The top 5 ways NOT to praise people at work

In 2011 we conducted a study of 1,000 Danish employees from a wide variety of workplaces to try to find the biggest factors that make people unhappy at work. Our study found that the second biggest driver of dissatisfaction at work was a lack of praise and recognition. Too many Danish employees are unhappy and demotivated at work because, even though they do great work, they hardly ever receive any positive feedback and I’m willing to bet good money that this applies in most other countries too.

That’s a damn shame because studies confirm that workplaces that have a culture of recognition are happier, have lower absenteeism and are more successful.

So we need more praise at work, sure, but that’s not enough. It’s also about better praise. We won’t create a viable culture of recognition in a workplace simply by increasing the amount of praise given, we must also improve the quality of the praise.

It is actually possible to praise employees and co-workers in ways that make them less happy at work.

Here are the top 5 ways NOT to praise people at work. Do you recognize any of these from your workplace?

1: Obligatory praise
Never praise people just because you feel you should. Praise has to be meaningful and earned. This means you can only praise others when there is a good reason to do so – which fortunately is quite often.

Praise given because you have to and not because you feel the person has earned it makes no one happy at work. It will also undermine all future praise, because people can’t trust it to be honest.

Also, some people will only give praise and tend to avoid giving negative feedback, possibly in an attempt to avoid unpleasant conversations and conflict. That won’t do. Our study showed that people long for feedback at work. They want to know what they do well but they also want to know what they can do better.

2: Sarcastic praise
Imagine this said in a wildly sarcastic tone: “Wow, you just did an awesome job on that, didn’t you?”

That’s not very likely to make anyone happy at work.

3: Praise mixed with criticism
Have you ever heard that you should preface any criticism with praise? Some people argue that the best way to give negative feedback is to wrap it in praise, i.e. you should praise, criticize and then praise again at the end.

I disagree completely with that approach. I say if you have negative feedback, say so. If you have praise to give, do it. But don’t feel like you have to mix the two.

The problem is this:

  • The praise you do give seems fake – it’s just a preamble to the real message.
  • It seems like you think people can’t take criticism since you wrap it in praise to soften the blow.
  • In the future when you praise people, they’ll just be waiting for the hammer to drop.

4: Praising some – ignoring others
If some people get tons of praise while others are consistently ignored, this is highly demotivating since it give the praise-less a feeling of unfairness and of being overlooked.

A classic example would be a company where the salespeople get all the praise for getting new customers while the people working in the backoffice, who make the sales possible, are routinely ignored and taken for granted.

Unfortunately it’s easy to end up praising only those people who get the most visible results and ignoring the people backstage. Its also tempting to only praise the people who are most like you, who do work you immediately understand and who do it the way you would have done it. Therefore we should all make an extra effort to appreciate the people who are not like us.

This is not to say that praise should be handed out evenly so everyone gets the exact same amount of recognition. In any workplace, there will be people who shine and it’s perfectly alright if they get more praise. But it’s important that everyone gets noticed and praised for the good work they do.

5: Trivial praise
I once talked to a woman who got lots of praise from her male supervisor at her last job… but only ever for her looks. This was both creepy and utterly meaningless. She’s a highly skilled professional and she wants to be recognized for that – not for something as trivial as how she looks.

So make sure you praise people for things that actually matter to them and not for superficial matters and trivial accomplishments.

Your take

Have you ever been praised in a way that made you less happy at work? Does your workplace have a good culture of recognition? What’s the best way you’ve ever given or received praise at work? Write a comment, we’d love to know your take.

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29 thoughts on “The top 5 ways NOT to praise people at work”

  1. Alexander, you rock. This is one of the best books I ever read. Please become famous in Canada so all employers understand the value of happiness at work!

  2. I only partly agree with your take on the sandwich method, praise-critisism-praise.
    Your arguments all make sense in many instances. However, most tasks are not all performed to A+, neither are they usually 100% FUBAR. But if you only focus your feedback on what needs to be improved and don’t even mention the parts that were worthy of recognition, that kills enthusiasm as well.
    In her book, Proactive Reviews, Doete Kolbaek advocates for conducting “debriefing” regardless if projects have been successful, awful, or anywhere in between. Otherwise reviews will automatically be a sign that the project was not up to code.
    Same goes for feedback. You can sometimes praise unconditionally, sometimes criticize, and sometimes give a sandwich where the good parts didn’t get neglected because all your focus was on the areas needing improvement. The sandwich is not intended to “soften the blow” but a reminder that we tend to ignore what is positive to focus on the negative.
    And I suppose that is what you are really trying to achieve with this as always entertaining blog?

  3. It’s the same in Canada, I’ve talked to alot of people who just wish there boss would say thank you, or comment on the quality of their work. They go home frustrated at night because no one seems to appreciate the quality of work they put in everyday. I hope your post reaches some important people. It’s great because it helps people have an idea of how and when to give praise without sounding condescending.

  4. The classic example at #4 made me laugh – in a sarcastic way. I work in IT and this is exactly how it is handled here. Example: after a roadshow, the salesperson with the most new contacts gets a small, fun praise and something like a certificate.
    The IT guys like me, who put up the stuff the salespeople need to have something to present never get anything, are not even mentioned.

    Oh, but wait, I got praised recently: I am the person in my department, who gets least sick… I am not sure this fits #2 or #5 or both ;)

  5. @Karin: I would love to be famous in Canada :o)

    @Charlotte: Great point. If we’re evaluating a project and there’s both good and bad feedback we should definitely give both.

    But I’ve also heard proponents of the sandwich method say that WHENEVER you have negative feedback, you should wrap it in praise. That’s what I’m against.

