Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 20;   May 19, 2010: The Perils of Political Praise

The Perils of Political Praise

by

Political Praise is any public statement, praising (most often) an individual, and including a characterization of the individual or the individual's deeds, and which spins or distorts in such a way that it advances the praiser's own political agenda, possibly at the expense of the one praised.
President Harry S. Truman, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, meeting at Wake Island, 14 October 1950

President Harry S. Truman, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, meeting at Wake Island, 14 October 1950. Six months later, in what was at the time an extremely controversial decision, Truman would replace MacArthur, because of MacArthur's public statements questioning Truman's policies vis-à-vis the Korean War. In an address to the nation, Truman explained his policies, and announced the replacement of Gen. MacArthur with Gen. Ridgway. In his announcement, he praised Gen. MacArthur's work and record, and expressed deep regret about the need for a change.

This speech provides an excellent illustration of Truman's scrupulous avoidance of the tactic of political praise described here. The President could have approached this situation differently. He could have used the tactic to both advance his policy agenda and replace Gen. MacArthur. But he chose instead to defend and explain his policy to the American people, and to praise Gen. MacArthur independently of that policy. Political praise of the general might have been more advantageous to the President, but it would certainly have been an unaccustomed departure from the President's straightforward, the-buck-stops-here approach to everything he did. Read the full text of the President's address. Photo courtesy the Truman Library.

When someone praises you publicly, instead of objectively reporting your praiseworthy deeds, the praise sometimes characterizes them in a particularly self-serving way. If you don't object to the characterization right then and there, you might seem to approve the characterization. If you do object, you risk appearing ungrateful. For the one praised, political praise can be lose-lose.

For example, suppose you had been ordered by your supervisor to cancel a project that you championed, and which you truly believe is essential to organizational success. You argued passionately against cancellation, but you failed. Your supervisor then required you to "explain the cancellation as being in the organization's best long-term interests." Several months later, in a meeting with you, your boss, his peers, and his supervisor, he praises you for your "courageous and selfless" decision to terminate the project voluntarily. You're disgusted by the misrepresentation, but what can you do?

When political praise happens once or rarely, it could be a mistake. But if the praiser has a pattern of doing this, it might be an act of intention. As such, it's unethical, because it's based on a deprivation of personal freedom.

Here's how it works: The praiser counts on the praisee's unwillingness to dispute the characterization, because of the praisee's desire to receive the benefits of the praise, or to avoid appearing petty or insubordinate. Thus, in exchange for meting out some (often grudging) praise, the praiser has an unchallenged opportunity to characterize the deed or decision so as to fit the praiser's agenda, which might be counter to the praisee's agenda. In effect, by praising someone magnanimously, the praiser advances the praiser's agenda.

What can you do?

As the praisee
Not much. Most praisee responses intended to dispute the characterization portion of political praise will seem petty and vindictive. The cost of trying to put things right usually exceeds the benefits by a substantial amount.
As a bystander
Bystanders have many more options. The more neutral the bystander's position seems relative to the dispute at hand, the more powerful will be any stated objections. Supervisors of political praisers
can deal with political praise
as a performance issue
By disputing any unfair characterization, while affirming the generously offered praise, the bystander will seem — and will actually be — fair and objective. The bystander thus elevates the ethical standard for the organization, and reduces the benefits of political praise.
As a supervisor of a political praiser
Supervisors of political praisers can deal with political praise as a performance issue. Require the praiser to apologize privately to the praisee, and to make a public statement correcting any unfair characterizations. Require advance approval of both the apology and the correcting statement, and let the praiser know that future incidents will be dealt with more severely.

At your next opportunity to praise someone, think carefully about how you phrase it. If you were the praisee, how would it feel? Go to top Top  Next issue: Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: I  Next Issue

For more about scope creep, see "Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for July 18, 2012; "More Indicators of Scopemonging," Point Lookout for August 29, 2007; "Scopemonging: When Scope Creep Is Intentional," Point Lookout for August 22, 2007; "Some Causes of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for September 4, 2002; "The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Strategy," Point Lookout for June 29, 2011; and "The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration," Point Lookout for June 22, 2011.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbreneMrcaeoZxszqDjTiner@ChacHNrijPlHmZzsraOgoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1846, in a charcoal portrait by artist Eastman JohnsonA Critique of Criticism: II
To make things better, we criticize, but we often miss the mark. We inflict pain without meaning to, and some of that pain comes back to us. How can we get better outcomes, while reducing the risks of inflicting pain?
A Hug-Free Zone posterUnwanted Hugs from Strangers
Some of us have roles at work that expose us to unwanted hugs from people we don't know. After a while, this experience can be far worse than merely annoying. How can we deal with unwanted hugs from strangers?
Comparison of energy consumption of compact fluorescent bulbs with incandescent bulbsWhat Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: II
When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
Langston Hughes, poet and leader of the Harlem RenaissanceThat Was a Yes-or-No Question: II
When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap.
A particularly complicated but well-ordered utility poleThe Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: II
Complex organizational processes can delay action. They can set people against one other and prevent organizations from achieving their objectives. In this Part II of our examination of these complexities, we look into what keeps processes complicated, and how to deal with them.

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Srinivasa RamanujanComing August 2: Linear Thinking Bias
When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're less than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution. Available here and by RSS on August 2.
A hot dog with mustard on a bunAnd on August 9: Counterproductive Knowledge Workplace Behavior: II
In knowledge-oriented workplaces, counterproductive work behavior takes on forms that can be rare or unseen in other workplaces. Here's Part II of a growing catalog. Available here and by RSS on August 9.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenWejbdIZydiBqvhduner@ChacUkOXcZufeYfQThrWoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.