my bosses praise me so much that it’s embarrassing

A reader writes:

I realize this is not the worst problem to have, but here it is:

My bosses — and even some of my at-level peers — talk a lot about how good I am at my job. It is a steady stream of praise that seems like it should be gratifying but is actually grating. I just heard from the people who took over my previous job when I started on a new project that they have been told over and over again how big the shoes they have to fill are which is probably not very motivating to a new team. And it’s embarrassing. And it isn’t particularly true — I ask for help, I make mistakes, I muddle through things I don’t really know how to do just to keep things moving forward.

Being well-respected has its upsides — promotions, training opportunities, interesting work. But it has its downsides, too. Workwise, it means people don’t push back on my ideas, while we work in an environment where pushback is essential to ensuring that our thinking covers all the angles. I also worry that coworkers will — or already do? — resent me for how much focus I get.

Is there a way to change or downplay overbearing praise? I can’t just tell people three rungs above me on the hierarchy that I don’t want their praise. Nor can I just stop doing good work. If I am in the conversation, I aim to sort of laugh it off in and give “it’s all a team effort” type responses, but even that’s not an option if I’m being lauded to other people when I am not even there!

Should I be doing something else?

Can you share the praise? By which I mean, can you cite specific contributions of others? By name? If your boss is talking about how talented you are at X, can you say, “I’ll tell you who’s been crucial to that — Patricia, because she’s amazing at (specific thing that contributes to X)”? Or “I appreciate that, and I should note that Waldemar was a huge part of that too”?

You probably can’t do that in a natural way every single time, but you can do it a lot! You can also look for other opportunities to make sure other people on your team are getting credit for their work. If people see you as someone who’s diligent about recognizing other people’s work, it’ll go a long way toward mitigating any resentment they might otherwise come to feel.

You’re right to worry that this kind of professional status can mean your ideas will get less pushback than otherwise. One way to combat that is to actively solicit pushback on your ideas, while simultaneously working to make it safe for people to offer it. For example:

* “I think this would be stronger if we know where its weaknesses are. Can we try to poke some holes in it to see if it stands up or not?”
* “I’m sure there are downsides to this, though — can we focus on that for a minute? If it’s six months from now and this hasn’t gone well, what do you think would be the most likely reason?”
* “Lucinda, you’re really good at seeing pieces of this kind of thing that I miss. What would worry you about this?”

Make sure you actively appreciate pushback when you get it, too. People who respond with “I’m so glad you spoke up, that’s a really good point” get more candor in the future than people who seem annoyed or dismissive.

Beyond that … look for ways to use all this capital in ways that benefit others, even if it’s behind the scenes — whether it’s advocating for a resource someone needs, or pushing back on an onerous policy, or suggesting an overlooked colleague for a project you know she’d like. People tend to pick up on it when a respected colleague works as a force for good in their office. Having significantly more influence than others isn’t always a 100% comfortable place to dwell, but using influence wisely can be a real reward (both to you and to people who work with you).

Read an update to this letter

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. Marie*

    THANK YOU FOR THIS LETTER! I am constantly asking for critical feedback at work and receiving none, to the point I feel like my growth is stunted because no one is poking holes in the fundamental ways I go about creating my work thoughts and processes. These scripts are super helpful!

    1. TechWorker*

      You might be doing this already, but when you’re asking for feedback it’s also useful to be super specific about what you’re looking for. Is it ‘how can I make sure I’m doing my job well’ (in which case the honest answer may well be ‘you are already’) or is it ‘what would I need to work on/what experience would I need to get to get promoted’ which is a slightly different question.

    2. Rainy*

      I’ve experienced this when I have managers who are more on the feelings side of things, people who just as a fundamental part of their personalities really identify with their work output as a part of themselves and feel personally attacked if that work output is critiqued in a way that isn’t sort of…using soft language and the feedback sandwich (which I always envision as a fluffernutter) and all that kind of stuff.

