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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!

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 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…

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