    @Bloom: I’m sad to hear this holds true in Canada too, but from what I’ve seen travelling around the world, it’s pretty much universal. To a large degree, giving good praise is a matter of practice – the more you do it, the better you get. I hope I can inspire people to get cracking on that.

    BD: Classic example! And being praised for being the least sick, is like being praised for being the tallest person in the department or something… fairly meaningless!

  6. I can one-up my last comment: I just finished a project with a very tight deadline one day early (yay me!). Comment of my boss: “Ah, good, than you can fix bug X on this other project.”

    Uhm, yes… not the answer I had hoped for… at least he said “good”, so this is a praise, isn’t it?

    At least it teaches me, to praise myself, which is a quality I will need next year, when I leave this company and be 100% self-employed!

  7. I have worked in some unhappy places through out the years. Where praise was far and few in between.

    When done in the work environment correctly, it can be a powerful motivator and extractor of productivity.

    Work praise should always be sincere and from the heart…you cant go wrong with that.

  8. Great article. I agree with almost all of it. The purpose of any feedback is to get a better outcome for all relevant stake holders. WIth that in mind, I have found the sandwich method very effective because it allows me to separate the person from their behavior. One of the biggest challenges is that when a person receives feedback they often take it personally. You’re feedback has nothing to do with them as a person, so the praise needs to be GENUINE and it acts to reinforce why you value the person yet do not accept the behaviour. I have found that using this method has meant that everyone gets better outcomes and people accept the feedback with open arms. Just my experience. Thanks for sharing this great article:)

  9. I’ve always had a problem with effusive praise being constantly dished out left, right & center. It usually hides some serious problem with motivation and or expectations.

    I’m currently in IT in a company where IT is not core skill and many people, even in upper management have a poor understanding of how things work.

    My current boss uses the ‘Brilliant’ so much I’ve actually developed a nervous twitch when I hear it. Nothing he describes as brilliant is and everyone knows it. The end result is nobody believes anything is brilliant even if it is.

  10. Very interesting post. I can certainly relate to every form of praise you have covered here. There has been a huge amount of research into what motivates staff at work, yet no one has come up with a totally flawless theory.

    I think it is also very important to have a good working environment, from office furniture to the overall layout of the building. If people feel relaxed they are more likely to produce work of a higher quality. Take one of googles offices for example; is incredibly wacky to inspire creativity and enforce the brand attributes right throughout the company.

    Thanks for the read!

    Jimmy Jones | office king

  11. I saw the “Trivial Praise” in action when I was at the dentist one day. The owner of the business runs through receptionists like crazy. The entire staff is replaced about once per year.

    Anyway, what he was doing was pretty much talking to the girl like she was six years old.

    Owner: “Do you know what you did that was good today?”
    Receptionist: “Um I’m not sure. What was it?”
    Owner: “Come on. You can think of it.”
    Receptionist: “Was it XYZ?”
    Owner: “Nooooo….”
    Receptionist: “Was it ABC?”
    Owner: “Noooo….”

    This goes on for like 5 minutes until finally..

    Owner: “You put the papers away in the right spot! You did a good job.”
    Receptionist: “Oh….I put them there every day…”

    It was ridiculous. Like watching a train wreck.

  12. It is amazing how much good karma flows from the sincere use of such power words like
    Thank You;
    I really appreciate the job you’ve done;
    Love your work

    Equally amazing at the bad vibes from such statements as
    Oh that time…
    Come into my office and shut the door for a chat…

    Nothing comes back from stoney silence.

  13. I once had a boss who overused the term, “You’re a star!” At first, this sounds great. However, we came to realize that this was his canned, go-to phrase for EVERYONE…ALL THE TIME! We were all “stars” – from those who successfully produced multi-million dollar contracts to the person emptying his trash can. He said it without any thought whatsoever…it was an auto-response. The insincere “praise” became our office humor – we kept score everytime he said it. :)

  14. I stumbled across this article while trying to find answers as to why I am so unhappy in my job.. Now I see!

    The pattern at work is this: I try so hard to maintain a positive attitude, try to get along with coworkers and my manager, but inside I’m screaming for a little bit of recognition and trust that I’m capable of more (I believe my manager has no idea what I actually do at work). I am constantly asking for more work, more challenging tasks, I’m crying out for more responsibility. The times when I’ve used my initiative I have gotten reprimanded.. I basically feel like a lion in a cage, desperate to get out!

    Eventually I get so frustrated I lose my cool and lose my shit at someone. That’s when I get told I am appreciated and I am doing a great job. As a mother, I understand that you do not give praise for a tantrum.. That this teaches kids that all they need to do is be naughty to get the attention they are craving. I’m scared this is the pattern my subconscious will adopt.

    The thing I find the saddest about my workplace is that it’s in the mental health field… And yet my manager doesn’t understand basic concepts like giving praise to motivate and inspire people!

    Any suggestions to help things would be great!

  15. I enjoy praise every now and then because it comes when it’s most needed, and my boss knows what to say- I’m lucky!
    After finding happiness on this job, I’ve realised the problem! Praise given the wrong way (unplanned praise) can demotivate because I do what I do for enjoyment. When I get a ‘good job’, I’m not sure what that means. I worry in case I don’t live up to expectations the next time. I worry about what the people around me think… Do I then say thanks to them? Thank my boss? I don’t want to leave anyone out. Praise given publicly can also make others feel bad and make you unpopular!!

    I think that after each ‘performance’ period there needs to be a formal time for feedback and a ‘where to next’. Self -evaluation is the best place to start personally, and then branch out into other areas I haven’t thought of. It could be part of a plan of action for a team, than just for the individual, then it would benefit the team and the company as a whole.

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