      I want to receive feedback that identifies where I can do better, and while I enjoy my work and want to feel valued and appreciated for it, I also want to be the best I can be. Too much soft language winds up feeling like I’m drowning in marshmallow fluff before I ever get to the actionable critique. I’ve had okay luck explaining that you can get straight to the peanut butter for me and add some marshmallow on the other side of the sandwich, but if you have a manager who’s more feelings-y, you just have to accept a certain amount of up-front marshmallow as par for the course. I think they’re often giving feedback in the way they’d want to receive it, and sometimes feel like doing anything else is rude because of their own history getting feedback from people who are more on the peanut butter side.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, this. I got no actionable feedback from a very feelings-focused manager, no matter how much I requested it. She was fairly insecure in her role and had been promoted to managing her former peers basically as the oldest member of the team. Only two people applied for that job and the other candidate was another peer who was in her early 30s and one of the youngest members of the team at the time. A few years later, when she decided to leave management altogether, the other candidate got promoted as her replacement, and it was like night and day, the second person was a much better manager.

        It’s very telling that the feelings-focused manager couldn’t deal with critical feedback at all, and our organizational culture is big on getting feedback from employees (employee satisfaction is one of our 5 core values, another is good leadership/professional management). My former manager cared about being liked more than she cared about being an effective manager and advocating for her employees. I got into trouble because I couldn’t respect her managerial authority because I saw her more as my friend. She confided in me about some very personal things like a friend would, took me to lunch, etc. and I was too naive at the time to question it. To be fair, she took other reports to lunch 1:1, too.

        Your marshmallow/peanut butter analog is interesting to me because just the thought of eating either gives me nausea…

        1. Rainy*

          Haha I used to love a fluffernutter when I was a kid, and I still eat a lot of peanut butter!

          Something I learned when I was teaching university was that as someone who doesn’t attach feelings to my work in the same way as feelings-y people, I had to say explicitly before turning their first essays back that the grade was solely a reflection on their work, not them as people, that I valued them all and enjoyed having them in my class, but at university your work will be critiqued and the feedback is there to help you improve, not to make you feel bad about yourself. It seemed to help.

    3. Allonge*

      Maybe food for thought: constant growth is an admirable thing to aim for as a person. And just like for companies and the economy, it can be a trap at the same time – it’s not necessarily achievable, especially while remaining in the same org.

      In other words: of course it’s ok for you to want and solicit constructive feedback. And at the same time, it’s also reasonable for your boss to decide that your processes don’t need to be challenged on a fundamental level – the company, your manager, the team has only so much time to improve things and if you are delivering on a consistently high level, improving that is not a priority.

      In my experience the ‘easiest’ way to get back into a position of learning is to switch jobs.

    4. JSPA*

      One way forward is to come up with an idea, then make an open ended list of potential problems or alternate takes, and start filling it in yourself, as a brainstorming exercise.

      Especially if it’s, “I’m about 60/40 on the right tack to take here, and would really appreciate a full list of pros and cons.”

      But honestly, a lot of development, past a certain level, is self-development / experience, and people wanting the “you” take and “you” brand. Given that the universe doesn’t offer perfect answers, “Marie [or for that matter, LW!] consistently come up with a workable answer” is impressive, and huge.

  2. Ember*

    I have a problem similar to this and it is actually pretty distressing.

    I view myself as still pretty junior. But I get a lot of praise and respect for some reason. I fear that if I make “junior mistakes,” people will be taken aback.

    I would rather just fade into the background a bit tbh …

    1. Everything All The Time*

      same, and I’m loving the scripts. I’m coming up on 4 years of experience in my field and I still make junior mistakes all the time.

    2. Parenthesis Guy*

      When I praise our junior people, I’m doing it on a curve. So, I might think the grade is a 75, but I would think a junior person would do a 60, so it’s great. But ya know, if this person makes a “junior level mistake”, I wouldn’t be shocked.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        Yeah, I actually got my best review at my company in my first year just because they had really low expectations for me coming right out of school while most people in my field follow a slightly different path. I now consistently “meet expectations” instead of exceeding them, even though obviously the quality of my work and my level of contributions are way higher than in my first year!

