Build an Attractive Workplace Culture: Private Critique, Public Praise

Author’s Note: This is Part Two of the Build an Attractive Workplace Culture Series

History shows us that fear, intimidation, heavy-handed authority, and let-me-put-you-in-your-place-ness are effective leadership tactics. Tyrants, despots, dictators, politicians, angry parents, desperate coaches, and playground bullies have employed them successfully for centuries.

But leadership tactics to what end?

Control, rapid compliance, domination, and artificial respect. But are those the goals of true leadership?

The primary goal of workplace leadership—all leadership, for that matter—is not control. It is the flourishing of the teams they lead.

And few things discourage flourishing more than a leader who publicly critiques employees. But just what do we mean by public critique?

Public Critique is not…

When we speak of public critique, we are not referring to:

  • collaborative team meetings with the expressed purpose of brainstorming new ideas
  • group review of internal work
  • online comment threads responding to requests for feedback on work done by an individual employee
  • appropriate public correction of toxic public behavior committed by an employee

These examples are healthy, social opportunities to look at work and behavior and refine it.

Holding back a kindly delivered opinion on the effectiveness of work does not contribute to team flourishing. It delays progress, undercuts quality and excellence, and provides employees with a false impression of their performance.

Likewise, failing to publicly address toxic public behavior committed by an employee sends all the wrong messages to a team. It communicates that the organization tolerates unprofessionalism and creates a breeding ground for poor performance and employee bitterness.

These actions and circumstances are not what we mean by public critique.

Public critique is…

Public critique is bringing public attention to undesirable employee behavior that could be effectively addressed privately.

There is only one reason to give public critique, and that is to emotionally manipulate or take social revenge on an employee. Unhealthy, insecure leaders do this. Healthy, secure leaders don’t. If private critique will get the job done, then public critique is unnecessary and embarrassing.

Examples of public critique include:

  • Publicly blaming a specific employee for poor or incorrect work delivered to a third party instead of apologizing on behalf of the team
  • Publicly addressing individual employee deficiencies in soft skills and professional manner
  • Bringing public attention to otherwise unseen, low-impact individual mistakes

The next time you are tempted to address the shortcomings of one of your employees publicly, ask yourself why. What stands to be gained? Most of the time, if we’re honest, our answer boils down to wanting to put the employee in their place. To let them know who’s boss and who’s not. To let them know in front of others that we are disappointed. And doing this publicly strokes our ego and makes the worst side of us feel good (for a fleeting moment, anyway).

If you bring public attention to something negative that you could effectively address privately, you are no longer leading. Not truly leading, anyways.

You are just being unkind.

Kind leaders who sincerely desire the flourishing of their teams will engage in private critique. They will also engage in…

Public Praise

At Colour Outside we have a culture of public praise.

I attribute much of it to my partner, Gavin. Gav is incredible at lots of things, but he’s a world-class encourager. He can find a way to make anyone feel good about themselves. He’s overflowing with sincere compliments, good-natured joking, and all-around appreciation for others. And he and I have taken the opportunity to make our team the target of this positivity.

We have adopted long-standing public jokes and sayings about the unique importance of each of our team members.

I’ve often referred to Natalie as our “secret sauce.” She’s the level up for all our work. She’s so good at so many things, and when we need something to be better, we involve her.

Ciara has “the Geiger Effect.” Almost immediately after we hired her we saw an unprecedented boost in contracts and business revenue. Just the other day I sat down to have coffee with her and within five minutes a prospective client had emailed me accepting the terms of a valuable contract. The Geiger Effect.

And we’re “helpless without Scott.” Walking around blind. Stumbling. Not sure what we’re doing. Scott is our glue, the engine that keeps everyone moving and accomplishing our common goals.

I share these examples because the power of public praise can’t be overstated. These nicknames, these sayings, these exaggerated-but-largely-true expressions of appreciation create an attractive workplace culture.

They let people know they are valued in front of others.

When people know they’re valued, they stay longer at jobs, promote your brand, and deliver better work. When teams know they’re valued, teams flourish. And when this valuing is done publicly, the effect is magnified.

A Personal Story

I once had an employee—we’ll call him Daniel—who made a costly mistake. Daniel was a talented designer on my design team, and he was working on a print project for a client who had a tight deadline for delivery of their new publication.

Our team had an internal policy that every client must sign off on the proof from the printing press prior to going ahead with the official print run. It wasn’t enough for one of our employees to review the images and copy and give the press the go-ahead. If we printed something erroneous for a client, we didn’t want to be responsible for the error. The downside of this policy is workflows took longer. Involving a client in proof approval required more hours and sometimes more days, depending on their availability.

In a well-intentioned effort to meet the client’s deadline, Daniel took it upon himself to review the proof and give the press the go-ahead. As you likely guessed, the publication ran with a key error, and the client noticed this error right away.

We had no recourse, had to take responsibility, and ended up paying thousands of dollars to reprint the corrected publication for our client.

A great opportunity for public critique in our next team meeting, right? No.

None of our other team members knew of the error. And none of them needed to. I corrected Daniel privately, and I took the opportunity to send an email to our team reminding them of our policy. But I excluded the story that prompted my email.

Daniel has since moved on to another job (he was too good to keep around for any jobs I could offer him), but he still seeks me out to this day for professional advice and for references. I think that’s a good sign.

Justin Schoonmaker

Like what you read?