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Is It Really True That "It Pays To Praise?"

Photo via Flickr by John McStravick

In my last post I criticized the boundary-crossing relationships between boss and employee that trendy management literature headlines seem to promote, using as an example an interview with Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey that appeared in BBC News about Whole Foods.

Whole Foods’ decentralized, team-driven, front-line focused culture is aligned with management literature that trashes managers themselves as essentially “overhead.” See Gary Hamel’s classic, “First, Let’s Fire All the Managers!” Vineet Nayar makes a similar argument, that bosses are basically useless and should get out of the way.
Which sounds very good, if you’re not a boss. And delivers ROI, and employee satisfaction, says the evidence
But what about the exploitiveness of it? To call store workers “team members” but put them on probation till they are voted in by their peers means they are on trial in every respect. All the time. To have people make minimum wage, or vastly less than senior executives, use their ideas and then fail to compensate them accordingly.
Sure, a flat hierarchy “works” for both boss and employee in the sense that it reduces conflict before it even begins. But is that because of high cultural cohesion or because the worker has few options other than to leave or sue when there’s a problem?
What is “agreement” where one side has all the power?

Good management allows for power on both sides. In this setting, hierarchy is acknowledged but in a way that also acknowledges the rights of those lower down on the career ladder. Disagreement can be articulated by the worker and there are institutional mechanisms for honoring that and working through it.

Under this structure, which I would characterize as mature leadership, there is no false promise of equality. Rather there are distinct roles: peer, supervisor, manager, executive, CEO. Each has its freedoms and its responsibilities.

It instills a sense of process and fairness. In that sense it is healthier for the worker.
Under a mature leadership structure, being a manager and being a subordinate are two separate roles. Rather than commingling the two and abdicating the managerial role, the boss takes their job seriously and offer real feedback, positive and negative. 
It is the act of receiving that feedback that promotes employee engagement, notes Marcus Buckingham in Discover Your Strengths. Whereas being ignored causes employees to check out.
In “Show Your Employees Some Love: Why It Pays To Praise,” which I cited in the last post, global business consultant Justin Bariso talks about the importance of offering feedback that is positive and not only negative.
I used Bariso’s headline as an example of the incorrect impression new managers might get from reading popular literature – that they should somehow let their employees walk all over them. But as he noted in a comment on my blog, whatever the headline sounded like, the substance of his piece did not convey this idea.
Rather, he is arguing that managers should remember to balanced negative feedback with good. It has been his experience in Germany that employees get a lot of criticism, but not praise when they do things right.
In addition, offering praise where warranted means that criticism will be taken seriously when it is necessary.
He does of course make an important point. Managers, especially old-fashioned managers, tend to focus on what’s not working, because if it’s working, what’s to talk about? I myself have experienced this as a subordinate, and as a manager have definitely fallen into that trap.
It does pay to praise. Not in a blanket way, not in a false way, but in a very targeted and customized and timely way: Baraiso’s point is apt. His approach stands in counterpoint to the attitude that “we have work to do, and it’s a waste of time to be sitting all day (with our employees) talking about nothing.”
At the end of the day, great managers retain great employees and address the problem of poor performance. Lousy managers don’t bother to do their job and make the rest of us look bad. If we fail to notice, fail to give feedback, and fail to give praise where it’s due, talented employees can and will find another boss who does appreciate them.
Yes, it does pay to praise.
* All opinions my own.

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