Most managers have probably heard the phrase “praise in public; criticize in private.” It simply means that when you have something positive to say about a team member, make sure others are aware of the praise, but if you are issuing a correction or reprimand, handle it one-on-one.
It’s a long-standing mantra in management circles. Some say the tactic dates back as early as 35 BC and has been embraced by people like Catherine the Great and Vince Lombardi.
What’s the Rationale?
There are many reasons the “praise in public; criticize in private” rule has become so popular. On the praise side, praising in public pumps up the self-esteem of the worker being praised because the person is being shown off as an example of desirable behavior in front of his or her colleagues. It’s also a great way to demonstrate to others what desirable behavior looks like. Praising in public, therefore, serves as a teaching tool.
On the criticism side, handling it privately avoids the converse situation: an employee being publicly shamed in front of his or her peers. This can create resentment and damage morale—not only for the employee being criticized but also for others!
The Drawback of the Rule
Despite its widespread acceptance, there are plenty who find flaws with the “praise in public; criticize in private” rule. As Roger Schwarz writes in an article for Harvard Business Review, a primary critique of the rule is that it “can be a dangerous adage to follow because it significantly reduces accountability, the quality of team decisions, and your team’s ability to manage itself.”
Just as public praise sets an example of desirable behavior, public criticism sets an example of behavior that is not valued or encouraged. The risk many commentators see with private criticism is that the rest of the team will see little consequence from negative actions until they themselves are the offenders.
One strategy many managers employ with the public versus private criticism approach is somewhat of a hybrid. Publicly highlighting undesirable behavior doesn’t necessarily require shaming an individual.
It is sometimes possible to discuss the situation with the rest of the team with language like “an employee recently did ABC” or “this could have been avoided had it not been for the fact that a team member failed to do XYZ.”
“Praise in public; criticize in private” is an age-old mantra utilized by countless managers across a broad spectrum of industries and fields. While the wisdom of public praise is readily accepted, some question the universal wisdom of private criticism.
Managers should not apply the rule blindly and should consider what situations may warrant a more public review of offending behavior for the benefit of the broader team.