Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Thank People. A Lot. In Public. Seriously.

One of my favorite managerial sounding phrases which has the benefit of actually containing wisdom is “Praise people publicly, punish people privately.” Leaving the punishing part to a later blog post, I’d like to look at the Praise People part.

When was the last time you felt you had been appreciated too much for your hard work and good efforts? If you are like most people who are not delusional, the answer is never.

Empty praise given too often doesn’t hold meaning and many people don’t really know how to “take” a compliment: “Great Job, Johnson,” Um, it was nothing. Really. I didn’t steal anything from the supply room! Some people don’t really know how to give one: “Your code was just like a spider laying its eggs in the center of a perfect web,” Um, thank you?

This is not because those people are self-absorbed jerks, but because singing someone else’s praises brings the risk of attention to yourself (Are you pointing out to someone who makes money decisions that this person is better than you?) and your judgment (What happens the next time this person screws up after you said they were awesome?).

The workplace is where you go to be noticed or invisible and varying degrees in between. Speaking—even talking about someone else positively—can draw attention to people who want to be invisible, while talking positively about someone else can make you less noticed as attention turns to that person.

Add in the fact that, hey, you are being paid to be here, and many people stop even contemplating thanking other people. They get a paycheck, right?

This is not to say that people don’t thank other people in the course of a day; many people do as a matter of civility and habit. Someone holds the door open, you thank them. But what if someone fixes a bug in your code? Unlike the door holding thing, which is not their job, bug fixing is one of their duties. But the reason that thanking people and praising them is important is to avoid one of the greatest sins in any relationship: taking people and the work they do for granted.

Assuming your significant other will have a meal on the table every night for you when you get home without thanking them is likely to involve arsenic or drain cleaner in one of those dinners in the future; they are unlikely to actually kill you, just poison you enough to get you to thank them for taking you to the hospital emergency room.

As someone who cares about you, there are expectations that they will fulfill chores and duties that they’ve assumed, but as anyone who has ever had a relationship with anyone else knows, it’s nice to be appreciated, even and especially for the ordinary things you do.

Thanking people when they do their jobs well is positive reinforcement to continue to their jobs well. Positive reinforcement helps to solidify good behaviors that you like to see in your team and co-workers, and it makes people actually feel good, as well as avoiding any potential poisoning mishaps at home or abroad.


  1. From the line grunt side, praise -- especially for something hard -- is just huge. I have at times had real issues with invisibility at work. Some folks have social failure modes where they just avoid any notice, good or bad, and for me praise is a great hook to pull me out of that mode, if I'm in it, or to prevent me getting there to begin with.

    Notice avoidance leads to disengagement, and engagement in the work is a necessary prerequisite to enjoying your work -- and being happy in your work is a great thing, considering how much of your time is spent at it.

    Even praise at what might be objectively an incomplete success counts -- I was thrown into the deep end at a job, and while I wasn't producing much, if anything, in terms of results, the progress I was making was recognized, and people acknowledged that it was hard stuff and they weren't expecting miracles. That made a world of difference.

  2. I'm glad that you mentioned the anxiety over potentially reflecting poorly on ourselves when we thank someone. I worked for a company years ago where I sent a note to a dev, thanking him for helping me with a task. I cc'd the CEO (very small company).

    This act resulted not in the dev receiving a pat on the back from the CEO. The CEO never acknowledged the dev as far as I know. Instead, the CEO slammed me to my manager, saying that it was unacceptable that this dev assisted me, that it was evidence that I wasn't doing my job.

    This incident made it very clear to me that this was a terrible place for any sane person (or person wanting to be sane) to work. Until then, I'd blown off a lot of things, thinking it was me, not them. But to react this way over a public acknowledgment of someone's good and useful assistance? Oh, that reaction had nothing to do with me at all.

    That moment not only let the dev know that I appreciated him and his help, it also let me know that I needed to find a new job.