Praising well is an art

Strike the right balance


“In one of your articles, you addressed ‘not using competition as a motivator’ and suggested that praising the results of one person in a meeting will lead to other staff resenting the manager and scorning the ‘star.’

“What, then, is the appropriate way for a manager to acknowledge the person doing the exceptional job? If that person (the star) goes out of his or her way to contribute to the department, sets a standard of self-initiative and enthusiasm, and is not recognized for those efforts, doesn’t it potentially thwart those efforts, even if the star doesn’t do it for the recognition? How does one acknowledge the superstar?”


If you think I’m suggesting a manager never praise a star in front of the team, I’m glad you asked the question, because it will give me the opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding.

It seems counterintuitive, but praise can be as tricky to deliver as negative feedback. The science of praise is the easier part. Well-delivered praise is specific and thanks the person for what he or she did. If appropriate, it also ties the person’s action to the goal.

(“Thanks for working through your lunch hour. I really appreciate your extra effort on this project, especially since we’re working to improve our response time to our customers.”)

But the “art” of praise is subtler. It involves the “where” and “when” and “why.” For example, if a manager praises a few employees and ignores the rest, there will be problems. In the example to which you refer, a manager who uses public praise of one employee to try to motivate the other employees is likely to see it backfire.

Here’s why. The “art” of praise must take into account:

  • The manager’s intent.
  • The amount of praise the manager gives all employees.
  • The balance between private and public praise.
  • The evolutionary stage of the team.

The manager’s intent

If the manager is simply trying to share the good news about a member of the group so everyone can applaud and feel good for the person (as well as for the team’s goal), the intentions are honorable and the group will respond well. If, however, the manager’s intention is to use the person’s success to shame or embarrass the group into better performance, it will fail. Somehow, it will always sound like a parent saying, “Why can’t you be as smart as your brother?” It just doesn’t go down well.

The amount of praise the manager gives all employees.

If the manager is uneven in the amount of praise she gives, employees will notice. Even employees who don’t need a lot of praise will smell a whiff of favoritism. If the manager is consistent about encouraging each employee, there will be no resentment if she singles out one of the team on occasion. They know they’ll get their share.

The balance between private and public praise

Some people are embarrassed when they are complimented in front of others. Other people like to bask in public acknowledgment. Smart managers make sure they mix it up. They mention the employee’s good work in one-on-one meetings, when they are reviewing projects or giving a performance review. In addition, they thank the employee and mention the person’s good efforts on the fly, within earshot of others. Finally, when there is a big achievement, it’s celebrated during a group meeting.

The evolutionary stage of the team

When the team is new, has a mix of seasoned and new employees, or is under stress, it’s best to praise individuals privately and focus on team goals and group praise when the team is together. The reason? In each of these situations, employees may feel insecure about their status within the group. As the group starts to gel and its confidence grows, singling out individual members of the team will be cause for enthusiastic applause.

-Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee-based executive coach, organizational and leadership development strategist. She has a proven track record spanning more than 20 years, and is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Email your question to Joan at and visit to search an archive of more than 1,600 of her articles. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500.

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President of Milwaukee based Joan Lloyd & Associates, Inc. Executive coach & management consultant with 98% success record (measured by clients). Specialties: Executive/leader team coaching; 360-degree feedback processes & development plans; facilitating executive planning retreats, resolving team dynamics issues, presentation skills coaching. Corporate experience includes officer of Northwestern Mutual, Miller Brewing, Clark Oil and Refinery.

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