        So I would think it’s likely if you are receiving a lot of praise as a junior employee they probably are thinking about the context of the level of work that they would expect for that role.

      2. Toxic Workplace Survivor*

        I often give feedback by saying “on the range of what’s normal/typical/expected/we see on the team/etc., your xyz skills fall toward the middle/higher side/about where I’d like/at a place that’s fine for now but I would suggest is an area for improvement.” It can help sort of calibrate where the praise falls. So consider asking your boss if they could give you clarity about where in the continuum you fall if you want clearer feedback.

        On the amount of praise I offer, it’s on the high side of the range — after reading this letter, I wonder if it feels TOO much for some — in part because I have been a high performer on teams (at previous toxic workplaces) where only negative stuff came up. I knew I was held in high esteem generally but no one ever said it in the moment or on a specific accomplishment. I maybe over corrected, though it is always honest when I say good job.

        Just be aware that praise comes from lots of different places.

        1. Toxic Workplace Survivor*

          Oh and with more junior people I would phrase it in terms of where on the learning curve they are. Just further to the idea above about 75 for one person might be 60 if they have been doing the job a lot longer.

        2. Random Dice*

          Wow. I would definitely take that as a raging putdown, and never as “praise”.

          How many people burst into tears when you praise them?

          1. DisgruntledPelican*

            how is “compared to everyone else one the team, your work is average to above average” a raging put down?

          2. a clockwork lemon*

            “On the range of what we expect to see on this team” is the only way to actually evaluate performance, though? Who else is my performance supposed to be compared to other than my peer-level colleagues who do the same or similar types of work as me? I’m a high performer relative to the rest of my team, and I’d be a very low performer if I had to suddenly go work in Accounting.

  3. The Original K.*

    A former boss used to do this to/about me, and for him it was about him – he was praising me as a way to pat himself on the back for hiring me. There were two junior people below me and I made a point to share credit with them (including formally via a program HR set up), as well as others who helped in crucial ways.

    Of course, then he left and his replacement hated everything, including us, so that was the end of praise. Basically any praise at all.

    1. umami*

      I have a former boss like that! I have advanced and no longer report to him, but every time I run into him at an organization event, he makes a point of telling people he hired me. I appreciate that he’s excited to have brought me on board, but I’ve been here for 5 years now!

  4. Sloanicota*

    Some people really do just get sort of lucky with this stuff (not that OP doesn’t work hard and is competent, but things can just kind of line up perfectly / fall in your lap too) – I’d add to the given suggestions that perhaps she look for opportunities to mentor worthy younger and more junior people in your organization and see if you can pull them up with you. Actively look for opportunities to engage with the interns and bring them along on stuff. The best thing you can do is help the next person up the ladder.

    1. MK*

      Maybe, but if multiple people over a long period of time are telling you you are brilliant at your job, it’s not just luck. One overenthusiastic boss could be a fluke, or more about their personality, but several? If you happen to have a particular affinity for your kind of work, it usually comes easier to you and you can’t always evaluate how objectively better you are at it. I am sure the OP isn’t perfect, but given the overwhelming consensus on their abilities, it’s more likely that they are at least significantly better than the average worker in their role than that things happened to line up. I understand the problem with feedback, though.

      1. AlsoADHD*

        Yeah, and the fact that they’re asking for more pushback to do better, along with asking for help and muddling through, as they say, suggests to me that they’re a reflective and growth oriented professional—exactly the kind of mindset that helps you develop skills that get constantly praised. In many fields, the desired worker isn’t “perfect” and “always knows what to do” so much as “can figure it out and make it work” and adds value that way. I think OP probably earns the praise but I get why it’s awkward and why they want to ensure they both get the critical feedback needed and don’t breed resentment. But I doubt it’s luck.

  5. Just ok*

    This is something that I have dealt with a lot in my career – I’ve always found it to be twinged with sexism. To be fair I do tech in a field that is notorious for being behind the times, but I always find the praise grating and more of a way to keep me distracted from less desirable aspects of jobs.

