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Give Praise That Isn’t Patronizing

Praise usually seems much easier than criticism, but a lot of people actually hesitate to give praise. They worry about coming across as patronizing, pandering, or just insincere. We think that praise is even more important than criticism, so we want to help people learn to give it the right way.

Here’s a question we got from one of our podcast listeners:

I am a new manager of two administrative employees. Their day-to-day tasks are important to my team. Most of the time, the employees do a good job and keep our operations running smoothly.

However, I find myself only giving them negative feedback when something goes wrong. It feels patronizing to give praise when the employees do a good job since their tasks are not tied to specific projects. Do you have any tips for how I might give positive feedback and show appreciation?

Thank you for the great question! First, check out episode 3 of our podcast. We talk with Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter, about “Ruinously Empathetic Praise.” There are some great nuggets about what good praise looks like, and the summary is this: good praise is specific and sincere.

Focus on the Good Stuff

Here’s my core piece of advice: You have to really try to look for the good stuff. Many times, we’ve just trained ourselves to be “blind” to all the great little things people do every day because, frankly, we’ve decided “that’s just their job.” Yeah, it is, and it’s ok to convey to people when they are doing their job well, even if that’s what’s expected. Reinforce the good behaviors and the good work, and don’t take for granted that it will just continue forever.

You have to really try to look for the good stuff.

If you really try, I’m sure you’ll see a ton of good stuff that people are doing… And regardless of whether these things are tied to specific projects, you can still give praise in a non-patronizing way.

Be Specific and Share Why It Matters

Remember that the purpose of praise is to help people understand what to do more of, what success looks like, and what is valued.

Whether managing an administrative person or anyone else, I’ve found it helpful to make sure that the person and I were on the same page about the nature – or objective – of their job, and to give praise that made reference to that shared understanding.

Let me give an example for one of my favorite Administrative Assistants, Lauren, that might help you think about this for your situation. So the nature of Lauren’s job was to help me be more effective and efficient with my time, which in turn allowed me to lead my organization better, which in turn helped the organization succeed.

This objective – and our shared clarity of the objective of her role – drove my praise of Lauren. By telling her specifically what she had done, and how it helped fulfill that objective, I was able to make it clear why her work mattered and help her repeat this success. And when you do that, it’s very hard to come across as patronizing.

Here are some examples:

  • Lauren would regularly anticipate a scheduling anomaly and set me up for success by budgeting in travel time or finding opportunities to schedule events that were close to my home at the end of the day to reduce my commute. These are specific things that made my life better, more efficient and led to greater efficacy. I would regularly call out those specifics to her, express my appreciation, and talk about why those things she did were so helpful.
  • Lauren was also my “eyes and ears” – At the time, I had a ~750 person global team, and it was hard to know what was going on all the time. I relied on many sources of information to know the heartbeat of my org, but Lauren was an extremely important one because for a variety of reasons, people would readily confide in her. Many times, she helped me get out in front of an employee relations SNAFU by putting things on my radar.

Clarify Your Thinking with Notes

If you’re having concerns about coming across as patronizing, try this exercise. Go lock yourself in a room right now and don’t come out until you’ve written down 5 good things each person you want to praise has done in the past 7 days. For each thing, write down specifically what the person did, and make a couple of notes of why it mattered. How did it positively impact you, the team, the company, the project? I bet you’ll discover that there is PLENTY of non-patronizing stuff to call out.

Let us know what you think in the comments below or on Twitter!

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Russ Laraway

Russ is a co-founder at Candor. His career has been uniquely 100% in management, at places such as the Marine Corps, Google, and Twitter. As a 22 year manager, his focus has always been on the underlying people dynamics, and now at Candor he gets to focus on that full time. Russ received his MBA from Wharton.

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