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

Build an Attractive Workplace Culture: It’s Time We Get Serious About Work/Life Balance

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

For ease of communication, this blog series assumes a traditional American 8am-5pm, Monday through Friday work schedule. You may hear phrases like “the weekend,” or “8-5.” If that doesn’t apply to you, your job, or your industry, don’t let that throw you. Many people (e.g. nurses, teachers, etc.) work alternate schedules and shifts. That’s great! Apply these principles to whatever standardized work schedule you have.

Series Intro

In decades past, America’s workforce cared primarily about being gainfully, steadily employed. A positive workplace environment, if considered a relevant factor at all, was largely looked at as an afterthought or treated like a bonus. The prevailing mindset was that employees should be thankful for the jobs they had. Yes, things could always be better. But at least you had a job. And don’t you forget it.

Today things are different. And The Great Resignation is merely highlighting, not introducing, those differences. Now more than ever, employees care about workplace culture. They not only care about what things are done, but how things are done.

For employers, this can be hard to embrace. It can be tempting to ask why you should put in the additional effort to cultivate an attractive workplace culture. After all, your employees work for you, right? Why should you have to pay them and care about all those intangible factors? Who has the energy for that when trying to run a department or a company?

The reality is that if you lean into that attitude, one of two things will happen. Either your business will fail due to a toxic workplace culture, or worse, your business will succeed. You will muscle your way into financial gain while losing everything that truly matters along the way. But is that success?

(Hint: the answer is no.)

Here is the most valuable lesson I have learned in business: there is nothing more important to your brand than how you treat people, most of all your employees. Many companies ask their employees to climb on the sacrificial altar of brand. Don’t do it. Your employees are your brand. Tend to them, and you will tend to your brand. Neglect them, and you will neglect your brand.

In this multi-part Colouring Book series, we’re going to offer many different ways to cultivate an attractive workplace culture. Most of them are efforts you can begin today that will cost you nothing financially. But they will cost you your pride. In the end, your organization will attract better talent, retain that talent, and–best of all–inspire and energize its people rather than burn them out.

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Part 1: It’s Time We Get Serious About Work/Life Balance

For a (very) small percentage of people out there, work is life. This rare breed of human isn’t looking to wrap up work at 5pm. They view the weekend as a nickname for two additional workdays, not as a respite from the work week.

But this is abnormal.

The challenge is that a disproportionately high number of business owners fall into that small percentage of the population who view work as life. In many ways this is understandable, especially if you’re a founder. You conceived the thing. Birthed the thing. Nourished the thing back from the edge of almost-didn’t-make-it. And now you look for that same commitment from your employees.

The problem is, it’s your baby, but it’s their job.

So it can be difficult when you pay people to work on your baby who want to turn off their phone notifications in the evening. But you must resist your urges and believe in what is counterintuitive to so many: your staff will be more dedicated, more loyal, and will do better work when you establish and honor strict work/life balance boundaries.

How do we do this?

1. Discourage overworking.

At Colour Outside, overworking is not a badge of honor. It’s looked at as an organizational problem.

We have a text thread for our core team members. We discuss work, share personal stories, throw GIFs and memes at each other, and more. Occasionally, work discussions will bleed past 5pm, with contributions from people hitting my notifications at 5:10 and 5:15.

I’m not weird about it, and I don’t jump down anyone’s throat if a text comes in at 5:01. But at times I’ve seen conversations continued (or begun) at 5:15 or 5:30, and I’ve kindly stepped in. “Hey guys, great thoughts. This is definitely something for us to talk about. Let’s hit this in our team meeting tomorrow. Go enjoy the night!”

This is my way of saying, “Hey, work is over for the day. Go do something else with your time. Be with your friends or your family. Go work out. Go invest time in your hobby.” I know that when my employees are free to invest in and enjoy the broader aspects of their lives, workplace flourishing will occur more naturally.

