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Emotional Intelligence and Leadership: Why Uncomfortable Praise Should not be Feared but Embraced


Effective leadership and organizational success depend greatly on the emotional intelligence capacities of those at the top. While their technical skills, experience, and strategic planning abilities matter enormously, leaders must also be able to understand and manage emotions—in themselves and others—to build high-performing teams and cultures where people thrive. In this context, one leadership behavior that research demonstrates can significantly improve performance yet causes discomfort for many is praise. Specifically, leaders who provide frequent, specific, and authentic praise to employees, even when it makes the leader or recipient feel awkward, tend to have more engaged and productive workforces.


As counterintuitive as it may seem, today we explore why and how emotionally intelligent leaders should embrace uncomfortable praise, not fear it, in order to develop their team's capabilities and unleash their organization's potential.


Defining Emotional Intelligence


Before delving into the merits of uncomfortable praise, it is important to define emotional intelligence and understand its relationship to successful leadership. The concept of emotional intelligence was introduced by scholars John Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1990 and popularized by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book of the same name (Goleman, 1995). Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to understand one's own and others' emotions and then to use this awareness to effectively manage behavior and relationships. It encompasses self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management skills (Goleman, 2017). Numerous studies since the 1990s have demonstrated a strong link between leaders' emotional intelligence and positive organizational outcomes like employee engagement, innovation, customer satisfaction, and financial performance (Goleman, 2017; Raina & Britt Roebuck, 2016). Leaders who lack emotional intelligence struggle to develop trusting relationships, promote collaboration, effectively coach for growth, and inspire their people (Goleman, 2017).


The Benefits of Praise


A core element of emotional intelligence that benefits leadership is relationship management—the ability to build bonds through empathetic understanding and effective communication. Research has shown praise from leaders to employees is a seemingly simple yet powerful relationship management tool that emotional intelligent leaders should prioritize (Hammond et al., 2015; Rock, 2008). Specific, authentic, and frequent praise boosts employee motivation, engagement and performance in several ways (Rock, 2008):


  • Feedback - Praise provides valuable feedback to employees on what behaviors and accomplishments are noticed and valued by leaders. This guides improvement.

  • Recognition - Feeling recognized for their efforts through praise satisfies employees' basic human need for appreciation. This fosters commitment.

  • Self-efficacy - Receiving praise from leaders improves employees' beliefs in their own abilities to succeed at important tasks. This enhances confidence and willingness to take on more challenges.

  • Reward pathway - The brain's reward center is activated by praise, releasing dopamine and creating a positive emotional experience. Employees are motivated to repeat praised behaviors for this natural "high."


Given these cognitive, motivational, and emotional benefits, regular praise has been shown to directly boost key performance metrics like productivity, customer satisfaction, retention, and even long-term financial outcomes for organizations (Hammond et al., 2015; Rock, 2008).


The Challenge of Uncomfortable Praise


While they understand its value rationally, many leaders still hesitate to give praise due to concerns about appearing insincere or making the recipient feel uneasy. There are usually good reasons praise makes leaders and employees alike uncomfortable (Rock, 2008):


For leaders:


  • Fear praise could be seen as ingenuine flattery or "buttering up."

  • Worry it may set unrealistic expectations for future performance.

  • Discomfort with publicly showing emotion or vulnerability.


For employees:


  • Imposter syndrome—hard to internalize appreciation is deserved.

  • Pressure and spotlight of attention makes some feel self-conscious.

  • Concern praise for one achievement sets a "bar" for even better work next time.


However, research and practice demonstrate leaders should overcome their hesitation to provide uncomfortable praise (Rock, 2008). When done authentically and thoughtfully, even awkward praise situations positively impact relationships, engagement and performance over the long run. With experience, leaders and employees also grow more comfortable receiving and giving praise.


The Value of Uncomfortable Praise for Individual Growth


Avoiding praise due to discomfort may seem easier in the moment but hurts individuals and teams in the long run. Specific and authentic praise, even when it causes unease, fuels learning and development in meaningful ways:


  • Encourages Risk-Taking. Receiving praise for accomplishments reduces fear of failure associated with future risks or experimentation. Knowing efforts will be recognized if an attempt is unsuccessful boosts courage to continually stretch beyond comfort zones.

