Exceptions to the Rule of Thumb to “Criticize in Private and Praise in Public”

Written by: Sierra Morris

In any sort of management or leadership position, the most critical and fundamental goal is motivating people to engage in desired behaviors – safe work practices, company policies, greater work output, etc. One of the challenges facing this goal is: how exactly do we go about doing the motivating? How can we effectively engage in performance communication? What’s the most constructive way to go about criticizing poor performance, and praising great performance?

Many people believe the answer is to “criticize in private, praise in public,” meaning that all negative reviews of performance should be done without an audience, while positive reviews of performance should be done in front of a subject’s peers. This is an old and time-honored adage with a pretty large following and, in general, it’s hard to disagree with this piece of advice; there are a slew of behavioral and social reasons why you don’t want to critique people in front of their peers, and why it might be beneficial to praise high performance in public. But there are potential downfalls and exceptions, as with every piece of management advice, that deserve to be addressed.

Rethinking “Criticize in Private”

Coworkers criticizing each otherCriticism in general is ineffective

“Criticize in private” holds one fundamental flaw just upon first glance: its promotion of criticism as a management technique. And while this sounds crazy, bear with me. There is a distinct difference between criticism and feedback: criticism focuses on mistakes of the past, while feedback focuses on the improvements the subject can make in the future. This doesn’t mean you should forego all forms of corrective action; no one would ever advise safety leadership to stop administering disciplinary action for egregious infractions. It simply means that, as far as communicating with members of your workforce regarding poor performance, looking to the future as opposed to harping on the past is far more effective.

Why is this? Because criticism often leads to the subject feeling attacked, dominated, and devalued. People in general don’t find these feelings pleasant to experience. Feedback, on the other hand, lets the person know they have performed unsatisfactorily, but does so without devaluing them and making them feel very negative emotions toward their leadership.

As an example: a new worker has consistently filled out a power tool inspection checklist incorrectly. A safety leader who chooses to criticize this person might say, “Let’s talk about these inspection checklists. You didn’t fill out X, Y, Z and A, B, C is wrong. It’s not hard and it should only take you three minutes to do. This is unacceptable.” This dialogue can make the subject feel unintelligent, lazy, embarrassed, and devalued all in one fell swoop. But, a safety leader who chooses to provide feedback might say, “Let’s go over the power tool inspection checklist together. I know you’re new and this can be confusing when you first look at it. In the future, let’s …” This sort of response focuses on the future, rather than past mistakes, and seeks to encourage the new employee to perform better, rather than punish or berate them for having performed poorly in the past.

Some criticism must be done in public

It’s generally a good idea to address poor performances in private, because no one likes to have their mistakes and professional weaknesses displayed to their peers. It’s embarrassing, and can foster unhealthy feelings toward leadership. But, of course, there are some circumstances in which you might have to address unacceptable behaviors in public, on the spot, despite the negative emotions it may inspire in the subject. The cost of NOT addressing some behaviors in front of the subject’s peers can often be far greater than sparing their feelings and doing it in private.

Imagine a worker is in front of a group of their peers, expressing negative opinions about an element of the safety program. Perhaps they believe that XYZ safe work procedure is overkill, not necessary, and just takes up extra time and effort that could be spent working. In this situation, the integrity of the safety program is being undermined in front of an audience. Approaching the subject and asking them to step into your office for some private feedback is fine, but will leave the rest of the group with doubts about the integrity of the program.

The rest of the group, though some may not agree with the negative opinion, may benefit from feedback as well. You don’t want to foster the illusion that not following company safe work procedures is a good idea; after all, this is human lives we’re dealing with. You never want to open public debate about company policies, so initiating an argument about the value of XYZ procedure is not advisable; however, advising the employee to take concerns to management and addressing the negative effects failing to follow company policies may have can be beneficial.

Public criticism may also be necessary in time-sensitive unsafe situations (i.e. a situation must be immediately addressed to ensure the safety and health of the workforce), or when inappropriate statements are made in front of other employees. The potential circumstances are endless; “criticize in private” cannot be followed 100% of the time.

Rethinking “Praise in Public”

Our method of communicating performance evaluations should fit the needs of the person receiving them. If an employee can’t benefit or connect with our communication model, our performance evaluation won’t do them any good. This is where the hardline “praise in public” adage falls short.

positive reinforcement in bbs programsSome individuals are not positively reinforced by public praise

If you were trying to train a dog to jump through hoops, how would you choose to positively reward the dog for performing well? Sound choices include dog treats, petting, or verbal praise, because dogs tend to like those things; those are rewards dogs will want to work for. If you were trying to reinforce your video-game loving child for getting good grades in school, you might reward them with extra screen time. But why can’t you reward your dog with a new xBox? Because that, to the dog, is not a reward, so it will never be effective.

Imagine an introverted worker performs well, and is then called out in a morning safety meeting in front of the entire crew. Instead of feeling proud and reinforced for his excellent performance, the worker will feel embarrassed, nervous, and will dread future public displays. This could do so much damage that the worker will avoid performing anywhere above “average” in the future. It could not only deter that worker, but could also put off other shy or introverted workers within the group from performing on a high level.

Some workers will feel motivated by seeing their coworkers praised in public, but others will not. Reinforcement techniques must be tailored to the subject, or they are completely ineffective and, at worst, damaging; public praise may feel more like a punishment to some individuals. A better adage here would be “know your people.” If your aim is to positively reinforce high performing employees, learn what they care about and what will reinforce their behaviors. This does put a damper on the “motivating other employees to do well, too, by doing it in public” thing, but it’s not worth throwing an introverted employee under the proverbial bus to do that.

THE POINT …

Just like all adages and tidbits of advice, “criticize in private, praise in public” has a few exceptions worth considering. Handy sayings are helpful and easy to remember, but it’s better to take them with a grain of salt and always act according to the situation and the extenuating circumstances.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sierra Morris resides in Fort Polk, LA
with her husband and two dogs. Still relatively new to the OSH world,
Morris seeks to make sense of occupational safety and health
issues through a lens of behavioral and social psychology.

sierra morris

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