Leadership Caffeine™: How to Appropriately Respond to Positive Praise

It’s easy to start believing the praise you hear in the hallways about your leadership approach. Easy and dangerous.

I’ve always been leery of the unfounded and saccharine-sweet praise that is bestowed upon leaders. While you may call me cynical, I prefer to think of myself as pragmatic.

Praise goeth before the fall:

Your employees may genuinely like and respect you however, the best measure of your performance is not their praise for you, but rather, it’s their performance on your team.

We like to hear nice things about ourselves, and employees are quick to figure out that you respond positively to their praise. If there were an Office Olympics, Boss-Praise would be a major medal category. If there’s even the remotest evidence that you respond favorably to subtle or blatant sucking up, I guarantee that you’ll be buried under an avalanche of false praise. You need to maintain objectivity at all times. A hunger for praise will compromise that objectivity.

You start over and earn your leadership credibility every single day. Start believing your own press clippings and you’re likely to back off of your own performance accelerator. Take the praise too seriously, and you’re likely to back off the accelerator, pop the performance gear into neutral and start coasting. Downhill.

As for the boss offering up praise for your work, we really love to hear it. However, knowing that most managers struggle to deliver the constructive kind of feedback, the positive praise may very well be a misguided attempt to manage you by feeding your ego. It’s easier to make you feel good than it is to highlight specific instances where YOU need to improve.  And yes, many, many managers will dispense general positive praise only, due to their fear of offering effective constructive criticism.

Five Ideas for Coping with Positive Praise:

Yeah, I know. The words are nice to hear. They help you define your own sense of self-worth. We all want to be appreciated.  There are some good habits in coping with positive praise, including:

1. Always receive praise graciously. In spite of my apparent cynicism on this topic, it is possible that the praise you are receiving is genuine and heartfelt.

2. Look for the nuggets that explain what you did that merited the praise. You want to find the behaviors that are appreciated and reinforce them in your daily activities.

3. Teach people through your response to praise. In an environment where it appears people are seeking favor through praise, politely counter with statements like, “Thank you. Now, what is it that I can do better to help this team succeed?” After a few rounds of those, people will begin to understand that you don’t respond to disingenuous praise, and importantly, they will see that you are truly focused on improving your daily performance. That attitude and habit is infectious.

4. Put a positive-praising boss at ease by seeking out the constructive feedback. Once you clearly communicate that you genuinely like the constructive input, the boss’s fear of feedback may melt.

5. Teach your team how to dispense proper positive praise. Liberally dispense positive praise of your own. Ensure that it is behavioral and tied to the business.  Your team members will quickly catch on to the pattern.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Always remember that you’re not working for praise, you’re working for results.  Measure your success not in the words of others, but in how well your team members succeed and grow as professionals. Experienced leaders know that the highest form of praise that they can receive is watching those that they’ve supported go on to successful roles and careers. And every once in awhile, someone will look back and say, “Thank you.” Now that’s praise that you can take to heart.

By |2016-10-22T17:11:45+00:00December 13th, 2010|Career, Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|16 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Jim Struck December 13, 2010 at 12:59 pm - Reply

    I’m always coaching people “don’t take it personally” when dealing with what they perceive is a person criticizing them. Interestingly enough, listening to positive feedback gets the same “don’t take it personally” for all the reason Art talk about. Sometimes it is harder to deal appropriately with praise because we have conditioned ourselves to listen for the negative. This requires an equal amount of focus on the end game (results) if not more.


    • Art Petty December 13, 2010 at 1:13 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Jim. Wise words! -Art

  2. davidburkus December 14, 2010 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    Wise words. Great, concise summary: “the best measure of your performance is not their praise for you, but rather, it’s their performance on your team.”

  3. Andrew Meyer December 14, 2010 at 10:20 pm - Reply

    There’s an old Army saying that anytime you receive a compliment, it’s really a warning. Furthermore, be sure to thank the person for warning you about what you need to be careful of.

    • Art Petty December 15, 2010 at 6:17 am - Reply

      Andy, you did a brilliant job summing up my paranoid self…especially when the compliment comes from someone that you’ve not always seen eye to eye with. Nice add! David, thanks! If I could just find that one sentence in every post that negates the need for the rest, my writing life would be so much easier! Thanks to both for commenting! -Art

  4. Glenda Worrell December 15, 2010 at 7:12 am - Reply

    Praise can be good, but in my book, not so heavily weighed as to take one off track. This quote has stuck with me and served me well since my teen years: “My advice to you concerning applause is this: enjoy it but never quite believe it.” – Robert Montgomery

    • Art Petty December 15, 2010 at 7:14 am - Reply

      Glenda, great quotes and words to live by! Thanks for sharing. -Art

  5. Dan Tubbs December 15, 2010 at 8:37 am - Reply

    Thanks, Art…I really appreciate #3…as Head of School, I try to teach at every opportunity and you’ve given me a great idea on how to intentionally teach others (and myself) to focus on results, not flattery.

    • Art Petty December 15, 2010 at 8:41 am - Reply

      Dan, I’m glad that the message resonated and pleased that you will pay it forward. Thanks! -Art

  6. Scott Asai December 15, 2010 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    “Praise goeth before a fall.” – Brilliant! Don’t let past success lead to complacency. You learn more from your losses than your wins.

    • Art Petty December 15, 2010 at 6:14 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Scott! -Art

  7. Pete Walsh December 21, 2010 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Thanks Art!

    What I like most about what you said is reminding leaders to keep themselves (and their team) focused on specific behaviors that lead to business . Too often people give broad praise, “thank you”, “nice effort “, ”good job”, none of which really trains people about the desired behaviors that lead to results.
    We are linguistic beings. When leaders can understand this, and take meticulous care for the words they use, they can see how every small exchange is an opportunity for training and reinforcing high-performance. When the whole leadership team becomes meticulous with their words it has exponential impact on the organization.

    • Art Petty December 21, 2010 at 1:42 pm - Reply

      Pete, I love your perspective on the whole leadership team becoming meticulous with their words. That phrase of yours is worthy of another blog post (or book chapter) on its own! Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. -Art

  8. William Seidman December 29, 2010 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    This is a great post. My organization has developed and deployed a number of transformational leadership programs based around “positive deviant” leaders in an organization. One of the key attributes that always emerges from these great leaders is “authenticity,” meaning that the leader is a real person who can be trusted to be honest and forthright. It has been amazing to me how easily praise — false or not — can disrupt authenticity. It is so easy to believe praise and come to believe that it is actually who we are.

    There is a graet book written on this topic by Sydney Finkelstein called Why Smart Executives Fail. A lot of what he presents directly supports the idea that false praise distorts authenticity and leads to serious problems.

    • Art Petty December 29, 2010 at 12:14 pm - Reply

      William, thanks for sharing your insights and the reference to Sydney’s book! -Art

  9. […] take a complement? Art Petty tells us  How to Appropriately Respond to Positive Praise posted at Management Excellence. Hey Art, you’re one of my favorite leadership bloggers and […]

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