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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

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

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

The Roman ColosseumDevious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part I
While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control, or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Understanding the risks of these tactics can motivate you to find another way.
Red Ball Express troops stack "jerry cans" used to transport gasoline to front-line units during World War II.Inappropriate Levels of Regard
The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.
Professor Brian Kelley, retired CIA officer, speaking at The Institute of World PoliticsBefore You Blow the Whistle: II
When organizations become aware of negligence, miscalculations, failures, wrongdoing, or legal infractions, they often try to conceal the bad news. People who disagree with the concealment activity sometimes decide to reveal what the organization is trying to hide. Here's Part II of our catalog of methods used to suppress the truth.
An orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) perched on an orchidPassive Deceptions at Work
Among the vast family of workplace deceptions, those that involve camouflage are both the most common and the most difficult to detect. Here's a look at how passive camouflage can play a role in workplace deception.
Nez Perce ceremonial shirtExasperation Generators: Irrelevant Detail
When people relate stories at work, what seems important to one person can feel irrelevant to someone else. Being subjected to one irrelevant detail after another can be as exasperating as being told repeatedly to get to the point. How can we find a balance?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A railroad switchComing April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
Child's toys known as Chinese finger trapsAnd on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.