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 issueBy 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.
Is 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.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Devious 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.
- 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.
- Before 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.
- Passive 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
- Exasperation 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?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And 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.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.
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.