I manage someone who wants more praise from his own employees

A reader writes:

I’m an executive. One of my direct reports (a manager) is frustrated that his team doesn’t acknowledge his input/skills/expertise. It’s as though he wants his team to give him positive feedback and validation. My feeling is that it’s very unlikely to happen. Even great managers don’t often hear their team say, “Thanks for the great job you do managing me.”

I provide consistent positive, specific feedback on his work. But I don’t understand his motivation, or how to help him see his expectations aren’t realistic. He says things things like:

  • “My team are negative. I want them to focus on the positive work we’ve done.” (referring to when they suggest improvements)
  • “I work up an idea, delegate the implementation, then they take the credit as though it was their own idea.”
  • “They never say anything nice to me about my management, even though I constantly give them positive feedback, opportunities, etc.”

I reiterated that his team, and the organization, have a huge amount of respect for him and his skill set, and that as his manager, I see all those things he feels his team miss. His team is high performing.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 67 comments… read them below }

  1. Cold and Tired*

    If you need validation and recognition for doing a good job, being a manager may not be for you. When I’ve worked in management roles in the past, my “recognition” has been seeing the people I’m managing excel and get recognized while I’m in the background helping clear big roadblocks for them and keeping an eye on the big picture. Management is thankless if you expect it to be all about you, but really rewarding when you’re aiming for the success of your employees. Seems like this person may just not be a good fit for the role.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Same. The highest compliments I get from my team come in the form of problems – they trust that, when they bring concerns, a particularly sticky business need, or even their own screw up to me, I’m going to have some sort of input that is actually valuable to them and that they trust me.

      Compliments and praise are kind of like gifts in the workplace – they should flow downward.

      1. Lana Kane*

        Well said – as much as I don’t love fixing mistakes, it always felt good when my reports would come and tell me. I knew there was a culture of trying to hide mistakes to avoid getting “in trouble”, so when they came and told me, I took it as a compliment.

    2. Echo*

      Agreed. It’s a special feeling when you hear from someone that your management helped them grow or helped them feel secure and supported in their work, but it’s not something we managers can or should expect.

      I think the rewards of management are things like: getting to step back from the day to day and think strategically, seeing all the little pieces of a project come together, sharing back what you’ve learned with your team as coaching or training, learning more about how your organization works behind the scenes, looking for opportunities to better support or develop someone. I love your comment about removing the roadblocks.

      I think it’s a warning sign if you hope to become a manager because you feel like nothing is in your control at work and being a manager would give you more control. That feels like it might be at the root of a lot of bad management, thinking that going up a level will cure your burnout.

    3. Eldritch Office Worker*

      “Management is thankless if you expect it to be all about you, but really rewarding when you’re aiming for the success of your employees.”

      I really wish we communicated this to people better.

    4. Katherine Ruiz*

      This letter reminds me of a manager I used to have who would take recognition for his employee’s achievements and it was sometimes demoralizing to watch him publicly take ownership of something you’d worked hard on, but honestly, it mostly served to undercut him.

      1. Random Dice*

        When people see a manager deflect praise back to the team, it only makes the manager look better. (And makes the team love the manager.)

        1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

          Honestly this letter reminds me of the kind of entitled guy who’s trying to learn from pick-up artists but balks at giving women compliments because he feels that they should be complimenting him.
          As a manager, you have to assume that if someone hasn’t moved elsewhere it’s partly because they like you as a manager.
          I have only ever had one manager who did a good job of managing me: he saw my strengths and shaped my role around them rather than just giving me the stuff that was the most urgent. But even then, I’m pretty sure it was thanks to a smart colleague who pointed out that I would flourish painting the teapots and it was a waste of my talent to have me updating the teapot painting manual and the client database.

      2. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

        There’s nothing I hate more from a manager (speaking as a senior IC who has chosen to avoid going into management) than taking credit for my work. The pattern is usually along the lines of the manager telling me that the stakeholders need a model to predict XYZ, I build it, and then it gets called “Manager’s model” even though he (I’ve only had this from men) didn’t write a single line of code.

