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I recently had a conversation where I was discussing praising, or thanking a member of my team. Of course, the team gets credit in public, but that's good for team wide praise. But personally, I find individual public displays in front of the team to be... staged. They often feel less about thanking the person in question and more about the boss saying "look at me, I appreciate you" and/or "I wish you were all more like Bob".

So I tend to give a fair amount of thanks in private. "Thanks Bob, I really appreciate you putting in that extra effort last week." There are times when the public praise is appropriate (for the reasons above, among others) but honestly, my team deserves more of my genuine thanks than is appropriate in public (in my opinion).

Which brings me back to my conversation. A colleague of mine disagrees with this approach (to be kind). They don't see the usefulness of private thanks and well, I don't know.

So, is there any sort of common guidance for individual thanks along the lines of "praise in public, criticize in private" for the team?

  • from a team member's perspective, I would be far more likely to treat the thanks / praise as genuine if it was given in private or in a smaller group meeting. in public it is still appreciated but it's also tinged with the idea that management need to praise in public and discipline in private - but you can't omit it altogether or those you don't thank privately may feel unappreciated. So I think a mix of the two is a good idea - if I worked for you I'd definitely appreciate being thanked in private more though. – nurgle May 29 '14 at 12:37
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In general, industry advice on recognition says that there are advantages of public recognition. This article (which includes a comprehensive study on recognition practices performed at IBM) notes the reasons:

  1. Some (but not all) people enjoy being recognized in front of their colleagues.
  2. Public recognition communicates a message to all employees about the priorities and function of the organization.

Of course recognition can always be done badly (the rest of the article and study investigate several of those missteps in depth). Some people are shy enough they don't like being praised in front of others, and some others (you, sounds like) don't like being given normative guidance in this manner.

The main message here is "people's preferences vary." But you should never give recognition according to your preferences. You should give it according to the recipient's preferences. Adapting your approach to the individual, team, and company above your own personal preference is Management 101, and should be applied to everything besides recognition as well (coaching, performance feedback, etc.).

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    It also communicates to senior managers in the organization that your team is doing well. If you do not publicly recognize people, the chances of your team getting the pay raises and promotions they deserve are lower. – HLGEM May 28 '14 at 13:12
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    Agreed. Earlier in my career I had a "political" boss who explained to us how our success is one part performance, one part image, one part exposure. As engineers, we hated him. Then we realized over time he was absolutely correct. Sad but true. – mxyzplk May 28 '14 at 13:27
  • @hlgem - indeed. As much as I despise the often political/perception nature of public praise, I understand the need for it. – Telastyn May 29 '14 at 11:37
  • I have often also found it is a good way to de-escalate a situation with a peer or subordinate when there has been some conflict. – HLGEM May 29 '14 at 14:00
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There are pros and cons to both approaches.

Private praise is more personal. It builds relationships. However, it may not be as satisfying as praise that is openly given in front of witnesses, and you have to be a little careful as to how you deliver it. Some people are not comfortable with even small intimacies in the workplace.

Public praise can boost self esteem but may also give rise to jealousies and embarrassment. It is not a good team building practice, IMO. It might be used as a motivational tool in some cases (Employee of the month, MVP, etc) but I've never heard anyone express the opinion that it motivated them at all personally.

Public praise is only a reward if you desire the admiration (or envy) of your peers. It satisfies the competitive urge, but sometimes at the expense of team cohesion. Of the two, I think the latter would be more valuable to you as a manager.

Personally, having a manager who occasionally tells me that I am doing a good job is a real morale booster (as long as I feel that he isn't just doing a rah-rah job on me and he is praising me for something I know I've done well). However, public recognition just makes me uncomfortable.

  • I always feel like private praise gets more mileage than public generally speaking... When it's a public thing it seems less... genuine... and more like a manager is trying to squeeze a little more out of the other employees (I realize this isn't necessarily true but it's how it feels to me, even if I'm the recipient of said praise.) When your boss stops by your office and goes "Hey Jimmy, I just wanted to thank you for Tuesday, you really stepped up when we needed you." it goes a long way. – RualStorge May 28 '14 at 18:09
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I give thanks to the team in public and in private - They get the same version from me. I am opportunistic and spontaneous. I don't need to wait for a formal staff meeting to express my appreciation and in fact, the team members appreciate the spontaneity as proof of authenticity. Again, when I thank the team as a whole, the team members get the same story from me. The fact that the story is consistent makes what I say in terms of appreciation authentic no matter what weasely and fakey smile I plaster on my face as I say it :)

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