Reality Management: Keep Your Praise Sincere and Focused


“Thank not those faithful who praise all thy words and actions; but those who kindly reprove thy faults.” –

At a meeting to review the results of one of her profit centers, DDB began by talking about how “wonderfully” the profit-center manager had done this and what a “sensational job” he’d done on that. “Plus,” DDB said, “I can see that he’s really feeling good about his work.”

I turned to the profit-center manager and quipped, “You don’t mind if I don’t care about your feelings, do you?” And then I redirected the conversation to the mediocre results the profit center had been showing.

I felt a little guilty about knocking DDB off her track, but I couldn’t rid my guts of the feeling that what she was doing was off the mark. Later, while reading Leslie W. Braksick’s book “Unlock Behavior, Unleash Profits”,, I realized what it was that bothered me: DDB was not entirely sincere in her praise. She was saying more than she meant in an effort to get more than was being given.

This is a common management tactic, but it’s a mistake. It’s common, I think, because we all believe we can fool people, at least a little.

Braksick makes the point in her book. She talks about managers who think they can criticize effectively simply by initiating each criticism with praise and then a “but.” Again, this is a very common tactic, but it almost always backfires, because the person who is being manipulated sees right through it.

DDB’s effusive praise was disingenuous. (See “Word to the Wise, below.) It wasn’t exactly a lie, because it reflected a degree of truth. It was an exaggeration for a purpose, a calculated manipulation.

DDB jacked up her praise because she wanted her employee to feel good about himself and because she wanted the things the employee was doing well to be repeated. But by exaggerating the intensity level (even with the best of intentions), DDB defeated her purpose. Her praise seemed vacuous — almost worthless.

When you fake it, people can see right through you.

I think this is why many CEOs and business managers who are parsimonious in their praise are still very successful leaders. Their employees work hard and imaginatively. They get respect. They have their ideas manifested. These leaders don’t praise their employees too often — but when they are happy with results, they usually do something that lets their people know they did a good job.

Think about that for a minute. Whatever it is you are trying to do with your employees — get them to work harder, get them to think you are great, get them to make you look smart, or get them to be successful and great and smart themselves — they probably already know.

If they can see through you, what is the point in faking it?

Whenever you have to have a difficult conversation with an employee, try to discover what it is you think and feel about the subject. Be frank with your assessment. See the bad stuff as well as the good.

Take some extra time to try to understand the employee’s position — what his interests might be and how the subject at hand might affect him.

Finally, express your well-thought-out intentions to the employee in terms of his self-interest but say nothing that isn’t honest. You can hold back information if you think there is a good reason to, but don’t lie and don’t exaggerate and don’t distort anything in order to evoke a reaction that the message you are delivering, the basic message, can’t get for you.