Useful praise

A Work Note

Much of the guidance about giving feedback focuses on how to deliver criticism. This isn’t unreasonable—most of us are terrifically bad at giving that kind of feedback, or justifiably anxious about doing it well, so it fits that this is where we’d all go looking for an assist.

But sharing praise is just as important, if not more so, than delivering criticism. A regular practice of praising your colleagues builds goodwill and trust, helps to dispel imposter syndrome, and supports a team that can capably reflect on what it does well as well as where it goes wrong. Because being great is more than a matter of improving your weaknesses—it’s also about building on your strengths.

In an essay about how writers should think about revising their work, A. E. Osworth argues for “useful praise”:

To identify strengths, a writer needs trusted readers: colleagues who understand that praise is only useful if it is specific, intellectually rigorous, and honest. Specificity is the clearest—the praise should point to a word, sentence, page, pattern, something that objectively appears in the text. Useful praise directs a writer’s attention to where the skill was deployed.

Osworth’s greater point here is that writers should move towards their strengths, not merely away from criticism. This is great advice not only for writers but for all of us. This is not to say that constructive criticism is to be avoided, or that it isn’t also necessary. But if it’s the only kind of feedback you ever get, constructive criticism can have the unintended consequence of making you feel like you’re always coming up short. Useful praise reinforces that you’re learning and growing and gives you direction as to how to keep moving. That’s a very powerful motivator.

In order to be truly useful, praise should be specific, actionable, and timely. “Hey, great presentation today!” is timely, but neither specific nor actionable. More useful praise might be something like, “Hey, great presentation! The pacing was spot on—you really let people absorb the research before moving on to the proposal. And when they asked for more data, you did a great job of explaining the balance between spending time on more research versus moving into prototyping.” That points to specific attributes—the pacing of the presentation, and the effectiveness of explaining the tradeoffs. And it gives the recipient something to act on: they now have cause to pay even closer attention to pacing and how it can work for them, and they have confidence in the tactic of using tradeoffs to negotiate a team’s workload.

Note that useful praise is not a device for cushioning the blow for criticism that follows. The praise has to stand on its own, or else it will be perceived as disingenuous. Dishonest feedback will always fail.

Maybe the best part about useful praise is that it attunes you to pay attention to not only what’s working, but also how it’s working well. We’re all naturally very attentive to things that are going wrong; that’s part of that healthy internal system that’s always on the lookout for trouble—and, honestly, there’s a whole lot of trouble to pay attention to these days. It takes a little more effort to really focus on what’s going great. But if you can get really good at noticing when your colleagues are truly killing it—and then sharing what you notice—you will all get even better at those things together, even faster than you think.