“Praise in public, correct in private” is advice that is often given in supervisory training without discussing its intent or the exceptions to it as a rule.
The most ancient attribution for that thought goes back to about 35 BC when Publilius Syrus said, “Admonish your friends privately, but praise them openly.”
Catherine the Great, in the 18th Century, said, “I like to praise and reward loudly, to blame quietly.” (Although her idea of blaming was usually an execution.)
The most frequent–and modern–attribution is to the great football coach, Vince Lombardi, who wrote, as part of an explanation about building a team, “Praise in public; criticize in private.” (Coach Lombardi was likely thinking of public in the literal sense, because he spent considerable time being interviewed about the wins and losses of the Green Bay Packers.)
That axiom is useful for reminding us of a some key issues about relationships with individuals and work groups:
- We show loyalty to groups and individuals when we support and praise them to others and reserve our complaints and criticisms for when we can talk to them face to face in a private setting.
- When we acknowledge the accomplishments and efforts of employees in front of other employees or groups, it helps them gain status and appreciation and also strengthens our relationships with them.
- We can damage relationships and the confidence and motivation of everyone involved if we embarrass or anger employees in front of their peers or to others in or out of the organization.
- Sincerely praising employees in front of others sends a message about what is valued.
However, there are exceptions to that bit of advice. For example, in a work setting there are plenty of times when praising in private is preferable.
When praising in private might be more appropriate than praising in public:
1. When a supervisor observes small demonstrations of effective behavior or performance that merit a brief and sincere immediate acknowledgement but do not require a more elaborate praise.
2. When one or more employees repeatedly do outstanding work that is above the norm while others rarely do. Publicly praising one or two much more often than others can create ill feelings and can become an embarrassment to the effective employees as well.
3. When it is likely that many in the group feel they have been working hard on a project, even though you are aware that only one or two actually made the project successful. Publicly praising the one or two extremely effective employees specifically, even if you praise everyone else as a group, will often create ill feelings.
4. When the matter being praised reflects poorly on another employee by comparison, even though you do not mention the other employee.
5. When praising in public will set an employee apart in that way that creates discomfort. Supervisors should be aware of group dynamics and culture for that reason.
6. When the behavior or performance being praised is not exceptional for most employees, only for this one. Praising in those cases can frustrate and anger the employees who have been doing that level of work all along. (On the other hand, when new employees are gaining skills and knowledge, coworkers are often happy for them and will be more likely to support the praise.)
7. When there is no convenient opportunity to praise an employee in front of others because of the nature of the work or group.
8. When the personality and style of the employee is such that public praise would be a disincentive. You may be able to change this feeling by not being excessive about praise. However, there are some employees who appreciate private praise but genuinely do not want to be the focus of attention by others.
Praise as often as possible, both in public and private. There are many, many times when we can make a differene in work and the feelings of employees though a brief but sincere public recognition of the work of an individual or group. There are also many times when praise means more if given in private, when the supervisor can be a bit more effusive and personal, and the employee can bask in it for a moment, rather than feeling uncomfortable.
The key for your effectiveness is to do the right thing for the situation, rather than relying on generalized advice–no matter who said it.