  • Builds Self-Efficacy. Internalizing one’s abilities through another's praise strengthens beliefs in capable of even greater goals over time. Rising self-efficacy propels people to set and achieve ambitious targets they previously thought unattainable.

  • Spurs Self-Reflection. Being praised prompts reviewing behaviors, skills and attitudes that led to success in order to deepen and expand on them. This introspection cultivates ever-increasing expertise and mastery.

  • Pinpoints Strengths. Specific praise highlights talents or Characteristics others observe which the individual themselves may underestimate or underutilize. Recognizing strengths enables focusing talents in career growth.

  • Provides Validation. Calibrating perceptions of contributions and abilities through a trusted leader’s authentic praise reassures hard work and potential is appropriately valued. This validation fuels continued motivation long-term.

  • Encourages Feedback. An environment where praise overcomes discomfort teaches employees to proactively seek and apply critical yet caring feedback for exponential gains versus fearing negative reviews.


The Benefits of Uncomfortable Praise for Team Dynamics


Effective teams require a psychologically safe space where members support each other's development. Consistent, thoughtful praise fosters such safety by deepening mutual understanding and community despite awkward exchanges (Rock, 2008):


  • Recognizes diversity. Appreciating varied strengths through praise appreciates each person's unique worth and role, building inclusion. This affirms everyone's capabilities and belonging are valued.

  • Demonstrates care. Making oneself vulnerable through praise shows psychological and emotional investment in others' well-being and growth, strengthens bonds of trust between teammates.

  • Shares strengths. By spotlighting talents, praise helps individuals play to their strengths while also educating others on how to utilize each person most effectively for shared goals.

  • Inspires emulation. Seeing peers authentically praised motivates replicating praised behaviors to earn similar appreciation and respect from leaders and colleagues alike.

  • Lowers defenses. Opening up about mistakes after praise creates psychological safety so teammates feel brave admitting errors without judgement, accelerating mutual learning.

  • Fosters empathy. Learning about others' strengths, effort and impact through their praise broadens perspectives and builds attentiveness to supporting each person's unique journeys.


Embracing Uncomfortable Praise in Practice


While awkward, leaders who authentically praise show self-awareness and care for developing others. Some practical tips can help deliver thoughtful praise and gain comfort over time (Rock, 2008):


  • Be specific - Note concrete behaviors, achievements or character that need appreciating, avoid generic statements.

  • Relate to goals - Explain how the praised actions helped advance important priorities, not just flattering traits.

  • Praise privately first - Build comfort with one-on-one appreciations before larger public recognition.

  • Focus on effort - When possible, spotlight hard work, perseverance and trying over just outcomes.

  • Follow through - Citations of excellence must continue, not be one-time comments for sincerity.

  • Praise yourself too - Admitting vulnerabilities through self-praise models comfort with emotions for your people.


Conclusion


In the modern workforce, delivering regular praise will often involve overcoming personal unease or making others squirm. However, leaders with strong emotional intelligence recognize this temporary awkwardness brings exponentially greater rewards for individuals, teams and the entire organization. Research and experience clearly show authentic praise, even if uneasy in the moment, deeply motivates excellence and fosters the close relationships vital for shared success. While praise makes us vulnerable, emotionally intelligent leaders embrace this strategic discomfort in service of continuous learning and growth for all. In so doing, they empower their people and unleash unsuspected potential. When guided by emotional understanding and empathy, uncomfortable praise absolutely should have a place, as it molds high-performing cultures sustained over the long term.


References


  • Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

  • Goleman, D. (2017). What makes a leader. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

  • Hammond, M. M., Neff, N. L., Farr, J. L., Schwall, A. R., & Zhao, X. (2015). Predictors of individual-level innovation at work: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(1), 90–105. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000033

  • Raina, R., & Britt Roebuck, D. (2016). Exploring cultural influence on managerial communication in relationship to job satisfaction. ISBA/CLE 2008 Advanced Business Law & Litigation Conference. Chicago, IL.

  • Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 1-9.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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