This anti-pattern is so popular that it's hard to find anyone who hasn't experienced it personally at least once:

  1. First, a message comes (to the whole team/unit/org) with some good news: a major release announcement, project summary, a milestone achieved - name something non-trivial that happens once in a while in your org ...
  2. ... soon to be followed by a "reply-to-all" response from CEO or some other top-level exec:
"Great work!"

How do you feel about it? For me (in 95% of cases, I'll cover the exception below), it's the closest equivalent to a (public!) slap in the face.

No, I'm not questioning the importance of public praise. In fact, it can be very beneficial as:

  • it satisfies the intrinsic motivations of many people with a "missionary" attitude
  • it can motivate other individuals (than the directly praised) by setting a clear positive example
  • praised people know that what they do really matters because it's noticed & appreciated; someone important cares about it

BUT (yeah, there's always a "but") poorly executed public feedback has the opposite effect. What does it mean "poorly executed"?

  1. mechanical (generic, repetitive, unimaginative)
  2. doesn't refer (clearly, precisely) to the actions/efforts praised
  3. inadequate to accomplishments

So if every release announcement is met with the same message ("Great work!", "Great work!", "Great work!"), it's a textbook example of shitty feedback that resembles a mockery and can be interpreted even as a sign of disrespect.

So, how should proper public praise look alike?

  • First of all, it has to be clear that the leader clearly cares - it can be achieved, e.g., by re-emphasizing why the goal was so important / what has been accomplished.
  • It has to be clear WHAT and WHO is appreciated - even novice parents know that a child should not be praised for what (s)he is (traits), but for what (s)he has done (behaviors).
  • It should be UNIQUE, crafted for this occasion (instead of copied'n'pasted ...)
  • I know it sounds obvious, but ... it needs to be CREDIBLE: bullshit (e.g. praising while not knowing what the whole fuss was about) is easy to spot for everyone paying just a bit of attention.

Positive public feedback is such a powerful tool (in leaders' arsenal). The fact that so few can skillfully apply it in practice says a lot about leadership quality in many organizations ...

P.S. I've promised to cover an exception. Indeed, there are some leaders who never say more than "Awesome." but even so, you know that there's far more behind that single word than a full-pager memo could have covered. How is that even possible? They don't have to prove they care while providing feedback, as they do it on a daily basis in every little interaction. This "Awesome." is just a cherry on the top — a final nod and a stamp of recognition. The last missing piece. Additional elaboration would be just redundant.

That's how you recognize the best leaders.

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