“Praise in Public, Criticize in Private” is Bad Advice

Jake Wilder
6 min readApr 28, 2022

Just Because Everyone Says It Doesn’t Mean It’s True

Photo: iStock

It’s often said that the more we hear something, the greater our tendency to believe it. It’s called the illusory truth effect and it preys on our availability bias, that human tendency where we associate the importance of something with how easily we can remember it. If you read the news or spend any time on social media, you’ve no doubt seen the effects. As different ideas and statements become more familiar to people, they stop questioning them and adopt them as facts.

Management’s not immune to this tendency either, with one of the prime offenders being the oft-repeated trope, “praise in public, criticize in private.” It’s fairly self-explanatory, but if you’ve never heard it, it’s the belief that managers should always give people praise in public while saving criticism for private conversations.

It’s catchy and somewhat intuitive, so it’s not surprising that it’s frequently repeated as a management rule. And yet, it’s wrong. Here’s why.

Don’t Praise in Public… Praise as People Prefer to Receive It

I recently saw a story where a French company tried to reward one of its employees with a ride in a fighter jet. It sounds like fun, yet this employee had never expressed any desire to fly in a fighter jet. The incident report notes that he was clearly stressed, showing a heartbeat of 140+ bpm, and said he felt pressured into boarding. As the plane took off and began to go through aerial maneuvers, the passenger panicked and grabbed the nearest handle… which just happened to activate the ejector seat.

Fortunately, he sustained only minor injuries after landing in a field a few miles away.

This employee clearly didn’t want his reward. Instead of understanding what their employee wanted, his manager and coworkers decided to push their preference onto him. And in doing so, took a positive situation and turned it into a potential disaster. This example may be extreme, but it’s similar to how most managers choose to handle praise — they insist on giving it in public, even though most people prefer to receive it in private.

Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.