No, Lucy Kellaway – public praise at work is (mostly) a great thing

Praise in public

I’m about to rant. You’ve been warned :o)

In this article, Lucy Kellaway argues against public praise in the workplace, calling it

…a dangerous, corrosive substance that has a powerful and positive effect on the person it is aimed at but is better administered behind closed doors.

She bases this partly on her own observations:

Iíve often observed this effect. If you watch the faces of journalists when a colleague is told that their latest article was a marvel, they pretend to take it in their stride: they may even manage to splutter out agreement that the article was indeed brilliant. But if you look carefully you may see a slight puckering around the mouth as if they had just sucked on a lemon.

And she also references a new study on this:

The authors conducted four experiments in clothing stores to investigate consumersí reactions to salespeopleís flattery. In each case, participants heard salespeople making flattering comments about other customersísense of style. Then researchers asked various questions about their opinions of the salespeople.

The result:

The authors found that observing someone else being flattered causes people to compare themselves to that person, which leads to feelings of envy. Another experiment showed that participants experienced more envy when the target of flattery was a peer (a student at the same university).

Got it? Praise is fine but only in private. If you praise employees in front of coworkers, the result is envy. In Kellaway’s words “the effect is roughly like drinking acid.”

I say “nonsense” for three reasons.

First of all, Lucy Kellaway’s personal experiences with public praise may be perfectly correct but remember, the plural of anecdote is not data. That’s why we do studies.

Secondly, what about that study – didn’t that prove that public praise is toxic? Well, if you read the article itself, you’ll find that it’s not actually a study on praise, it’s a study about flattery. Those two things are not the same at all. Being flattered for your dress sense by a store employee is not analogous to being praised for your good work in the office.

Also, the study looks at shoppers in a clothing store. To think you can directly transfer that to the workplace is incredibly simplistic. Unless you work in a clothing store, I guess :o)

And thirdly, public praise is actually a common practice among all the world’s happiest workplaces. They consistently praise and celebrate people and teams who deserve it in public.

Which begs the question, if public praise is so horribly toxic, then why does it work so well at Zappos, Southwest Airlines and Virgin, just too mention a few?

To conclude on such a flimsy basis that public praise is bad, bad, bad and recommend that managers stop doing it is in my opinion overly simplistic.

But what depresses me the most about Kellaway’s article is not the sloppy reasoning, but the negative view of human nature it reveals. Does she really think that people are so petty and narrow-minded that we can’t deal constructively with our coworkers being praised? Does she really think we are completely unable to enjoy other people’s success and just be happy for them? What a sad, sad view of human nature.

Let’s add some nuance instead, shall we?

Is public praise always good?

Is public praise in the workplaces always good? No. I can imagine at least three ways public praise can backfire.

  1. Some employees, especially introverts and those unused to praise, may prefer being praised in private. Public praise makes them feel exposed and singled out – even if it is for something positive.
  2. If the workplace is already toxic and employees dislike each other, then praising one person will annoy everyone who hates that person.
  3. Finally, some studies have shown that we tend to have a slightly negative view of positive people. For instance, people who are against a topic are rated as slightly more intelligent than people who are for the same topic. Managers who praise their employees may be victims of this bias. In fact, this may be partly what is going on in the study Kellaway references.

Advantages of public praise over private praise

Also completely missing from Kellaway’s article is any discussion of the possible advantages of public over private praise. I can see at least three:

  1. Spreading best practices – If I hear someone else being praised, I can learn from what they did right and learn from their good example.
  2. Pride – If people are praised in front of others that makes them proud and happy.
  3. Create a sense of results and progress – When my coworkers are praised, it shows that we’re doing good work and achieving progress. Teresa Amabile’s research shows that perceived progress is a powerful source of happiness at work.

The upshot

Public praise is a fantastic practice which has proven its value in many, many workplaces. It is not a universal good (see above), but we certainly haven’t seen enough evidence to declare it universally bad.

My recommendation to managers remains the same: Praise whenever there’s a meaningful reason to do it, and praise in public whenever possible so more people get the benefit.

