Praise in Public, Criticize in Private

Praise in Public, Criticize in Private

If Barney Fife had a funny older brother, he would’ve been like our Chief Engineer in Portland in the early 90’s.  I was the DOSM of a hotel there, with this guy, Curt. Curt was a wonderful old country guy. Not cut out for corporate environments. No, Curt was more like an old cuss cracking nervous, self-deprecating jokes.

Our regional team was in for some sort of review- monthly P&L review or a budget presentation- I don’t recall. They’d go line-by-line through every dang expense account for every department- no margin erosion would escape their scrutiny. They were really quite proud of their accounting skills. (Someone should have whispered, “it’s really not that hard”.)

So in this environment Curt was maybe a little short-armed. But my boss- now he was slick.

That boss was Bruce Fery. Great boss.

When we got to the energy usage or property maintenance or utility expense pages I noticed that for any negative anomaly, Bruce would identify the fault as his. He’d tell the regionals that he’d instructed Curt to sign a more robust elevator service agreement or buy several additional pool loungers. It was always Bruce’s fault the expense ran over.

But then, when an account was to the good, or an initiative had worked, well then Bruce was pointing a finger at Curt, saying “He did that, that was Curt’s idea.”

Bruce accepted the responsibility and distributed the praise. That guy provided air cover for Curt.

Bruce knew how to praise in public.

How about criticize in private?

Bruce was my first boss who had a weekly rap with me. What a revelation you are missing as a boss if you don’t have formal raps.  All you have to do is ask for updates last week’s notes and close by saying “What more can you do?”  Back to Bruce.  Bruce would definitely use these raps to hold me accountable. To make sure we were getting progress in the agreed upon directions. It was all conversational, but the key was it was private. Not awkward.  To the degree that Bruce criticized, it was private.

I don’t recall Bruce ever talking about Praise in Public, Criticize in Private. He just lived it.

Its sort of Management 101, yet I really don’t think it enjoys widespread usage.

Bruce was 28 or 29 when he was my boss- big hotel in Portland with two ballrooms each bigger than I would sell 25 years later at the Waldorf Astoria. A nice-sized operation where I was exposed to so many good habits from Bruce.  I wish I would’ve kept more of them.

As long as I am on this Bruce Fery ode, I’ll comment on one other tactic he used very well.  He leveraged his resources- got others’ input.

Bruce’s dad was the CEO of Boise Cascade.  Big job back then.

Bruce got in EARLY every day. Like 6:00 AM. (and like most truly high achievers-ever seen a CEO’s schedule?)

Talked to his dad every morning- first call of the day.

It may not astonish you that Bruce subsequently had well-considered opinions on the previous day’s issues and questions. He always seemed to start the day with a nuanced approach to stuff he heard yesterday.

I suspect that hotel to a degree was run out of Boise Idaho by that CEO dad of his. Meanwhile Bruce was learning every day-more than anybody.

I learned Praise in Public, Criticize in Private not as an adage, but as behaviors.  I hope as habits. I saw that motivation in Curt when his leader distributed credit to others and took the blame for those things within the team that did not go well. I experienced structured private dialogue with success as the goal. Any criticism blowing my way was just between the two of us.

One more riff on Praise in Public before I close.

Praise in Public serves several purposes:

  • It defines for others the level of performance expected
    • Don’t praise mediocrity- it just waters down your standards.
    • It shows that individual and his colleagues what your expectations are.
  • It locks in this level of performance from this particular colleague.
    • Assume a colleague answers the phone and proceeds to graciously and positively assist a grumpy client. You say ‘I wish I could maintain my composure and gentleness with the grace you do on those calls”.
    • This colleague will, at the very least whenever you are around, feel compelled to live up to that standard that SHE set. She has to!

We know that positive reinforcement for any behavior begets more of that behavior. We know this.

You don’t have to be the boss to praise in public. Nor to criticize in private.  Good teammates aren’t just the ones who cheer for you.  The best teammates bring out the best in others.

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