately with me, and publicly with others”) that this would be problematic. One advantage over doing this publicly is that inclusiveness isn’t an issue (“what about this and this person, this team, that product!?”).
What about public reinforcement that we care about teams delivering stuff (in this case), can we achieve that 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. Prepared to do
“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!