In Praise of Praise

Kevin Cohn
2 min readDec 11, 2018
Grumeti Game Reserve, Tanzania; photo by the author

Most everyone has read Harvard Business Review’s article on the ideal praise-to-criticism ratio, which research shows is 5.6 to 1, i.e., almost six positive comments made for every negative comment made. As the article makes clear, while both praise and criticism are important, the ratio is what separates high-performing teams from low-performing teams.

This post is not a regurgitation of that research, or my thoughts on how to strike the right balance between praise and criticism. Nor is it practical advice on how to give good feedback, as I can’t improve on Dave Kellogg’s excellent post, The Three Golden Rules of Feedback. Instead, it’s a short post to share the best piece of advice I’ve ever received.

My first job was working summers and later nights and weekends for Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers (as we were reminded constantly, the lowercase “p” is correct). My boss and mentor, Tom Mulak, was (and still is!) one of the nicest and most positive people I’ve met. But like everyone, he had days when he was down—sometimes for good reason, sometimes for no reason. This isn’t a weakness; it’s part of the human condition. What stood out to me was how quickly he would bounce back from a bad day.

One day he called me into his office. He had just received an email from a colleague praising his work and he made me watch as he dragged the email from his inbox into a folder titled “Praise.” Then he explained: This isn’t about ego. Everyone needs reminders of the good they’ve done. Especially on bad days, these reminders can be lifesavers. So, when you receive praise, file it away. It will pay dividends for years to come.

I can attest to the effectiveness of this approach. Hand-written notes, emails, Slack messages, LinkedIn recommendations, clips from call recordings—they all go into my praise folder. It includes some of the most touching things anyone has ever said about me (at least, that I know of). On bad days, I look at one or two of the items I’ve saved, and I feel better. Not necessarily right as rain, but good enough to point me in the right direction.

Start your own praise folder. You’ll thank me later.



Kevin Cohn

Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.