    1. Seahorse*

      Yes, that can definitely be true. I trust my boss’s positive assessment of my work because she’s honest about weak spots and larger institutional issues. I don’t trust effusive praise from the high ups because it feels like an insincere way to divert attention from mediocre pay and the aforementioned issues they’ve chosen not to fix.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        Hmmm, yeah, this might be why empty, effusive, repetitive praise from my grandboss bugs the heck out of me.

  6. NoOneWillSeeThisComment*

    OP, I have had some experience with this…as I enjoy positive feedback, but I don’t take compliments well. I think that’s normal. It might be worth telling the most effusive people that you appreciate it, but you don’t take compliments well (or some more personal/better phrasing) and that might dial it down when it feels over the top.

  7. AngelS.*

    A peer (She was a therapist/social worker who reported to the same supervisor.) would do that to me (Mid-level admin. [My term!]) Yes, I was very busy. I was good at my job, etc. In fact, this is how I came across this Website! She felt “bad for me” for having so much work, called me endearing names, thanked me for everything I did FOR them. She praised me in front of visitors, which felt more like a pat on the head. She’s now a supervisor and I report to someone more in line with my work.
    She is a kind person who appreciates her staff, but I did gently reminded her that I was doing my job, just as anyone else.

  8. fine tipped pen aficionado*

    Those scripts for getting feedback are so good and I’m so glad you sent this in, LW! I also needed this advice but hadn’t thought to ask for it. Best of luck to you and I hope you update us on whether these techniques are useful!

  9. LifeBeforeCorona*

    Whenever I get praised at work, I state that it’s thanks to Ralph who helped create the TP reports. It’s always something specific that a person did, rather than just generic praise.

    1. Angstrom*

      Exactly! Think of how many letters here have been from people complaining about others taking credit for their work. If your coworkers know you’ll always give them full credit for their contributions they won’t resent you being in the spotlight.

  10. Raceyoutothelastpage*

    I have trouble with this as a freelancer! I have a client who refers to me as ‘our brilliant freelancer’ or ‘our talented freelancer’ in all the emails he sends introducing me to people both in his organisation and outside it. I’ve been puzzled by why I find it a bit demeaning – though he is male and about ten years younger than me so maybe I’m reacting to that? And perhaps, if so, it’s a bit unfair to him. But I just don’t know what it achieves – in my more irritated moments, it almost seems like he’s trying to soothe anticipated doubts about my competency. I personally feel quietly confident that I am good at my job and I don’t think it’s really necessary to emphasize that in absolutely every introduction email (because of the type of work I do, this happens several times a week). I’d be intrigued as to whether others have experienced this – Alison’s suggestions are great but unfortunately, being a freelancer, my situation is related but different and they don’t all apply!

    1. My own boss*

      I hear you! I’m a consultant and the effusive praise I get from my clients is harder to accept than one would think. I know I do good work, but I want some constructive feedback. It’s a mix of imposter syndrome and toxic oldjob. In my last role I was so overworked that I would inevitably let at least one client down to the point that I heard it from them. Now that I manage my own workload I have time to fix my problems before they become a client problem. I also know that as a consultant the most important thing I do for clients is take tough stuff off their plates, so when they’re full of high praise it’s as much about my skills as it is having me on their side.

    2. Wenike*

      I don’t know if it would help or not but I actually told my boss once that while I appreciated the praise, I also didn’t want to be put up on a pedestal or anything. Because inevitably, once you’re on a pedestal, minor mistakes get taken way out of proportion and I liked my job too much for that. I also mentioned that part of the reason I looked so good was because I also had a great team around me that just maybe wasn’t as visible and their work made mine easier.

    3. Lalala*

      Coming from the other side of it: If it’s a situation where a contact was working with a company rep but is now being put in touch with a freelancer, I would be likely to talk up the freelancer as amazing/smart/whatever so it’s clear I’m handing the contact over to an expert, not giving them a brush-off. (“Freelancer” can be a loaded idea for some folks, especially if a contact feels a level of prestige to be working directly with the company in question.)

      1. Not An Expert*

        I agree this often has a lot to do with it, certainly in the industry I’m freelancing in (publishing) – I don’t feel like they are insinuating something bad about me, it just quickly instills a sense of confidence in each new relationship. And the people who say this are often the better people to work for too.

