The Perils of Praise: How to Give Positive Feedback

As a manager, I handed out praise like candy to my employees. I thought it was the perfect way to make them feel better about themselves and make them want to work harder. Imagine my surprise when people’s responses didn’t match my expectations. I got no thanks for my candy handouts. In fact, most people seemed embarrassed and even a little suspicious by my praise.

Why? What was I doing wrong? Isn’t praise a good thing? Don’t people like to receive a pat on the back? Well, it turns out, they do, but it isn’t praise they’re looking for. They’re looking for something much more specific and meaningful. They’re looking for positive feedback, which is quite different from praise.

Praise is often experienced by the receiver as a negative thing: people can feel uncomfortable, skeptical, or even defensive. Heap praise on someone and they very well could be thinking:

“This is really embarrassing. I never know what to say in return.”


“I wonder what you want from me now.”

Praise is a vague statement that makes a positive judgment about a person, but contains very little information or any real meaning. Example: “You’re the best team member I have.” That statement is loaded with judgment, which can make us doubtful or even distrustful. There is no real information contained in the message, so there is nothing to grab onto as a way of building motivational steam.

Praise doesn’t work. But positive feedback does.

Positive feedback is a specific, non-judgmental statement about a person that contains concrete and meaningful information. Example: “You ran that team meeting really well: you encouraged open discussion, stuck to the agenda, and ended on time.” There is no judgment here, only a statement of fact. The message has some meat to it: the person knows exactly what he or she has done (and likely will do in the future). There should be no need for the receiver to wonder about ulterior motives. There should be no embarrassment by the receiver, unless the person is not used to receiving such feedback and doesn’t know how to respond. If so, tell the receiver that a simple “Thank you” is all that’s required.

So, put away the candy handouts and give positive feedback instead. Give it soon and often. Make it specific and concrete. Then watch what happens.

Until next time . . .

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