    5. lalouve*

      I have only been a manager for about a year, but last Christmas I decided to send individualised happy holidays and thank you for your work to all my reports (27 – this is academia…). Then I had to set up a list so I don’t thank them for the same thing two years in a row ;)

      The first year I got mildly confused responses about how nice it was to be thanked (again, academia. I spent 20 years without a single word of appreciation, that’s not happening to anyone on my watch). This year I’m getting that, plus from some a bit of feedback on what they’ve particularly liked with my managing. I don’t really need that personally, although it is much appreciated, but I want to build a workplace where we see, and note, each other’s achievement. It’ll be interesting to see if remembering to thank my reports will eventually result in a better work environment.

  2. HonorBox*

    I went back and read the update to this letter. It sounds like the manager in question was missing out on being an individual contributor AND was dealing with some mental health things, which was leading to some burnout. Both of those were where I was headed as I read it.

      1. Smithy*

        I really love updates like this where it so often can contextualize a letter that on the surface can read closer to the yikes side vs the no big deal side, and see how a more reasonable workplace with a reasonable manager can coach someone dealing with common enough issues into a better place.

        Being burnt out, having mental health struggles, and preferring to be an individual contributor over a supervisor is a cocktail of issues that I think nearly every manager I’ve ever had has dealt with at least two of at some point when I’ve worked for them. Ultimately, the letter was clearly written by a very sensible manager who knew the issue was one to be addressed and not minimized, but also nice to see it not being a catastrophe.

      1. Turquoisecow*

        That’s a reassuring update. I was thinking that this guy doesn’t seem suited for management at all so I hope he moves to a role that doesn’t require it. Good for him and LW for figuring that out.

  3. Kiki Is The Most*

    On the positive side, if this manager’s team is following is lead from his ideas, coming to him with concerns and possible fixes and generally working well together, then the manager should take pride in that. It just sounds like manager is missing the general point of…managing.

  4. Richard Hershberger*

    I have the feeling this guy gets upset if his employees don’t give him gifts at Christmas. I also wonder how much feedback he gives the LW over the LW’s performance.

    1. SarahKay*

      That was exactly what I was thinking.
      I bet if LW put him on the spot (no, I don’t think LW should do this) and asked why he wasn’t giving LW positive feedback he would be flabbergasted.

    2. Kelly*

      He reminds me of my boss who did exactly that. He refused to use direct deposit because holding our paychecks until after 8 pm on a Friday was a great power move and he could make us thank him for them.

  5. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

    Suggesting improvements is a sign of being invested in the team and mission.

    “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership”
    – Colin Powell

    1. CommanderBanana*

      Hilariously, my (horrible) old organization’s CEO was really into Colin Powell’s leadership consulting firm.

      He was also one of those “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” and “every problem is just drama” ‘leaders’. The lack of self-awareness was astonishing.

      1. AngryOctopus*

        It’s funny because when done right, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” can be great for an employee! You’re basically saying “I bet you know how to solve this issue in a way that works for you and I want to hear it!”. But of course the flip side of this is you have to be aware enough to realize that employees can’t have solutions to every issue themselves, and you may have to…wait for it…manage? Crazy I know!
        Glad you’re out of that place!

        1. Observer*

          It’s funny because when done right, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” can be great for an employee!

          I don’t think it’s possible to do it “right”. Because the fundamental issue is that it’s a directive that is too broad. And people’s ability to follow this directive often ranges from low to impossible, with a side of possibly counterproductive. And sometimes the directive is just silly.

          You’re basically saying “I bet you know how to solve this issue in a way that works for you and I want to hear it!”.

          The problem is what the “don’t bring me problems” framing goes a lot further than that. But also, many times betting that the person knows how to solve the problem is not really valid either. So much so, that this often comes of as saying something very different – essentially “Don’t step out of your lane”; “Don’t bother me with additional pieces of work”; “You’re just a complained” and / or “I don’t really think you know what you are talking about”. I’ve seen all of those.

          To take a random real world situation that happened a number of years ago. We were embarking on a project and somehow a really important piece got overlooked. When I brought it up I got a fair amount of flack about my “negativity” and how I was looking for problems. I went to the Big Boss and basically said “Look, I can keep my mouth shut, and the whole project will blow up when it comes time to go live. Or I can insist on bringing up the problem so *you* can find the money to deal with it when we need to (which would have been towards the end of the project, but before go live).”

