Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Positive feedback is different from praise

Every time I’ve written about feedback lately, I’ve made a point of mentioning that most feedback you deliver should be positive. Every time I do so, I get some questions about what, exactly, positive feedback means. In particular, it seems that many managers don’t fully understand the difference between praise and positive feedback.

Understanding this difference is important. Feedback is one of the most important tools in your management toolbox: it’s the most important form of performance communication a manager has, and the main way managers can drive performance improvement. Feedback is a must for any manager who wants to be effective. Praise is a useful tool, but it doesn’t directly map to performance the way feedback does. Praise can even be counterproductive, see below. If you’re accidentally giving praise when you think you’re giving positive feedback, you won’t see the results you expect.

What do praise and positive feedback sound like?

Here are some examples of both praise and positive feedback. See if you can pick out which is which:

  1. “Congratulations on closing that big new client!”
  2. “You had answers prepared for Joe’s tough questions in that meeting, and now he’s behind our project. Great job.”
  3. “Thanks for jumping in and helping Lisa with her question on Slack this morning.”
  4. “I saw that you shipped Feature X on time - way to go!”
  5. “I saw that you shipped Feature X exactly when you estimated, which gives everyone confidence in your estimates going forward. The work you did to build those estimates was worth the time; please keep it up.”
  6. “I saw that you’ve been coaching Bobby on his CSS skills, and today he pulled off a big style refactor on his own. Helping other folks on the team level up is super-important, I’m glad you’re doing that.”
  7. “Wow, nice job catching that data-loss bug before the feature shipped to production!”

The answers: 1, 3, 4, and 7 are praise; 2, 5, and 6 are positive feedback.

The difference between praise and positive feedback

So what’s the difference?

  • Praise is can be as simple as a “good job” or a “thanks”. Feedback, on the other hand, is much more specific: it mentions specific behavior, and the impact of that behavior.

  • Praise looks towards the past: it’s recognition for a (past) job well done. Feedback, on the other hand, is about the future: the goal of positive feedback is to encourage similar behavior in the future. Praise is about saying “thanks”; feedback is about saying “keep doing that” or “more like this please”.

  • Praise can be given in private or in public – though, see below before you do: not everyone appreciates public recognition. Feedback, like all communication about performance, should be given in private1.

This means that if you give praise, rather than feedback, you risk not getting the sustained improvement you’re hoping for. If you just say “thanks”, you have to hope that the person knows what, specifically you’re thanking them for. Maybe they think you’re encouraging some behavior other than the one you thought you were! If you’re not explicit about saying “please keep doing that”, you might not get the repeat performance you were hoping to encourage. Heck, maybe they’re so embarrassed at the public praise that they stop doing the thing you’d like them to continue!

Praise isn’t as effective in performance improvement because it only hints at what you want in the future. But good management doesn’t involve hints. Feedback drives performance improvement because it explicitly calls out the positive behavior and asks for more of it.

Using praise properly

This isn’t to say that praise isn’t important. Many people find praise and recognition important: it can be important for people to hear that their work is important or appreciated. If someone’s just had a big win – fixing a production incident quickly, or closing a sale, or shipping a big new feature – the “congratulations!” can feel really good.

Publicly recognizing and thanking someone for their work (i.e. in a team-wide email, at a weekly all-hands, etc) can be particularly important as an aspect of sponsorship: part of sponsorship is making the sponsee’s work, and its value, visible.

However, not everyone wants or needs praise, and you don’t have to give praise to everyone to be a great manager. If someone on your team doesn’t need or want praise, you can safely not give them praise or recognition. This is not true of feedback: you need to be giving regular feedback, most of it positive, to everyone on your team.

Giving praise can be trickier than you might think. While some people like (or even require) praise, not everyone finds it important. Some even find it uncomfortable. I’m one of them: I don’t like getting praise, particularly in public; it makes me feel weird and uncomfortable. And I’m not alone: I had this conversation with a friend in Slack the other day:

B—: so part of {company’s} agile retros include “shout outs”

B—: weeks I get a shout out: “wow am I doing so poorly that I need a pick-me-up?”

B—: weeks i don’t get a shout out: “whelp guess i’m getting fired”

The person running these retros intends these “shout-outs” to be a fun, team-building moment… but he hasn’t considered how they distress some members of his team.

I’m not trying to argue against using praise at all. Many people do appreciate it. But you should make sure to understand what the folks on your team want before you dive in. I suggest asking people on your team a few questions:

  • Do you like receiving praise for your work?
  • Do you prefer public recognition, or do you want to hear about it in private?
  • What medium do you prefer for recognition – Slack, email, face-to-face, etc.?

Once you know these things, you can now use praise in a way that doesn’t trigger some of these potential unintended consequences.

However you decide to approach using praise, it’s vital to understand how it differs from positive feedback. If you’re not giving regular feedback, most of it positive, all the praise in the world won’t do much.

This article was originally published May 12th, 2021, and substantially updated on May 19th. The original draft could be read as arguing against praise entirely, which isn’t an argument I’d intended to make. I’ve updated the post to better highlight the value of recognition, and to more clearly make this an argument for positive feedback, and not against praise. Speaking of public recognition: thanks to Sumana Harihareswara for the feedback and conversation that led to these edits! And yes, I checked with Sumana to make sure that public praise was something she wanted in this situation 🙂.

  1. “Always give feedback privately” is a good rule to start with for folks who are new to giving feedback. But it’s one of those rules where once you know and understand it, you may want to break it occasionally. There are situations where giving positive feedback in public can be a good move, but it’s something you should approach carefully. In particular, be sure that the person receiving the feedback will be happy about hearing it in public. ↩︎