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I recently started working with someone who throws around a lot of light praise to others, such as "good job on that!" "nice work" or "keep it up". He seems sincere but it struck me as a drop funny because he'll say it to anyone regardless of the levels/relationship. For example, he'll say this to junior peers, senior peers, external consultants (staff aug type of consultants), and even to the lead developer on the team (who has 10 more years of experience than this fellow).

On one hand, it can easily be viewed as patronizing or insincere, but everyone also likes to know that their work is appreciated/recognized.

From an objective perspective, what's the best way to praise other people's work without sounding patronizing or insincere? Is there such a thing as "too much" praise, or levels/relationships where praise is inappropriate (like to the lead developer)?

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There is such a thing as "too much" and there is also such a thing as "the wrong time". Praise is a funny thing because it really can be used to do the exact opposite, and abusing it reduces its value tremendously. Some thoughts on how I handle praise

  • Keep it simple and direct.
  • Say what you mean exactly.
  • Keep it targeted at the right audience.
  • Don't praise in public if it makes them uncomfortable.
  • If it's possible, praise in front of peers.
  • Don't use the same phrases of praise every time.
  • Reference the exact behavior you're praising.
  • If your praise is to a person, say their name.
  • If your praise is to a group, focus on the group.
  • Praise directed at a group for the behavior of an individual dilutes it.
  • Never allow insincere or mocking praise to enter your behaviors.
  • Instead of direct praise, try a "thank you".

Praise is one of the easiest ways to establish trust with peers and direct reports. My praise towards managers is never actually praising, it's thanking. Praise toward a manager or leader can make you look like sycophant. "Thanks" is the simplest and most straightforward form of appreciation, and it is very difficult to overuse.

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  • An aspect I would emphasize is 'picking something specific to highlight', i.e. don't just say 'I liked your work on [X]' but instead say 'I liked your work on [X], I was especially impressed by the way you foo'd the bar to make the fizz buzz'.
    – Cronax
    Aug 18 '20 at 12:47
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The best way to avoid sounding insincere is, well, to be sincere. Praise things that you honestly find praiseworthy. Understand the company culture with respect to how praise happens-- some companies are very "rah rah" and encourage people to praise each other loudly and publicly, others are much more reserved.

As for patronizing, what you praise ought to depend on the person you're praising. It may be perfectly appropriate to praise the intern for deploying a change that fixed a typo on a page because getting a change all the way through the deployment pipeline is a thing that interns are not going to have a huge amount of experience doing. It is almost certainly not appropriate to praise the lead developer for doing the same thing since the lead developer ought to be quite accustomed to getting changes deployed.

I don't see any reason that you ought not praise someone simply because of their place in the hierarchy. If you thought the CEO did a really awesome job at the product launch yesterday and you happen to be riding in the elevator with her the next day, there is no reason not to say "awesome job".

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There's a difference between sincere praise and empty flattery. If the praise is sincere, it'll probably be appreciated, even if the person doing the praising is much more or less senior than the person they're praising. Most everyone enjoys being genuinely appreciated for something they did well.

However, what you're describing is empty flattery, and it absolutely can come across as patronizing. I used to be a cashier many years ago, at a company with a well-deserved reputation for treating their employees poorly. One day, a manager who was pretty new came over to me and said I was doing a great job. Now I knew I hadn't done anything noteworthy, so I skeptically replied, "really? I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do." The manager got flustered then admitted he was just trying to raise morale. That's a noble goal, yet it did the opposite. He couldn't actually point to anything specific I did, so his words were meaningless, not genuine appreciation of something I'd done well, and I felt it.

So how do you made sure sincere praise is interpreted as such? Be specific. Instead of "nice job" say "nice job presenting. It's difficult to make foobars interesting, but you nailed it, everyone seemed really engaged." Most anyone would feel good about hearing that, regardless of rank (barring something in the praise being obviously false, of course).

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And, hey ... "maybe he is sincere!" As many people have said: "be very generous with praise." (As long as you really mean it. And, quite possibly, he really does.)

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Adding to Joel Etherton's answer:

  • Avoid using deprecating humor (where others are the subject, self-deprecating humor is ok)
  • Avoid speaking of positions-- high or low-- in a derogatory manner, even if the context is 3rd party.

This has a lot of problems. I think whoever made this must have been a junior.

  • Avoid abstracting praise

P1: Susan did a great job on the project.
P2: Yeah, the whole team did great.

These situation make people believe there is something behind what you are saying. Any praise offered will be shortly dismissed.

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  • I think this answer could be improved by giving positive examples instead of (or at least in addition to) things not to say. Right now, when I finish reading this answer I have your example sentences (subconsciously) stuck in my mind, which is probably the opposite of what you want to convey.
    – Llewellyn
    Aug 15 '20 at 11:26

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