Feedback (praise and criticism) is the atomic building block of management. To be a great boss you have to give frequent feedback. Praise is the best way of letting people know what to do more of. Criticism lets them know what to do less of.
Management should never be compared to back scratching or animal training, but…
Getting results out of an employee has similarities to getting your back scratched. “No, no, not there, up a little, yes, that way, no, no, a little to the right — ah, yes right there!” Only by telling the other person when they are moving in the right OR in the wrong direction as precisely as possible can you get them to scratch to the right place. You can pay somebody all you want to scratch your back, but if you can’t tell them where it itches, it’s just dumb luck if they figure it out.
It’s even more important to let people know what to do more of than what to do less of. When house training a dog, praising the dog for going in the right place will get the fastest results. Rubbing a dog’s nose in accidents will result in a turd hidden where it’s impossible to find but stinks up the whole house.
Ratio of Praise to Criticism
Given that you need to be giving frequent feedback and that you should give more praise than criticism, is there a perfect ratio that you should aim for? There is a lot of literature out there on how much praise you need to give so that the criticism doesn’t crush people. Some say it’s 3:1, others 5:1, others 7:1 praise to criticism. What’s the right way to deal with this juggling act?
Some advocate the “feedback sandwich,” — giving praise before and after criticism to soften the blow — but I think that Ben Horowitz got it right when he called this the “shit sandwich.” He explained that it won’t work with more seasoned managers who know the tactic. Horowitz suggests the shit sandwich might work with less experienced employees, but I’d argue that the average child sees through it just as clearly as an executive does. The only difference is that a person with less experience is less likely to have the confidence to call you on it than a person who already has a track record of success.
The notion of a “right” ratio between praise and criticism is dangerous because it can lead you to say things that are unnatural, insincere, or just plain ridiculous. If you think that you must come up with five good things for every bad thing you tell somebody, you’ll find yourself saying things like, “Wow, great socks! And the font you chose for that presentation — wow, it really blew me away. And it really impresses me how neat your desk always is, I can’t seem to find time to clear off all the papers on mine. And you are always at work on time! Who cuts your hair — it always looks fantastic. But you are not a strategic thinker.”
The notion of a ‘right’ ratio between praise and criticism is dangerous because it can lead you to say things that are unnatural, insincere, or just plain ridiculous.
In order to avoid insincere flattery, I go by the general guideline of giving more praise than criticism. Your team is doing more right than they are wrong, aren’t they?
How to Think About Praise and Criticism
Giving praise and criticism can be hard. The thing that makes praise difficult is the other side of the same coin that makes criticism difficult. In the case of criticism, most people are nervous about hurting people’s feelings, so they often say nothing. In the case of praise, most people are eager to please the people around them, so they always say something — sometimes inane things. I’ve done both. It’s easy to get tripped up by my feelings about the other person’s feelings.
The solution for me has been paradoxical. When I am criticizing, I try to be less nervous, to put less energy into thinking about how to say it, and more into “just saying it.” And, when I am praising, I try to be more, if not nervous, at least aware of, how praise can go wrong, and put more energy into thinking about how to say it. Karen Sipprell, a colleague at Apple, asked two questions that were instructive. “How long do you spend making sure you have all the facts right before you criticize somebody? How long do you spend making sure you have all the facts right before you praise somebody?” Ideally you’d spend just as long getting the facts right for praise as for criticism.
How do you juggle praise and criticism? Do you set a goal for how much of each you want to give each week?