          Had my boss been of the “only bring me solutions” variety, the project would have blown up in a disastrous way – the issue was absolutely crucial. Because *I* had no way to come up with a “solution” other than “you need a lot of money”. The irony of that situation was that because my boss actually listened to me, I wound up working fairly closely with the project manager on the project and we did wind up with a much better solution. But we didn’t know till we actually tried it if it would work. And also, the only way I was able to even come up with that other possible solution was because my boss didn’t demand a solution up front, but had me looped into the project enough to spot other potential issues (which also let me spot potential solutions, as well, from the additional information I got.)

          1. CommanderBanana*

            ^^ This.

            It also begs the question of why a CEO making almost a million dollars a year (for a non-profit, no less) couldn’t handle being told about problems.

          2. Jaydee*

            I think a better framing is “don’t *just* bring me problems, *also* bring me solutions.” That lets the employee know that the manager wants them to put some thought and effort into identifying possible solutions but still wants the employee to feel comfortable coming to them with problems.

          3. EllenD*

            I use a variation on ‘don’t bring me problems bring me solutions’. My team could bring me problems, but I’d need them to explain what options they’d considered and discarded, or why they couldn’t identify a solution or way forward and than we’d talk through the issue to find a solution. I wanted them to learn the approach to solving issues, as much as solving the problem.

      2. zuzu*

        A good leader can help you realize that you know how to solve the problem; you just need a little guidance or a confidence boost (or to know your boss has your back if you implement a particular solution).

        All my best bosses have helped me find solutions for myself by asking insightful questions about where I’m stuck or offering ways to reframe how I’m looking at things rather than impose solutions on me or pull the rug out. We solve the problem together, which is far more empowering for me than to be told what to do or to just be told to figure it out myself.

  6. TeenieBopper*

    “I work up an idea, delegate the implementation, then they take the credit as though it was their own idea.”

    They should take the credit. They’re the ones doing the actual work.

    1. Worldwalker*

      Yep. Ideas are trivial. Shakespeare didn’t have much in the way of new ideas — all his plays were either reworkings of other people’s plays or taken from history. It was the implementation that mattered. He didn’t do the 1% inspiration; he put in the 99% perspiration. And that’s why Shakespeare’s plays are still being performed, read, studied, and adapted hundreds of years later, while those who came up with the original ideas are long forgotten.

  7. Carol the "reliving Christmas Past" elf*

    Speak to him thusly:

    “Oh, Bogbert, thank you for your appreciation, but you don’t have to recognize ME as being helpful and inspiring- my reward as YOUR manager is to see that you manage your subordinates and their little taskies well.”

    Sheesh. I had a manager who lived or died by how we lavished praise on him for doing normal, normally. It actually slowed us down because to quote the team leader, “There’s no creativity left over when I spend an hour a day figuring new kiss-a** positions to make him happy….”

  8. Heffalump*

    If I complimented my manager at all, I’d keep it very low key and not effusive. I don’t want to give even the appearance of apple polishing.

  9. Skytext*

    The part that cracked me up was about him delegating the implementing of the idea to his team, then they dared to take credit for the work! How dare they! Coming up with the idea is the easy part, doing the actual work is what’s hard. Like if he had the idea “let’s clean out this 20 stall barn”. But stripping stalls, disinfecting them, and rebedding them would be conservatively 40 hours of backbreaking labor. If I did all that worked, bragged on my accomplishment, and then he thought he should have the credit just because it was “his idea” I think I would tear him into little pieces.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      “Coming up with the idea is the easy part” as many a writer has pointed out, when a fanboy wants to offer an idea in return for a 50/50 split.

      1. Worldwalker*

        My reply to that has always been “Even better: you keep the idea, you write it yourself, and then you get all the money!”

        Somehow, they never went for that, back when I was doing mostly independent programming. (the fanboys bugged me about their ideas for programs)

        Anyone in any creative field has more ideas than they will ever have time to implement. Ideas for books, ideas for movies, ideas for art, ideas for programs, ideas for whatever it is they do. By the time you’ve implemented one idea, you’ve thought up two more good ones. I don’t need ideas — I need clones!

    1. Jade*

      He does. He’s got to suck it up or find another line of work. Your subordinates are not going to give out the effusive praise he’s looking for.

  10. Jessica Clubber Lang*

    If he’s a former individual contributor who is now new manager, this isn’t too surprising – the team and interpersonal dynamics can be tricky at first.

