How to Understand and Provide Praise and Criticism at Work

The issues of praise and criticism in the workplace are especially important for employee morale– after all, it feels bad to be criticized and feels good to be praised. The effects of praise and criticism are cumulative, so each must be given carefully and in a targeted, effective fashion. Praising irrelevant or inconsequential attributes of a coworker’s work won’t be as effective as choosing the correct target. By the same token, we all know that feelings of indignation and hurt occur when we feel that we have been criticized unjustly. Of course, we may not be so happy when we receive accurate criticism either. This article is my attempt at biting into the concepts of workplace criticism and praise, attempting to tease out the actual psychological phenomena, and offering a constructive path forward that will provide superior quality communication.

First, let’s define criticism and praise. Criticism and praise are after-the-fact identification of priorities, effort invested, and outcome accomplished relative to prior expectations. Praise is an observation that the ordering of priorities, effort invested, and outcome accomplished were more successful than expectations beforehand. Criticism is identification that priorities were not what was expected, and as a result the effort invested may have been insufficient or misplaced, leading to an unexpected outcome that fell short. Neutral observations that are neither exactly criticism nor praise are likely to be identifications of unexpected priority placement or effort investment which did not have an explicitly positive or negative outcome.

By this definition, the two concepts of criticism and praise are in fact the same concept popularly called “feedback” in the corporate doublespeak. I don’t like the term feedback because it’s nonspecific and is frequently a euphemism for criticism because people are afraid of the word itself due to its emotionally harmful connotations. The fact that the word “criticism” has become verboten is an indictment on the disastrous state of communications skills in corporate life. Discussions of workplace priorities should not spur anxiety within employees, yet it is so. The knowledge of employee discomfort over receiving criticism has spurred the creation of many different investigations into various aspects of criticism, but many employees still struggle.

We should not fear criticism at work– criticism is merely a type of social signalling which indicates that our work priorities were inconsistent with what was expected by others. Adopt a detached mindset, and accept that if we never received praise or criticism because our priorities were always exactly in tune with everyone else, we would be closer to ants than humans.  We should not fear praise, either!

An inability to accept praise or a rejection of praise at work is merely a fear of admission that individual priorities were not the same as what was expected. A fear of criticism is frequently mirrored by a fear of praise because both pertain to individual deviation from expectation and thus a violation of social conformity. It is human nature to be conformist, so we can forgive an inbred tendency to avoid ostracization from the group, but we must overcome this tendency if we want to be part of a maximally effective team or organization.

Effective teams and organizations have a shared frame of priorities, which means that identifying deviations from those priorities is important for keeping on the right track. In this sense, we actually need a certain minimum amount conformity in order to accomplish our group’s goals. With that being said, I am of the opinion that too much conformity is typically far more harmful than too little— a team that is incapable of deviating from expectation is stagnant and inflexible.

So, how do we deliver criticism and praise in such a way that the people we deliver it to get the most helpful impact? The biggest unstated misconception that I regularly come across is that criticism and praise can be doled out without reference to the receiving person. I would like to rectify this misconception, perhaps controversially: the most effective criticism or praise will be carefully calibrated based off of what the receiving person prioritized when performing the work. 

Let’s unpack that statement. In order to get the biggest psychological impact in the desired direction (more efficacy and team cohesion), we have to understand and empathize with our coworker. We have to get into their head.

Why do you think they prioritized what they prioritized, and does this explain the outcome? What aspect of their work did they seem to have put the most effort into, and what part do they seem proud of? Do they seem anxious, ashamed or avoidant of certain prioritizations or aspects of their work? Why would they feel this way? It helps to have the coworker reiterate exactly what they think the expectations were for a given project.

Identifying insecurities regarding the work in question is a good starting point if the above questions are inscrutable. Frequently during discussions of their work, people will provide clues which indicate that they suspect their actual prioritizations are different from the expected prioritizations that may have been agreed upon at the start of a project. Suspicion of differing priorities does not mean that the person should be criticized! Frequently, refutations of expectation are positive, and are indicative of individual initiative and creativity. Individual initiative and creativity have their time and place, however; certain projects may be too sensitive or intolerant of deviation for an individual’s flair to have a positive impact.

Once you’ve identified points where a coworker’s prioritization or effort invested deviated from the original vision of the team, you have identified a point for criticism or praise. Examine the outcome compassionately: did the coworker’s choice seem as though it would be fruitful at the time? If there was really no need or leeway to reprioritize, and the outcome was worse than what was expected, they have earned criticism because it was the incorrect time for their creativity. Was the unexpected investment of effort fruitful in a surprising way while still accomplishing the original desired outcome? Time for praise.

The trick is to keep your criticism and praise limited, detached, and extremely topical. Find the points of individual initiative that the coworker took while working. If your coworker prioritized the wrong thing which led to a bad outcome, detail the logical chain for them if they aren’t aware that there was a problem. Did recalculating the sales from November waste valuable time that could have been spent compiling those sales into charts? Say so clearly and gently, giving your coworker acknowledgement for creativity but not shying away from the problem: “Though you are right that it’s essential for our data to be correct, prioritizing recalculating the sales from November instead of compiling those sales into charts led to a duplication of previous work which contributed toward us missing our deadline.”

Praise should follow the same formula, provided that the outcome was acceptable.  “Choosing to prioritize recalculation of the sales data over compiling the data into charts allowed us to catch a number of mistakes that we would not have otherwise.” Keep both praise and criticism impersonal! The objective of evaluating your coworker’s work is not to quantify their worth as a human being or “human resource” but rather to identify where their individual decisions were compatible with the objective of the team. Accept their choices as compartmentalized pieces on a per-project basis, then look for trends later on if you’re inclined.

Tone and body language are critical to giving and receiving praise and criticism, too. Because of how uncomfortable people are discussing deviations from expected priorities,  defensive body posture and clinical prescriptive tone occur very frequently on both sides of the table when evaluation time comes around. Making a conscious effort to avoid these harbingers of poor communication is absolutely essential! People will detect defensive or vulnerable body language and tone and mirror it when they piece together that criticism is inbound.

Instead, opt for open body language. Signalling warmth and having a benign disposition helps to prevent the other person from clamming up into a defensive posture and allows for praise and criticism to be fully analyzed without emotion. Tone of voice is a bit harder to remember to regulate, but should be carefully considered as well.

Praise should be delivered with a positive and serious tone– adopting a nurturing or parental voice is the most common mistake here. Workplace praise is not the same type of communication as praising your dog for returning its toy or your child for a good report card; workplace praise is clear-sighted objective recognition of successful individual task reprioritization. Praise for a good outcome is not personal, and shouldn’t be confounded by a friendly office relationship.

Criticism should also be delivered with a (slightly less) positive and serious tone. Remember, the purpose here is not to tear the other person down, or talk down to them, but rather to show them that their priorities caused outcomes that were not consistent with the team’s original purpose. Criticism should be delivered at normal speaking volume, and abstracted far away from any frustration you may feel.

A frustrated tone from you will cause the other person to grow defensive, and the maximum positive impact of criticism will not be achieved. A tone of simpering or crestfallen disappointment when delivering criticism will not do: personal emotions or discomfort are not relevant to the discussion of expected priorities and outcomes. Emphasize hope for the future, and move the discussion toward steps for next time around.

I hope you guys enjoyed this piece; I know that I struggle quite a bit with giving and accepting praise, so this article was enlightening for me to think through. Follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and be sure to check out my Patreon page if you like the stuff I’m writing!



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