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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!

Radical Candor and the Candor Canary at Gem

We have a great story to share with you about a company that rolled out Radical Candor in their organization. Gem, a Los Angeles based blockchain company focused on healthcare and supply chain, recently introduced their 20-person team to Radical Candor and developed a really fun way to recognize their successes. Read on for ideas on rolling out the framework with your team!

– – –

As People Operations Manager at Gem, Madeline Mann had been hearing some feedback from the team about the company culture, but she couldn’t quite put into words what the consensus was. Then a colleague sent her a link to Radical Candor, and as soon as she saw the 2×2 framework, it became obvious: the company’s penchant for Caring Personally was leading them into Ruinous Empathy territory.

To help the team learn about Radical Candor and start moving in the right direction, Madeline kicked off a four week facilitation based on the Radical Candor articles, book, and podcasts. First, she introduced the concept of Radical Candor and the four quadrants, and asked the team to think about their company culture. Where on this 2×2 were interactions at Gem more likely to fall? The team opened up and agreed that they had an unparalleled ability to Care Personally, but that they often failed to Challenge Directly. It was clear to everyone that most interactions at Gem fell firmly in the Ruinous Empathy quadrant.

For the remaining weeks of the facilitation, the team at Gem spent 10 minutes of their weekly all-company meeting to focus on Radical Candor. They introduced new tenants of Radical Candor, shared observations and stories from their week, and gave out an assignment for the week.

For example, one of the weekly assignments for the team was to give Radical Candor to their lead. The team used some tips from Radical Candor Episode 8: How to Give Feedback to Your Boss to help them.

  1. Assume good intent
  2. Ask questions to understand their situation
    1. Get the context
  3. Try “I’m not sure I agree with that, are you open to another perspective?”

At the end of every week, team members rated the interactions that they and the rest of the team had that week. Had they still been in Ruinous Empathy territory, showing they Cared Personally but not Challenging Directly? Or had they moved towards Radical Candor and been able to both Care Personally and Challenge Directly? Here’s how they rated their interactions over the course of the facilitation:

This exercise got team members reflecting on their week and thinking critically about how well they felt both themselves and the team were embodying Radical Candor. They also shared some of the techniques that were working for them to Challenge Directly. For many people on the team, having the shared understanding of Radical Candor, and the term to describe it, made it easier. They would state their intention of offering Radical Candor before giving pointed feedback as a way to quickly acknowledge, “I’m a little uncomfortable saying this, but I’m doing it because I care.”

I’m a little uncomfortable saying this, but I’m doing it because I care.

As a way to encourage and reward their progress beyond the four weeks of facilitation, the Gem team decided to elect one person each week who had excelled at Caring Personally and Challenging Directly. They award this person the “Candor Canary” trophy, a name they chose because canaries are known for constantly singing and being heard. And unlike a dog’s bark or a crow’s caw, a canary’s song is beautiful and welcomed, just like thoughtful feedback.

Congrats to Scott Hoch, Gem’s inaugural Candor Canary winner!

Every week the previous winner of the Candor Canary trophy brings it to the all-company meeting and passes the trophy to someone they saw display great Radical Candor. They share the specific example of the new winner’s excellent candor, so that they can illustrate what success looks like — following the HIP approach of using public praise to help everyone learn.

Now that the facilitation is over, the team continues to practice and work towards Radical Candor. Madeline has seen that the Radical Candor ideas and facilitation have helped team members build the habit of speaking up instead of being a nodding head. Team members have reported coming out of meetings and immediately jumping into feedback conversations about how it went. As one employee put it, “At the very core, it has given the team permission to be more candid.”

– – –

Thank you to Madeline Mann and Gem for sharing this story! We look forward to hearing more about your Radical Candor journey.

Does your company have a Candor Canary equivalent? We’d love to hear about how you’re rolling out Radical Candor!

Video Tip: Praise in Public, Criticize in Private

When thinking about how to best deliver feedback, think not only about the manner in which you give it, but also the setting you choose. Radically Candid praise is delivered in public and Radically Candid criticism is delivered in private. When you share specifically what was great and why it was great publicly, not only does it have more meaning for the person being praised, it helps the whole team learn something new. If you’re criticizing a person, it’s much kinder to do it in private. It will also be more clear, because private criticism is much less likely to trigger a person’s defense mechanisms.

Russ shares some tips for how to remember to give criticism in private and praise in public.


Read our article about scenarios that might call for reconsidering public praise and private criticism.

Praise in Public, Criticize in Private

A good rule of thumb for giving feedback is to praise in public and criticize in private.