    It sounds like he’s doing a good job overall so a direct conversation about expectations as a manager might just set him on the right course.

  11. Skytext*

    Wait, is the subject of this letter the same guy who wrote in asking how to get a high-paying job right out of the gate as an “ideas guy”? Because he didn’t want to bother with having to work his way up the ladder gaining experience and stuff, because that didn’t sound fun and he had just sooooo many great ideas.

      1. Worldwalker*

        I really wish we’d get an update from that one, but I doubt if we ever will. He’s either learned the hard way and would be too ashamed to admit that he was ever Idea Man, or he’s been a serial startup guy who still doesn’t understand why everything he touches crashes and burns. But oh, I’d like to know how he’s doing.

  12. Caramel & Cheddar*

    Providing validation like this follows the same rules as workplace gift giving: you gift down, not up, thus you validate down, not up. Sure, just like with gift giving, there may be some times when a small gesture of appreciation is nice to give your boss if they’ve truly gone out of their way to be amazing, but otherwise it feels really misplaced to expect this as a manager.

  13. CommanderBanana*

    “I work up an idea, delegate the implementation, then they take the credit as though it was their own idea.”

    So…you’re upset that people want credit for the work they did?


  14. Ann Nonymous*

    I wonder if the OP could somehow point out to his needy employee that it would be weird if the underlings to his underlings praised upwards as well. I think if a scenario could be laid out saying that it would be odd if, say, the secretaries praised their bosses and that this is kind of the same thing, but one layer up. Maybe this would open his eyes.

  15. Dinwar*

    Welcome to management.

    My team is hardly ever going to bring anything good to my attention. If it’s good, it doesn’t need addressed most of the time–good by definition is, well, good! The times they have brought something to my attention were 1) “We should do this on every project, talk to the program manager about that”, and 2) “So-and-so did really good, you should bring them back.” Both of which, when you think about it, really are dealing with a problem–identifying a problem AS a problem in the first case, and pre-emptively addressing staffing needs in the second. And that’s fine by me. It allows me to deal with the things I need to deal with to ensure my team has work next week, next month, next year.

    As for taking credit, that’s how the game is played. My joke is “I have two jobs, I make coffee ad take blame.” You’re responsible for everything that goes wrong and every policy decision that’s stupid, whereas the team is responsible for every achievement and great idea and success. As far as the company is concerned you ARE the team, so any failure on the team’s part is your responsibility. As far as the team is concerned you ARE Management, so anything coming down the org chart is your responsibility. You are Them, in both cases. That’s one reason managers tended to get paid better and get perks in the past–it compensated to some degree (depending on company) for the crap we deal with.

    In a healthy organization these patterns are quickly recognized. You’re proactive, growing your employees, taking personal responsibility for the project’s success, and generally acting in the role of Manager. You get praise and rewards from higher up the food chain. As for the lower-tier staff, one of the best pieces of management advice I ever got was from my father: “If the subs aren’t complaining, I’m not working them hard enough.” There’s a level of griping that means you’re pushing your team, but not breaking them. It’s not personal, it’s just that no one likes being pushed. (Now if you walk into a conversation about which excavator operator would be easiest to bribe to hide your body, maybe back off a touch!)

    The other thing to do is to actively engage with other managers as peers. You are NOT peers with your team. You’re part of the team, but a unique part, because you’re the part that’s apart from the team. You can’t interact with the team as peers (as equally valuable, yes, but not as peers). If nothing else, they don’t have comparable responsibilities or concerns or the like. Having a peer group that really understands what you’re going through is vital, though, both for personal sanity and for career growth. Look outside the team and start building relationships with other managers. It helps.

  16. Charming Charlie*

    My remote company has a web-based software where we can share feedback to our manager, and one of the optional questions is something like “how can I help the team as a manager?” Once in a while I write back “you’re doing great. Things are going well” and my team members write the same to me. Maybe that will suffice for this manager.