  11. Porkchop*

    Be careful! I once said in a review that it bothered me that I only ever received praise. My boss thought about it and said “sometimes you just give me updates without context, could you keep in mind that I’m not working on the same thing as you?”

    I agreed. Next thing I know, any issues I had at work were caused by my “communication problems.” I should have kept my mouth shut.

  12. Norm Peterson*

    I get praise constantly and told I’m the most competent person they’ve ever had in the role, and to be totally honest, it depresses me tremendously. I took a pay cut for this (essentially entry level) job just for the insurance for my family, so yes, I am more competent because I am qualified to have the jobs of everyone above me (think we set llama grooming policy, but also do popup llama salons, and I worked at one of the llama grooming shops that we write the policy for for 3 years before leaving briefly for a job, where the grass did not turn out to be greener). It drives me up the wall to be walking someone who makes double what I do through the basics of how to do their job, and then be given compliments on successfully pulling a list of llamas we groomed.

  13. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

    I have a friend who is a systems administrator, and a lot of his job is in imagining what *could* go wrong, and then working to mitigate that before it does. He’s really good at this and it can be helpful to ask him to troubleshoot other ideas in our outside-of-work lives. “Hey, what could go wrong with this plan?” will usually get good stuff out of him.

  14. Ellis Bell*

    OP, a lot of what you’ve said here to us is pretty okay to say out loud too! When people taking over a project from you talk about “big shoes to fill” and you feel unnerved about the comparison, you can say that! As long as you strike the balance between cheerfulness and humility, it will be fine. Just say “Wow, that’s pretty unnerving! I’m pleased with how it went (if you are), but your team is amazing at x (if they are) and I bet there’ll be no comparison.” Feel free to own up to your shortcomings too, now and then. As long as you’re not shutting down every compliment and again, being cheerful, it can look confident and be a good model for others to hear someone admit they just work at stuff, and don’t have actual magic: “Well, that’s flattering, but I ask for help, I make mistakes, I muddle through things I don’t really know like everyone else.” I think humility is a really attractive quality and you come across so well in your letter! Another thing you might find interesting is that an aversion to pedestals, and being titled as the best employee might actually be the thing that makes you a great employee. Teachers are now being trained to avoid telling kids they’re clever, or the best, or “top of the class” because there’s evidence that kids become afraid to take risks, and fail, in case they lose their crown. Praising specific actions, approaches and hard work is better. I was dubious about this in the initial stages of trying the approach but I literally had a child tell me this week the reason they can’t read is because they were told they were “the best at phonics” early on in primary school and they decided to stop trying.

  15. mlem*

    The feedback/peer review problem is real! I have a lot of experience with our particularly arcane, archaic, spaghetti-tangled product, but I make mistakes. It’s hard to find the people who know enough to find where I’ve missed something rather than just assuming I must have gotten the complex stuff right. (And then I turn around and half-consciously assume some of the people I’m reviewing must be making the right changes to their widgets, because I certainly don’t have their depth of widget experience …)

  16. Jane Bingley*

    I had an honest conversation with my (highly trustworthy) boss about how effusive public praise makes me uncomfortable. He’s the kind of person who loves to celebrate the accomplishments of others and highlight success, which is a wonderful trait in a boss, but I also felt awkward when he’d tell others how great I am. I let him know that it means a lot to know he appreciates my work and that he’s thrilled with my performance and gave him explicit permission to “take credit” for my work in casual settings. This doesn’t mean claiming things as his own, specifically, but talking about the accomplishments of our department in a general sense without naming that I did XYZ is not only okay but makes me much happier. It made a big difference – he still says many very kind things to me, but usually in private contexts, and lets others form their own opinions of my work.

    This requires a very understanding boss, so tread carefully before doing the same, but a boss that kind and generous may also be understanding enough to lay off a little.

