Category Archives: Culture

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.

Core Values

Whenever you start a new endeavor, you need values to guide you.

When I first led NSNO, I struggled with this.

Fortunately, NSNO’s leadership team, in addition to coaches like Nancy Euske, helped me get better. Maggie Runyan-Shefa and Jenny Katz were invaluable.

In case you too struggle with this, here’s some of what I’ve learned:

Creating Core Values

Core values should be created *after* you have a mission and strategy.


Because core values should be a guide for how you need to think and act in order to execute a strategy that will help you accomplish your mission.

If you get this sequence wrong, your core values will probably be nice things that have nothing to do with how you need to behave in order to accomplish your specific mission.

After the values are named, associated behaviors that are specific to the organization should be detailed. People should know what it means to live your values out at your organization.

For a start-up, core values should be iterative. Set them at the outset, but revisit them often, and solidify them around a year in (or when you nail down your strategy).

Living Core Values

Modeling: This is the most important thing. Humans learn by watching the behavior of others. If you are a leader, everyone will be watching you all the time and they will learn how to behave.

Induction: The CEO (or someone in leadership) should meet with all new hires to discuss values. The leader should discuss why the specific values were chosen; tell stories of individuals who have exemplified the values; give specific examples of where organizational decisions have seen values in tension; and talk about specific instances the organization (and the leader) failed to live out the values.

Feedback: Managers should give informal (most important) and formal (scheduled and specific) feedback on whether or not team members are living out values.

Promotion and Firing: People who consistently violate values should never be promoted. If a person cannot change, the person should be fired. No one person is ever more important than the values. If this is the case, you don’t have values. You have suggestions.

The Constitution and The Bill of Right apply to every citizen. The values are more important than any individual.

An organization should be no different. It is a society in and of itself.

Project Management: Leadership owns the modeling of the values. But someone else should own the process, and this person must be someone who gets it. This person should create a calendar of events (check-ins, weekly meeting, annual meetings, celebrations, performance reviews, etc.) that are layered upon value activities (examples of historical people who have modeled values, shout-outs for recent modeling, articles that get to the heart of a value, etc.) and objectives (deepening understanding of values, modeling of values, feedback on values, debates on values in tension, open vulnerability on value failures, explaining major organizational decisions based on values).

Changing Core Values 

Core values should be reviewed when a strategy is changed, when there is a crisis in culture, or when there is new leadership.

It’s About Balancing Control and Empowerment

Core values are so important because they control how people behave when no one is watching (which is most of the time!) and they empower people to change the organization (and the world!) for the better by guiding their risk-taking, initiative, and ownership of the organization.

It’s Hard

I went from and “F” to maybe a “B-” in terms of leading through core values. It’s crazy hard. There are so many leaders that I admire that are better than me at this.

I’m better at design than project management, which makes it difficult for me to execute with a small team.

And the above is surely flawed.

It’s just my best explanation of my current understanding of core values.

Lastly, the truism is true: a culture will form whether you create it or not so you better create it.

Managing Humans is a Form of Cultural Evolution


I’m reading: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making us Smarter.

The book is good, but it feels overly long, and I don’t know if I will finish it.

The main premise of the book is that accumulated cultural wisdom drives much of human progress.

For example, if you were dropped off in the middle of the Amazon, you would probably die because you are not a part of a culture that has developed the knowledge necessary to survive in this environment.

This may seem obvious, but it is still profound.

We survive not only because of our individual intelligence but also because of our collective intelligence, and our collective intelligence is often narrowly tailored to the environment of our birth.


Here is how Patrick Collison, the founder of Stripe, describes their organization:

We’re relatively conventionally organized. There’s always a temptation to reconceive the nature of humanity and social structure; you should really try to discourage that inner voice. First, think about all the risks you’re taking in your business. The standard ways of organizing a businesses are empirically sufficient for creating Google, Facebook, etc. Do you really want to add your novel organizational ontology as an additional business risk factor? Second, you’re not going to be very good at anticipating the problems with any alternative that you might conceive, since — chances are — many of the future problems are ones you won’t have encountered before.

Here is Sam Altman in the Startup Playbook:

One mistake that CEOs often make is to innovate in well-trodden areas of business instead of innovating in new products and solutions. For example, many founders think that they should spend their time discovering new ways to do HR, marketing, sales, financing, PR, etc. This is nearly always bad. Do what works in the well-established areas, and focus your creative energies on the product or service you’re building.


Managing humans is a form of cultural evolution.

Over time, we have figured out ways to organize humans to accomplish great things.

When I helped start NSNO, I had no idea how to manage humans. Luckily, great people on our team taught me how to do this.

I also read a lot of books.

Now, whatever the endeavor, I take the time to create: goals, a strategy, core values, vehicles for individual feedback, and systems to monitor overall progress.

Of course, I don’t do this perfectly, but I always do it.

Humans have evolved to manage other humans in a manner that, when done well, can be inspiring, meaningful, and lead to great things being accomplished.

As such, I don’t try to reinvent the human management wheel that has been created by our human ancestors.

My marginal units of energy are most often spent on (1) human management execution; and  (2) product innovation.

I try not to bother with human management innovation. You probably shouldn’t either.

Rather, you should focus on product innovation.

In our team’s case, that means spending energy on trying to figure out how society can best deliver an excellent education to all children.

We have a long way to go, but early results are promising:

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 7.03.28 AM

Where Do All These Hard Working Adults Come From?

work hard

From Jordan Weissmann at Slate:

“Work-life balance isn’t really America’s strong suit. We spend more hours on the job than most other developed countries. We don’t get much vacation time, and we don’t even use all of the vacation days our bosses do give us. And as economists Daniel Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli tell us in a new working paper this week, we’re unusually prone to working nights and weekends.”

So two things are apparently true:

  1. American students don’t work hard (most forcefully argued by Whitney Tilson).
  1. American adults work too hard.

It seems odd that we want kids to work harder and adults to work less. I would have expected the opposite.

Then again, most policy commentators are adults.

Some assorted thoughts:

  1. It is unclear to me that American students work less hard than students in other countries (save for students in South Korea). I’ve seen conflicting evidence.
  1. My guess is the three primary drivers of work habits are culture, institutions, and incentives – though there is clearly much interplay between these drivers.
  1. We are a large country: the dominant cultures, institutions, and incentives vary across our population.
  1. But for students, the incentives seem pretty clear: doing well in school leads to earning much more money.
  1. If American students are in fact working less, I’d probably point to culture and institutions (note that many effective charter schools try to reverse these cultural and institutional trends).
  1. For adults, it seems different: I would point to incentives (money) and institutions (mission and profit driven companies with comparatively fewer labor regulations) as the drivers of hard work, with societal culture pushing one way or the other depending on one’s dominant cultural group.

Anyways, I don’t really have many strong opinions here. And I haven’t really worked out the above thoughts into a cohesive argument of any kind. And it’s Saturday.

I was just struck by the odd existence of two pieces of conventional wisdom: we are a nation of lazy children and hardworking adults.