  17. Emmy*

    If they require constant ego-stroking and validation, perhaps management isn’t the right path for this person. Management is there to support the team. Praise goes from the top-down, which is sounds like is happening from the employee’s leadership. It seems like the team is doing everything they are asked, so that tells me there is respect and recognition there that the manager is doing good. If they were a bad manager, there would be signs in the output of work, whether it’s low quality/quantity or complete disregard.
    This is an opportunity for the executive to have a “come to Jesus” meeting with the manager to level-set expectations and maybe help the manager identify positive indicators from the team. Maybe tracking them so at the end of the week/month/quarter the manager and exec can look back and see all the validating things, even if the employees aren’t communicating it the way the manager wants.

  18. Hell naw*

    I had a wet-behind-the-ears manager step in at my former job who was this way, and actually said to me, once, “you said what I wrote (on a document we were elaborating) was okay, but you didn’t say it was good!” And I was like… yikes, dude, managing your ego is zero percent of my job. There were, needless to say, many other examples of his needy, immature management style, including taking critiques of some of his unworkable ideas personally, asking for reassurance, and so much more.

    I often thought about flagging this behaviour to his manager, so that she could set him right, and I regret not doing it.

    Which is to say — no one should have to manage their manager’s emotions, and it’s bothersome that the update to this letter didn’t demonstrate more action from this guy’s own manager to plain move him to another role where he could have less deleterious of an impact on staff.

  19. Fluffy Fish*

    Starting out the new year of bad bosses strong.

    God forbid employees take credit for doing the actual work.

    No chance this person was a good manager.

    1. amoeba*

      There was an update and judging from that, it was nowhere near as bad as this. He was just a new manager with some mental health problems struggling with his new role, but apparently overall doing a good job. Not everything is black and white…

  20. Hiring Mgr*

    There’s little to no training for managers out there these days, so it’s not surprising that a new manager is having a couple of hiccups.

    I think you can just name it was you did in the letter. The fact that he mentioned this to you in the first place would indicate that he’s open to feedback.

    Part of your job as his manager is to clarify the expectations of the role, give him this type of feedback, etc.

  21. Someone Else's Boss*

    I have a really terrific team who regularly tell me I’m a good manager, and it’s a great feeling – I understand why someone would want to hear that! But my employee’s jobs are not to stroke my ego. Ideally, they are focused on doing great work, thereby showing my boss and her boss that I’m a good manager. The proof is in the pudding, not in the packaging.

  22. Jaydee*

    It feels weird to directly praise my bosses. Like, I’ll certainly talk to peers about things we appreciate about our supervisor and our grandboss because they’re both genuinely good managers. But to their faces I’m probably more likely to thank them for something or tell them how helpful something they did was. To me that makes more sense for the employee/manager dynamic.

  23. toolate12*

    For what it’s worth, I do give my manager positive feedback. Having had some crap managers, and seeing how the organization functions outside our division, I can’t help but appreciate her – she shields us from internal dynamics, has given me a lot of autonomy (something I had wanted so long!) and positive feedback, and simply makes it easy for me to do my job in how she frames my tasks. I periodically let her know that I appreciate this (of course, she doesn’t solicit this). Nothing like a string of bad managers to let you really see the good ones.

  24. ElleKay*

    Oh Look! It’s a letter from my boss!
    (Though, to be fair, my boss is not getting positive feedback from their higher ups)

  25. Sure, Tell*

    Yikes! This whole comment section is cringe today. Y’all are being so unkind to this person.

    While being a manager is a thankless job and many people know that employees don’t necessarily give positive feedback, it’s not unreasonable for someone to want that and it would be nice. Really, all of you are ae able to go through the majority of your day, not entirely sure if the work you are doing is in the right direction, or hearing that your work is noticed and appreciated.

    While I do agree that this employee in particular could use a conversation about expectations, the simple fact of him wanting to hear positive feedback doesn’t make him unfit to manage. Oh, right. I forget that the majority of managers here are always perfect, non-human emotion having workers for Daddy Corporation.

    I have managed people and have gotten all types of feedback. I can absolutely understand that if you have been in a position where you received positive feedback as a manager, it can feel like you are doing a bad job if you don’t hear anything positive in your next position.

    It’s not necessarily about stroking an ego, it’s about knowing you’re doing a good job. It’s about hearing it from the people you’re actually working directly with and for.

    Even people upthread are talking about how they have received positive feedback as a manager. It’s not unheard of to have that happen, and this guy is noticing that it’s not for him. He went to his supervisor for advice. I don’t think this guy is that out of line.

    I think everyone went a little too hard on this guy.

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