2. Model shifting gears…

…daily. As mentioned, we don’t text or call our employees after 5pm (or before 8am). On the rare occasion that I email them outside those times, I usually include a comment to let them know I’m not looking for a response until the upcoming business day. I’ve stopped doing this recently because my staff now knows this about me and knows they aren’t required to look at emails outside business hours.

I know many professionals who check work email in off hours. Outside of emergencies, I don’t. So unless my four children give me a bored hour in the evening (did you hear the sarcasm there?), I shut down around 5pm every day and don’t look at work email until the next business day.

…while on vacation. When I go on vacation or take a day off, I inform my staff ahead of time. If you’re in a very hands-on role in your organization, this may require you to plan so that you can provide your staff with what they need to be successful in your absence. In the days leading up to my absence, I will often remind them of my upcoming time off and remind them to get whatever they need from me before I shut down. Because once I shut down, I shut down.

I have had many colleagues throughout my career who have a habit of checking work emails while on vacation. I’ve asked some of them about this. Sometimes it’s because they prefer to check in on work here and there to address little things while away rather than deal with a backlog of communication and tasks upon their return. I’m not like that.

If I don’t turn work off mentally, I won’t be present with my family on vacation, and I won’t enjoy myself. I must step away completely. And so, I model this for my staff. I make myself available via text for true emergencies, and I tell them not to contact me by phone otherwise. And oh–I’ll check email when I get back.

3. Celebrate personal events.

Organizations that neglect to acknowledge personal milestones in the lives of their employees are missing a wonderful opportunity. People want to know that they’re seen and valued, and this includes seeing and valuing those closest to them.

As a company, we’ve done this in many ways over the years, including:

  • Spending extended time during business meetings discussing exciting personal news (e.g. engagements, marriages, births, bucket list trips, home renovations, etc.)
  • Gifting employees with additional PTO
  • Paying for meals for individuals, couples, and even whole families
  • Sending marriage anniversary cards to home addresses
  • Sending birthday cards with gift cards for frozen yogurt, coffee, or online retailers to employees and their immediate family members
  • Posting personal news to corporate social media and/or newsletters

On the flip side, we’ve also acknowledged difficult circumstances like extended illness, bereavement, and other life valleys with similar tactics.

4. Celebrate and respect their time off.

We don’t send our employees off into their vacations begrudgingly. There have been times I’ve been inwardly panicking, wondering how we’re going to get X, Y, and Z done while a staff member is away. But I do my best not to let them see whatever inward anxiety I have (which, coincidentally, is usually a result of poor planning on my part). No one wants to feel guilty on the plane to Hawaii.

Instead, we talk excitedly about it in the days leading up to time away. Not long ago, one of our key employees left on parental leave with the birth of a new child. Although I asked that this person put plans in place for their time away, we talked up their upcoming leave enthusiastically. We asked what their plans were and if they were looking forward to it. We wanted them to leave knowing they had the support of their employer.

Not only do we celebrate time off, we respect it. While our staff is off or away on vacation, we don’t reach out to them by phone unless it’s a true emergency. And even then, it’s not to request work from them but only to request what information is necessary to enable work on our end. This has introduced inconvenience to our active staff on many occasions. It would have been easier to just request an hour of the vacationing staff member’s time. But we draw a hard line and instead only request minimally viable participation in addressing the emergency.

5. Don’t overcommit your staff.

It can be tempting to take on a new client or to promise an unrealistic delivery timeline in hopes of securing more revenue. I’ve been there, and I’ve made the wrong choice at times.

If that’s you, name your mistake and own it. If you require your staff to be inconvenienced to serve the customer rather than inconveniencing your customer with a delay to protect your staff, you are sending a message: This one client matters more than my people. And, as my wife and I say in our household with our children, you’re not sowing good seed.

This has occasionally happened at Colour Outside. But we never ask our employees to take the hit for it. We ask the client, or ourselves (the owners), to take the hit. In order of preferred protocol, we will:

  • request additional time from the client,
  • request additional time from another client whose deliverables aren’t as time-sensitive,
  • hire a contractor to fill in the gap for us, or
  • as a last resort, work extra as owners to get the job done (if the tasks fall within the scope of our professional expertise)

I recall only one time that we broke these rules, and I requested help from one of our employees after hours to deal with an emergency. But first I tried to fix the problem myself and couldn’t. Our employee was very gracious because we had created a culture in which he knew that if we were asking for help late at night, we were in a true bind.