For those of you who find mnemonics helpful, these are the fifth of our six tips for giving Radically Candid feedback. Be HIP, or HHIIPP.



Public praise is great for both recognition and learning. When you share specifically what was great and why it was great publicly, not only does it have more meaning for the person being praised, it helps the whole team learn something new. Make sure to provide details about what the person did, the impact, and the context so that the whole team learns. For example, don’t say, “Alex did a great job.” Instead say, “Alex came up with the idea for X and then got budget for it. As a result, you are all 85% more efficient. That means less grunt work and more time for cool projects for everyone. Thank you Alex!”

Private criticism is important in order to be kind and clear. Radical Candor is not the same thing as “front-stabbing”, and it’s much kinder to criticize someone in private. Public criticism can feel unnecessarily harsh. Private criticism will also be more clear because it’s much less likely to trigger a person’s defense mechanisms. Defensive reactions make it much harder for a person to accept they’ve made a mistake and to learn from it.

However, “Public Praise / Private Criticism” is a rule of thumb, not a hard and fast rule. The key things to keep top of mind are these basic questions:

Are you showing that you Care Personally?
Are you Challenging Directly?

If the answer to those questions is yes, you’re in good shape, even if you’re violating the rule of thumb. Consider these possible exceptions:

Individual preferences

While the majority of people do like to be praised in public, for a few any kind of public mention is cruel and unusual punishment. When praising people your goal is to let them know what they did well as clearly as possible and in the way that will be best for them — not the way you’d like to hear it.

Remember, Radical Candor is measured at the
listener’s ear, not the speaker’s mouth.

That’s why we recommend a variation on the Golden Rule for feedback. If the Golden Rule is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” it’s better to “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them” when giving feedback.

When you are focused on caring personally, you will naturally be more aware of the other person’s preferences and adjusting for these preferences is easy.

Group learning

You may want to consider the opportunity for group learning for both praise and criticism. Praising in public has the great effect of showing everyone what success looks like so that they can learn from the accomplishments of others. Whenever I praise in public, I like to be explicit about this public learning, saying something like, “Because I want to make sure all of you learn from what Jane did, I’m going to reiterate what I said in All-Hands today.”

When I want to encourage public criticism so that everyone learns from each other’s mistakes, I let it be self-reported. I try to make people feel comfortable admitting mistakes by building a culture of self-criticism.

You are the exception to the rule

Great bosses don’t criticize in public, and they discourage employees from criticizing each other in public. However, they encourage employees to criticize them in public. Getting criticized in public gives the boss an opportunity to model appreciation for the criticism, to accept it as a gift.

Great bosses encourage employees to criticize
them in public.

It also saves time — if one person has a criticism of you, it’s likely others do as well. You can address that issue for everyone all at once if you do it in public. Finally, there’s one boss and a lot of employees so it’s harder to get on the boss’s calendar — employees have got to catch as catch can, and sometimes that means in public.

Multiple modes

Praising people at a public all-hands meeting is a great way to share significant accomplishments. Following this up with a public email to the whole team solidifies the praise even more. But that doesn’t mean you only have to praise publicly. Following up your public praise with another mention of the accomplishment one on one carries a lot of emotional weight and shows that you Care Personally.


What do you think of these exceptions? What are your tips and reminders for praising publicly and criticizing privately?

Tips to Avoid Manipulatively Insincere Praise

If you think you’ve given praise that was Manipulatively Insincere, check out these tips for moving towards Radical Candor!

Praise specifically and sincerely

The more vague your praise is the less genuine it feels. If somebody has rated your praise as Manipulatively Insincere, you’re not showing you care or challenging them directly enough. Try saying “I like the way you ___” It’s hard to be non-specific after that opening. And when you’re precise about something you admire and why, your sincerity will shine through. If you try to sound sincere without the specifics, you’re likely to sound fake.

The more specific you are, the more helpful your praise is

Your praise is helpful because you’ve explained exactly what’s good and why; also, your sincerity shows through naturally.

It’s arrogant to think that people don’t sense what you really think

Offering praise that you don’t really mean will backfire. Try being more aware of the discrepancy between what you are saying and what you are thinking, and figuring out a productive way to say what you are really thinking.

Nobody likes a “shit sandwich”

Offer praise right away and only when something has genuinely impressed you; don’t save it up and then use it just to soften the blow of criticism.

Praise in person so you can notice if the person seems skeptical that you mean it

If so, offer more specific details about what was good and why it matters, and your sincerity will show through naturally.

