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.

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