OK – rant over. Phew, I feel all better now :o)

Your take

What’s your take on this? How do you feel when your coworkers are praised? Do you feel happy for them or hate their guts? How would you feel about working in a workplace, where praise is given only in private?

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10 thoughts on “No, Lucy Kellaway – public praise at work is (mostly) a great thing”

  1. I’m a big fan of Lucy Kellaway but I admit that sometimes she’s over-the-top, especially regarding *modern* office culture. There was one recently about how no one should be allowed to dress casually or wear headphones

  2. Great thoughts, Alex.

    I’m all for public praise. In the right circumstances it gives energy and momentum to a team or organization.

    I think one area that needs to be addressed in all this is helping employees learn how to receive praise. As you said, there are many people who aren’t comfortable with corporate PDA, but they can certainly be helped along to make them feel more at ease (e.g. managers starting by commending them in private, then in the company of a trusted colleague, then within their team, and gradually up…)

    Thoughts?

  3. I would add to your list of situations where praise can backfire that undeserved praise erodes trust in the person giving praise. If the boss doesn’t know more about what is going on than praising what may be considered substandard performance by peers / the wrong person / at the wrong time / … later praise from the same person – even when deserved – may not hold the same value.
    Perhaps that is what goes on under the surface in the sales situation described.

  4. Jeepers Alex,

    If that is a rant, I wish I could rant as well as you! That does not seem like a rant to me, but rather a very rational response to a piece of sloppy, shallow thinking that strikes me as something that may have been written to fill space and/or meet a deadline.

    If the lady really believes that, she must either work in a very toxic workplace or be a very insecure person who always feels inferior when comparing herself to others – or both! Either way, one can only feel sorry for her, and hope that your response stops this kind of thinking spreading.

    Bay

  5. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for another intersting article. I agree with you not with Lucy Kellaway. Praise in public is a positive thing. Yes, some people may feel awkward when they get praised in public. And, yes, others might be jealuous. But, hey, the latter has nothing to to with the action of praising. It has to do with the personality and most importantly the ego of the jealous people. Instead of feeling happy for the other person they talk badly about them in order to feel better themselves.

    What these people should do is finding something that they are good in, do it well and then get the recognition/praise/love they long for.

    There’s one important thing however: we should never do things to receive praise only. We should do them because we enjoy doing them. This alone makes us feel great, not the praise. Praise can be the icing of the cake yet never the cake itself.

    Cheers,
    Gaby

  6. I agree with Charlotte – undeserved praise can be a problem. This may be down to ignorance on the part of the praiser (they don’t know enough to know that something isn’t really worthy of praise), or favouritism (they’ll praise someone they like and not praise someone as or more deserving of it), but either way can be very damaging in a workplace.

    If someone feels that their boss doesn’t understand/appreciate what they do or are preferring someone else over them, it can lead to a very unhappy situation.

    I do agree that deserved praise should always be given, however, and in a manner best suited to the recipient.

  7. All,
    While I agree that praise is generally a positive thing, I think Lucy’s point may be that some people is easier noticed than others. If two people, an introvert and an extrovert deserve equally amounts of (public) praise, but only the extrovert gets it, I think it is fair to say that the introvert will be pissed off (although he may keep these emotions for himself).

    -s-

  8. You know Alex… I’m with Lucy this time. I can’t really explain it, but I’ve seen praise backfire in a few occasions. And I’m not talking about a guy who gets an undeserved praise (which I have seen), but a guy who really deserved the praise. For a strange reason, although he really liked the praise (given by teammates) and that made him visibly happy, his engagement plummeted afterwards.

    I think there are many variables, both in the praise and in the individual, that praise can’t be recommended but in specific cases and in certain ways (which I don’t know of).

    PS. The praise came with a small economic reward… maybe that influenced the result… although I’m not sure of it.

  9. Unfortunately people who shares the beliefs of Kellaway have destroyed American public education. If a person is shy of public praise it’s because they were poisoned by that doctrine in public education.
    The real world keeps score, everyone doesn’t get a trophy and your feelings are not the most important thing in the world.

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