Make sure your private statements don’t contradict what you say in public

Any discrepancies will come back to bite you!

Flattery will get you nowhere

Telling somebody “you are a genius,” is problematic for the same reason saying “you are a moron” is: it personalizes. Besides, people see through it.

Tips to Avoid Ruinously Empathetic Praise

If you think you’ve given praise that was Ruinously Empathetic, check out these tips for moving towards Radical Candor!

Praise Specifically

Just saying “good job” is not helpful, and saying, “you are great” can actually be counterproductive. If somebody has rated your praise as Ruinously Empathetic, you’re not challenging them enough. Try being specific enough to show how to build on the success.

Your job is not to be a cheerleader

It’s to offer praise that shows exactly what was great to help people know what to do more of. Focus on what specifically you admired about the work, not on trying to make people “feel good.” Don’t say, “You did great, you should feel happy!” Instead, say, “Your idea increased efficiency 45% by eliminating the grunt work we all hated to do. Your idea not only improved profits, it made our jobs more interesting. Here’s how to build on it.”

The more specific you can be about what you admire and why, the less likely your praise is to sound patronizing.

Vague praise like “good job” can sound arrogant. Stating “good job” implies you think you are the arbiter of what’s good and what’s not. Try saying “I admire the way you ___” Owning your opinions and explaining specifically why you think what you think demonstrates humility.

You won’t forget the details if you praise right away

The faster you praise something great after you see it, the easier it is to be specific enough for the praise to have real meaning.

Praise in person so you can notice if the person is brushing it off as meaningless

If so, get more specific. Usually, the praise will have more meaning. Sometimes, you’ll learn that you’re praising the wrong thing or the wrong person…

When praising publicly, the goal is both recognition AND learning

Be specific about what the person did, the impact, and the context so that the whole team learns. Don’t say, “Sal did a great job.” Instead say, “Sal came up with the idea for X and then got budget for it. As a result, you are all 85% more efficient. That means less grunt work and more time for cool projects for everyone. Thank you Sal!”

For the same reason you wouldn’t say, “You’re a dumbass!” don’t say, “You’re a genius!”

Instead be specific about what was good, why, and how to build on it. The reward for good work is more good work, not a pat on the shoulder.

Tips to Avoid Obnoxiously Aggressive Praise

If you think you’ve given praise that was Obnoxiously Aggressive, check out these tips for moving towards Radical Candor!

Praise Sincerely

Focus on the good stuff — but if you don’t mean it, don’t say it! If somebody has rated your praise as Obnoxiously Aggressive, you’re not showing that you really do Care Personally. When you see something you genuinely like, just say it!

Praise helps people turn great work into insanely great work

You’re not “babying people’s egos” when you praise them, you’re helping them and everyone else know what’s good, why, and how to do more of it.

You don’t have to eat humble pie to show you’re not arrogant

Just focus on the good stuff. When you see work you admire, speak up with the same energy you’d have when you see work that’s not good enough. When you admire other people’s work, they see that you know you don’t have all the answers.

Just say it!

When you see something great, the key is to point it out right away. It’s more clear that you are genuinely impressed when you say something right away. Look for moments in the day when something impresses you, and give those moments a voice. The 30 seconds you invest will help people look forward to what you have to say.

Praise in person so you can notice if the other person is surprised

If so, you’re not giving enough praise.

Praise in every public forum available

Praise in big meetings, in front of your boss, in front of the whole team. Follow up in email and reply-all! Write notes. They don’t always have to come from you. Make sure your boss knows about your team’s accomplishments, and notes them. Don’t dismiss recognition as babying egos; you’re doing it to help everyone learn. And the more you praise, the more open people are to your criticism.

Trying to soften criticism by starting with praise about personality just sounds insincere

Starting any sentence with phrases like, “I know you are a genius, but…” is not likely to be effective.

Tips for Radically Candid Praise

The purpose of praise is to help people know what to do more of. Check out these tips for offering Radical Candor:

Radically Candid praise is specific and sincere

Easy to say, hard to do. Being specific about what’s great rather than just saying “good job” inspires growth rather than plateauing. Sincerity usually flows from the combination of specificity and caring personally.

Be helpful

When you explain exactly what is good and why, it helps people know what to do more of. It helps them make good work great, and great work insanely great. It helps them grow personally and professionally.

Be humble

When you explain in detail why you admire something and what you learned from it, you rarely seem patronizing or insincere.

Give praise immediately

You’ll remember the specifics much better when you see something great and point it out right away. Just say it!

