Should leaders give praise to teammates?

Managing people didn’t come naturally to me. I struggled early on. I eventually became competent at it. But it’s not something I’m exceptional at.

I now work in a partnership. We don’t use a traditional hierarchical management structure, but I still have management duties. And I try to do them well.

The Best Managers of People I Know 

I’m close friends with two exceptional managers of people. If the United States somehow created an accurate national ranking of managers, I’d be shocked if they were not in the top .1%.

So I listen to them when they talk about managing people. And when I’m struggling with something, I often reach out to them. Both have a knack of telling me truth I wasn’t willing to tell myself because it would cause pain.

These two people strongly disagree on the role of praise. I don’t know who I agree with.

Praise as a Signal 

One of my friends strongly believes that praise is one of the most effective ways to incentivize mission aligned behavior.

According to this friend, if a manager knows what behaviors will lead to team success (and they should), then the manager should praise those behaviors whenever she sees it. And she should attempt to build a culture where others do this to.

The psychology behind this is fairly simple: people want to be praised, so if you praise people for something, they will do more of it.

My friend believes praise is one of the best reenforcement mechanisms a manager can use – and that it should be used frequently, at least weekly.

Praise as Sugar

Another friend says praise is like sugar: it gives you a quick dopamine hit, then you want more of it, and the more you get the you need to get high again.

According to this friend, a manager should try to create a culture where people are constantly trying to figure out what it will take for the organization to succeed, and then they do these things because they deeply care about the organization and have an internal desire to be the best version of themselves.

This friend also believes that praise gets the incentives all wrong. Because a manager can easily be fooled, if team members are just seeking out praise, they may act in ways that gets praise from the manager but is not actually in the best interest of the organization.

The psychology here is simple: people should have a deep ownership of the organization’s mission and their own personal self-actualization, and external praise short circuits this ownership.

When Brilliant People Disagree

My two friends are both brilliant managers of people and they disagree on this issue. Whenever two brilliant people disagree, and they are experts on the issue, and they have every incentive to be right on the issue because their mission depends on it…. then my first thought is that it’s a really really hard problem, and my second thought is that the answer might be situation specific and they might both be right.

Operational Clarity vs. Operational Uncertainty

I sometimes wonder if praise is most useful in organization’s with a lot of operational certainty and least useful in organization’s with a lot of operational uncertainty.

In other words, the less the manager actually knows what should be done, the less useful praise is.

If, for example, you’re managing a team to create a strategy for a complicated product launch, you probably don’t know what the right answer is for everyone on your team. If you give a lot praise, you could very well praise bad ineffective actions.

If, on the other hand, you’re managing 1,000 people to do the exact same job, and this is the third year in a row these people have executed on this task, you probably know exactly what you want to see. So it’s probably pretty easy to praise a good performance.

I’m not sure that this distinction matters for using praise, but I think it might.

Should Leaders Give Praise?

I don’t really know where I land on this.

My guess is that I significantly praise each person I work with 3-5 times a year.

I think my model for this is:

(1) I do want people to know when I think they did something pretty amazing, both because I care deeply about them and I want to signal that those types of accomplishments will help us succeed for children; and

(2) I do kind of think praise is like sugar, so I don’t do it too much.

Perhaps I’m trying to have my cake and it eat it too. I’m not sure.

One last thought: I sometimes think people confuse praise with care. I think it’s very important for leaders and colleagues to care for one each other. Care is the foundation for trust and trust is the foundation for good conflict. Also, life is short, and it’s better lived by surrounding yourself with people who care about you and who you care about.

But praise isn’t the only way to show care. It’s probably not in the top five. I would rather work for someone who cares deeply but praises sparingly rather than someone who praises effusively but cares shallowly.

1 thought on “Should leaders give praise to teammates?

  1. davidorrickdibs

    Great analysis Neerav. It prodded a couple thoughts for me from my experiences trying to learn to manage:

    1) I’m a former 1st grade TFA teacher (you know this… others don’t). Managing adults is fundamentally different from teaching children in many ways, but I tend to think Teach Like a Champion’s “Precise Praise” is one technique that translates to both. Specifically, Lemov’s distinction between praise and acknowledgement. While I agree that praise is like sugar for both kids and adults, when working with adults I often just acknowledge the reality we’re facing and what I’m seeing, and ask others to do the same. I find it to be a powerful tool for recognition of both individual performance and collective progress. It also helps me feel more genuine. I have always struggled to hand out praise to adults since it feels like it’s coming from a place of “I know best” or “I know everything”. I’ve worked for managers who navigate that well, though, so I know it’s possible – probably just a personal preference thing. (Worth noting: I manage an organization operating under extreme uncertainty, so I fall in your first bucket there and I think you’re exactly right that this distinction matters for using praise).

    2) Your last paragraph started in on this, but I sometimes think managers just don’t have many other tools in their toolbelt for motivating employees so they default to praise. Knowing that praise is definitely an extrinsic motivator, the book Influencer really changed my thinking on when to use extrinsic VS how to try to build intrinsic motivation. The book argues that extrinsic rewards like praise would be your 3rd tier of interventions for behavior-related challenges like trying to build and sustain employee motivation (your first tier would be trying to build personal connectedness to the mission/work; your 2nd tier would be to build stronger social reinforcements for the behavior you’re trying to support among staff). But the book also gets into how hard it is to build and sustain genuine personal motivation, so I also can’t blame others who, like me, sometimes just simply praise.


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