  17. PNWorker*

    I am a bit of a curmudgeon, but I just do not like praise or attention. If it ain’t a raise, I’m not interested

  18. Lulu*

    Regarding making sure you’re hearing others’ ideas, I heard a podcast from Preet Bharara that talked about making sure that you (as the one in charge/ the one who people think is on top of things) are the last person to speak. If you’re soliciting ideas, don’t share your own until the end. People are much more likely to agree with you if they hear your ideas first, so you can get preemptive critical feedback simply by holding back at first and making sure you solicit their perspectives *before they hear yours*.

    1. Sloanicota*

      This is interesting, I’m going to have to reflect more on this. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Sunny*

    Praise is nice, but too often I’ve found it doesn’t come with actual respect, and it puts you on a pedestal from which it is far too easy to fall.

  20. Overly praised LW*

    Thanks for the answer, Alison! I appreciate your thoughts on my situation. I’m reading along in the comments, as well, and finding them helpful.

    So far the thing that resonates the most with me is that I need to go beyond just generic ‘oh, it’s all a team effort’ type responses and get specific about who else has contributed to the work. I’m not good at doing that sort of thing on the fly, so I will have to make a list of specific people and things I can mention. And also actively look for more opportunities to give praise and share credit unprompted.

  21. garblesnark*

    One tiny note of caution for the OP – I felt this way when I started my current job. Several months of trauma therapy later, it turns out I was just so used to being constantly criticized for nothing that deserved praise made me uncomfortable.

  22. Random Dice*

    A manager I knew always deflected praise to the team, and took personal responsibility for issues.

    It made me respect him so much, and I strive to be like that.

    1. allathian*

      Yes, my current manager’s like that and that’s just one reason why she’s the best manager I’ve ever had.

    2. SarahKay*

      I had a previous manager like that too. He was an amazing guy to work for and with, and while my current manager is fine, I miss previous manager.

  23. Don’t Call Me Shiv*

    Ooof this hits close to home. At my last full time job, I was working for a small brand agency. I was promoted within 5 months to Director, and was one of only 6 department heads (any additional help we needed, we would hire as a contractor depending on client needs). My boss (the founder/CEO) was a lovely person but he would praise bomb you. At first, it felt nice to be appreciated but then it felt uncomfortable. At my end of year review, I got nothing but glowing praise. I pointedly asked about areas where I could improve because no one is that perfect. Nope. None at all. By my one year, I began to see some red flags in how things were run and realized how incompatible our work styles were (too long to name them all). All of a sudden, there were issues with my work, etc. Many of the concerns I raised with them were turned around on me. I began job searching. The communication broke down because they couldn’t articulate what they wanted or talk to me like a professional adult. They ended up letting me go. I was not surprised but I was shaken by the experience. I would have taken clear direction and honest assessments of my work and their expectations over constant praise. End of the day it was a mismatch but it was unfortunate that it happened in a horrible job market where I was out of work for nearly 5 months, and I’m still only getting by on freelance. It really shook me (and what happened still bothers me). Compliments are great but make sure you can back them up with constructive criticism as well.

  24. Does Axl Have a Jack?*

    *sigh* This letter could have been written by me from 2 years plus ago; the advice to give specific and generous credit to others is great. However, I do not recommend taking a promotion to a position whose supervisor is, as it turns out, apparently physically incapable of giving positive feedback; it’s a bit too drastic of an inadvertent solution!

  25. Sleeve McQueen*

    One script I use for getting feedback is something like “It feels like this idea is not quite there and I can’t put my finger on why – what do you think is missing?” that way, if they pushback, they are only agreeing with you

  26. Pugetkayak*

    I’m totally fine with effusive praise (bring it on! lol) BUT if it’s not backed up with more pay, more responsibilities, being chosen to lead new things, then it gets old quickly.

  27. Zee*

    <blockquote<I can’t just tell people three rungs above me on the hierarchy that I don’t want their praise.

    You know the people in question better than I do, but telling them to stop with the public praise is an option with any reasonable person (and they seem to like you, so I’d be surprised if it went over poorly). My boss is big on giving praise and recognizing people’s efforts publicly. I asked her not to do that for me because I don’t like it, and she complied.

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