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Praise & Ruinous Empathy

Praise can be Ruinously Empathetic when bosses try to be “nice” and get things wrong. Below are a few cautionary tales of how trying to make a person feel good without taking the time to understand the details of their work to challenge them appropriately can go astray.

Wrong assessment

Perhaps the most famous example of praise gone wrong was when Bush said on national television to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Hurricane Katrina: “Heck of a job, Brownie!” What was so horrible about that? Brown was under enormous stress, and Bush was trying to be a supportive boss.

Problem was, FEMA was doing a disastrous job, and everybody knew it. Still, wasn’t Bush right to be supportive in the midst of a crisis? No! By publicly praising a person who was failing, Bush inadvertently highlighted what a terrible job Brown was doing and made him a laughing stock. Just because you’re the boss – or even the President of the United States – doesn’t mean that anyone will believe your assertion that somebody is doing a good job when in fact they are not. And your assertion will make you look either ignorant or soft-headed.

A boss’s job is not to win popularity contests. A boss’s job is to point out to people as clearly and with as many specifics as possible when they are doing a bad job, AND when they are really doing a good job. It’s generally a good idea to point out the good things in public and the bad things in private. But telling somebody in public they are doing a good job when in fact they are doing a bad job is far worse than just saying nothing at all.

The key is to avoid pat phrases like “good job,” or other things you’d say to your dog, and to be specific.

Wrong Thing

Another point to keep in mind for praise is to make sure to remark on something of substance.

A friend worked extremely hard on some analysis for the CEO of his company, and the only thing that got praised was the formatting of the presentation. No amount of criticism of his ideas could have been as discouraging as the flip praise of something he thought was unimportant.

When giving praise, it’s important to praise what is in fact best and most important. Be specific about what’s most relevant.

Wrong Person

One boss tells a cautionary tale about a time he praised the wrong person right after a major launch. The team was working all night, and very late he bumped into an engineer, “Anatoly,” and asked him about a particular feature. Anatoly answered his question, and told him about several important aspects of the feature. A couple days later, when celebrating the launch, this boss, wanting to praise Anatoly, congratulated him on his excellent work on the feature. But Anatoly hadn’t worked on that feature. All the engineers who had worked on it now thought Anatoly had claimed credit for something he hadn’t worked on. Chagrined, Anatoly sent an email out to the whole company, explaining that he hadn’t worked on it and listing the people who had. The boss realized that, trying to make Anatoly happy, he’d accidentally thrown him under the bus by not being deep enough in the details when he gave praise.

In short, when giving praise, take just as long to get your facts straight when giving praise as you would when criticizing. Be specific.

More about this story and others is included in “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” published by St. Martin’s Press. Learn more