Deliver praise in person

Communication is mostly non-verbal. You can know how your praise is landing and adjust appropriately only if you can see how the other person reacts.

Give praise in public

When you share specifically what was great and why it was great publicly, not only does it have more meaning for the person being praised, it helps the whole team learn something new. But there are exceptions — some people are embarrassed by public recognition. Make sure you know people well enough to flag this.

Don’t praise personality

Saying “you are great” when somebody does great work has an unspoken, dangerous corollary: if the work is bad, “you are terrible.” Personalizing praise promotes plateauing and avoidance of risks. Saying specifically what was great and how to build on it promotes a growth mindset. Save the phrase “good boy” for your dog…

A HIP Approach to Feedback: How to Achieve Radical Candor

We’re all about helping people become more Radically Candid with their feedback. By feedback, we mean praise and criticism. Being Radically Candid means:

  1. Being more specific and sincere with praise
  2. Being more kind and clear with criticism

This will improve your relationships at work AND help you achieve a better business result. But it’s easy for us to give this advice and hard for you to do it.

Here’s a way to think about how to be more kind and clear with criticism and more specific and sincere with praise. Radical Candor is HIP:

  • Humble
  • Helpful
  • Immediate
  • In person
  • Private criticism / Public praise
  • Not about Personality

Below is a brief explanation of what these elements mean. In additional posts, we’ll dive into more detail and provide specific tips you can use for each section.

BUT, A NOTE OF CAUTION: Whatever you do, don’t sit there saying nothing trying to remember what “I” stands for. For the vast majority of people, the important thing is to just say it!

Be Humble

You can’t Care Personally or Challenge Directly if you’re not humble. First, it’s hard to care at a personal level about somebody if you think you’re superior. And you can’t Challenge Directly and be open to the reciprocal challenge if you’re not humble enough to realize you may be wrong. By humble we don’t mean you have to grovel or pretend to be worse than you are. We just mean that you need to have the possibility top of mind that whatever you’re saying may be wrong. Don’t be arrogant. Be curious. Deliver your feedback firmly and with supporting rationale, but be open to push-back. Listen with true intent to understand so that you get a full command of both perspectives before agreeing or disagreeing.

Be Helpful

It’s easy for us to say “be helpful”. It’s obvious that being helpful is the whole point of Challenging Directly and that it’s a great way to show you Care Personally. Still, it’s hard for you to do it. You don’t have a lot of time, and you don’t have all the answers! The good news is that being helpful doesn’t mean you have to be omniscient or to do everybody else’s work for them. It just means you have to find a way to be as clear as possible and to offer that clarity as a gift.

Give Feedback Immediately

When you give feedback immediately, you save yourself the burden of remembering to give it later, and, since the details are all fresh in your mind, you are able to be much more specific. You also give the person a better chance to improve immediately. If you offer immediate impromptu feedback, it really won’t take too much time, though it might occasionally make you a couple minutes late to your next meeting.

Give Feedback In Person (if possible)

Remember, the clarity of your feedback gets measured not at your mouth, but at the other person’s ear. That’s why it’s best to deliver feedback in person. Since upwards of 90% of communication is non-verbal, you won’t really know if the other person understood what you were saying if you can’t see the reaction. When talking in person, you can make adjustments based on their body language and emotions. If they are not hearing you, you need to move further out on the “Challenge Directly” axis. If they are upset, you need to move further up on the “Care Personally” axis — without backing off your direct challenge!

Praise in Public, Criticize in Private

A good rule of thumb for feedback is praise in public, criticize in private. Public criticism tends to trigger a defensive reaction and make it much harder for a person to accept they’ve made a mistake and to learn from it. Public praise tends to make the recipient feel great, and it encourages others to emulate whatever they did that was great. But, it’s a rule of thumb, not a hard and fast rule.

Don’t Make Your Feedback About Personality

There is a big difference between Caring Personally and talking about personality when giving praise and criticism. Make your feedback about the work the person has done, rather than about the person. “I think that’s wrong” is more effective than “You’re wrong.” And “That was a great presentation because X, Y, Z” is more beneficial than “You’re great at presentations!”

Hopefully this introduction to the HIP approach is helpful. You can also watch my interview with FemgineerTV, where I talk through each of these ideas (starting around 14:30).

To read the full articles about each of these tips, click the links below!

How to Give Humble Feedback

6 Tips for Helpful Feedback

Give Immediate Feedback: Tips and Reminders

In Person Feedback is Best

Praise in Public, Criticize in Private

Don’t Give Feedback About Personality


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