Notes to Myself: On the unhealthy culture of praise and fake recognition.

I’ve recently noticed a trend of “praise culture” in companies. Probably the first time it came to my attention was around two years ago, but that’s something you might have noticed even a bit earlier. Not sure where this is coming from, but it’s not healthy, at least not in the form I’ve seen it.

What is the unhealthy form? Regular company-wide meetings where I learn from other managers, whose contributions to the company success, which usually did not have that significant impact or importance, are being rewarded (only with words, of course). The so-called shoutouts. Do we really need them?

“When accomplishing something, people want to feel like partners, not subordinates.”

People are often praised for doing the job they’ve been hired to do in the first place. Rarely we are talking about anything exceptional. It started to remind me of medals for attendance. It’s damaging to the company and the culture. But, wait, it can be worse… People are praised for working on the weekend or staying late at night, and this mostly happens in organisations proud of their employee’s healthy work/life balance. It’s not healthy if the team has to work on the weekend! Stop glamorising overworking.

Praise is an addiction, like alcohol.

One is never enough. You want more and more. It becomes an addiction. You need it. You crave it. It’s a great way to change the team’s culture to value only what’s visible. The praise-driven and broken organisation where people stop doing The Right Thing and focus on what they are getting rewarded for. It creates incentives in the wrong place.

“If you feel that other people owe you eternal gratitude, appreciation, recognition of your worth, you will feel resentment when these ‘debts’ are not paid.”

But you know what the good side of such fake recognition is? It’s easy! It works. It motivates. It focuses on pleasure. It’s a dopamine shot, just like alcohol. All it matters is right here, right now.

Often praise is fake or unfair

Constant praise for mundane tasks devalues the recognition for everyone. It starts to mean nothing, like those medals for attendance at school. It also becomes a topic for jokes when credit goes to people who are not good at what they do, but they’ve managed to pull something off this one time. I saw it so many times.

On the other side, you end up with a group of people doing a fantastic job, going beyond and above, and left behind. Only because their contributions don’t have the visual impact, maybe are not glamorous, or these people simply believe in doing the right thing without a need for constant ego grooming and attention.

Questionable value

Did you know that a lot of people feel awkward and don’t value public praise at all? Even more, when they receive it for something they don’t believe they deserve because it was simple, regular, just part of their job. The praise based on what the praiser wants to see, not the effort that went into it. It’s the praisers that are often put on the pedestal. Someone in your team did a good job. That means you are an excellent manager, right? Who wins here?

Notes to myself

  • People have different appreciation language.
    Some people will love public acknowledgement. Others will want to hear it in private. A few won’t care about either way and would like to see a cash bonus instead. Learn what your team value first.
  • Praise truly exceptional work to not devalue the praise.
    Only exceptional matters. Just doing your job right shouldn’t be good enough, but if you decide to reward it, you will devalue achievements of others. Also, people who genuinely deserve it and have not been mentioned will feel like “this is all bullshit”.
  • Let someone else to praise your team
    Praising your team at every company meeting for anything they do, is like liking your own social media posts. If you do it, make sure it counts! Do it right. Or let other do it for you and your team. Then you know it really matters.
  • Stop feeding insecurities and egos
    The need of receiving praise and mask our insecurities trumps our healthy scepticism.
  • But don’t forget to reward.
    It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters. Your team needs to know when they are doing a great job, but don’t do it just for the sake of doing it. Make it count. Do it right. Put some effort.
  • Ask questions…

Healing software engineering teams for a decade. People focused guy, trying to change the world one little step at a time. Automotive photographer after hours.