We bought dinner for his family the next day. Did we have to? No. But we wanted to send a message: That’s not normal, we don’t expect that from you, and we thank you for giving time out of your personal schedule to help us.

6. Set client expectations and provide off-hour business continuity.

Colour Outside’s staff doesn’t work nights and weekends. This can be a challenge for clients whose businesses are on 24/7. For example, we build websites for online retailers whose stores are never closed. Although we employ best practices when building and deploying websites, technology is not impervious to disruption. It’s possible, though very unlikely, that a site could experience an issue when we aren’t working.

Recently, we launched Popilush, an online shapewear retailer. We named them, branded them, designed them, messaged them, built them, everything-ed them. And due to the requests of associates in their overseas partnership, they wanted to launch the brand and store on a weekend.

So did we work the weekend? Nope.

Instead, we got creative. We made alternate plans with our client to launch the site on Friday but to withhold promotion until the weekend. That way, the most technical side of the launch would be done ahead of time for when we were still available.

Leading up to launch weekend, we repeatedly reminded our client that our staff was unavailable on the weekend. We painted scenarios for them, saying that if there were a hypothetical weekend problem with the website, we wouldn’t be coming to their aid until Monday morning. Thankfully, the launch came and went without a hiccup. But expectation-setting was crucial so that the client would understand our behavior if things had gone wrong.

7. Differentiate between true and imposter priorities.

I wish my brain had a valve like a water faucet, where I could turn off the constant river of vision, dreams, observations, thoughts, and anxieties whenever I want. But guess what? For founders and owners, your brain doesn’t shut off.

You probably started your company or got your job at the top because of your vision and leadership and entrepreneurial spirit. To shut all that stuff off would be to shut yourself off. Not gonna happen. So what do we do?

We must learn to differentiate between true priorities and imposter priorities. True priorities are those things that have an immediate, critical, or large impact on business. Imposter priorities are those things that feel important because they represent optimization, refinement, and growth. I call them imposters because they masquerade in our heads, and possibly in our teams, as important priorities, and yet they are not. They are ideas. They represent vision. They are what can be, not what must be.

Differentiating between true and imposter priorities–make a list if you must!–will help you determine whether or not additional work outside normal schedules is a necessity. If you take the time to do this, I bet you will find that most of the true priorities in your organization can be addressed within a healthy work schedule.

8. Address employee productivity with compassion.

Occasionally, work won’t be completed in time due to a downturn in employee productivity. Supervisors can then be tempted to disrespect work/life balance because employees aren’t getting their work done. This is one of the most challenging issues to navigate as an employer.

Here’s some advice: don’t assume work isn’t getting done because your people aren’t working hard enough. If that’s your assumption, you are the problem. Either you don’t trust your people, or you hired (or are tolerating) unproductive employees.

If you notice a lack of productivity, you must commit to find the reason behind the lack of productivity and address it. Most professionals (but not all) are not inherently lazy people. If someone has a history of doing good work for you, or their references checked out swimmingly prior to hire, you should turn to compassion, not criticism. Give your employee the dignity of assuming something must be wrong, or out of alignment. Kindly point out that you’ve noticed they haven’t been able to complete assigned work, and ask them how they’re doing. The answer may surprise you. And then partner with them on ways to address the issue.

We all work with people. Flesh and blood people who (hopefully) have souls. It’s unrealistic and unfair to think that year in and year out, the personal lives of your employees will never have an impact on their work. In my career, I’ve had coworkers navigate divorce, spousal suicide attempts, untimely death of immediate family members, debilitating long-term illness, and many other personal upheavals. If you want to be insulated from all of this, you probably shouldn’t manage people.

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To be continued…

– Justin Schoonmaker