The former CEO of Twitter says there’s a right and a wrong way to praise your employees

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“Managing while trying to be liked is the path to ruin,” said Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter.
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Steve Jennings / Stringer

Everyone likes a compliment – including employees.

Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter, told Kim Scott and Russ Laraway of podcast Radical Candor that “one of the greatest things you can do as a leader” is to give employees “informal, in-the-moment, specific praise.”

There is, however, a right and wrong way to go about it.

In an episode called “Ruinous Empathy and Praise,” Costolo said one of the most common mistakes among managers and bosses is giving ineffective praise, or giving praise to make the person feel good, which can lead to what he calls “ruinous empathy.”

“Managing while trying to be liked is the path to ruin,” said Costolo. Along with trying to be liked, he said, the worst things a manager can do are give very generic praise, or give praise when the person didn’t do anything to deserve it.

“You can end up throwing someone under the bus if [praise] is half-baked or ill-informed,” Costolo said. He recounts a mistake he made as CEO: He praised only the tech lead, Dan, on a front-end web development team during an all-hands meeting.

Dan later emailed Costolo and asked him to let the other people on his team know that he didn’t specifically ask for credit because he didn’t want to seem like a jerk. Trying to be nice, Costolo had unknowingly created a rift between this one member of the team and the rest of the group. He then emailed the entire team, praising the group on their accomplishments on making the front end of Twitter’s website more responsive.

The lesson? You have to be careful when giving informal praise or feedback. “Don’t call out one person and then say ‘everybody else.'”

So how do you do it right? Podcast co-hosts Scott and Laraway share the following tips, based on their conversation with Costolo:

1. ‘Spend just as much time preparing to praise as you do preparing to criticize.’

“It’s just as important to get the facts right with praise as it is with criticism. Take time in advance to understand the work, who did the work, and the context,” said Scott. Being specific and complete, e.g. writing down names of everyone on the team, is important, as in the example with Costolo and Dan.

2. ‘Make sure your praise clearly identifies both what was good and why it was good.’

“Set the context for folks to understand why what they did mattered at all to this business or this team, and what specific work or behavior led to what specific impact,” said Laraway. It is important to do this in preparation to giving praise. “The key is to remember that the purpose of praise is to show people what success looks like and to show the person you’re praising what you or the organization or team values, not to help someone feel good.”

3. ‘If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.’

“Don’t just hand out random ‘attaboy’ compliments,'” said Scott. ‘If it’s something you would say to your dog, it’s not good praise.”

Keeping these guidelines in mind, she encourages leaders to give praise generously.”Do remember to hand out a lot of praise that’s meaningful,” she said. “Don’t back off your good intention of giving three times as much praise as criticism.”