In this blog post, we continue our series on the failures of leadership today. You can find the other blog posts in this series here and all of our posts on leadership here.

It’s probably happened to you at one point or another. You are sitting at your desk and your boss walks by and says, “By the way, great job today!” and then walks away. You’re left sitting there, scratching your head and thinking two thoughts. First, “for what?” because there’s plenty of things you’ve done recently that would merit a “Great Job!” Your second thought is, “was that supposed to be helpful?”

You’ve just been undone by a favorite tool of the inexperienced leader and another common failure of leadership: the drive-by compliment.

Drive-by compliments come in a lot of variety — you’re boss walks by your desk, sends a chat message or an email or, more recently, says it in a Zoom meeting. The problem with drive-by compliments is that you can’t do much with them. They don’t provide feedback you can use to improve a skill and they don’t make you feel good or encourage you to keep doing the whatever the “great job” was.

Inexperienced leaders make this mistake all the time. They treat recognition and feedback in the same incomplete and ineffective manner. If you’re a leader, or want to be one, here are the basics for both feedback and recognition.


Feedback is used to help an employee improve a skill or change a behavior. It is best given privately.

Feedback should be actionable, constructive, and timely. Feedback like, “great job” is not actionable because the employee can’t use it to improve. Feedback like, “great job on that report; have you considered adding information on measuring value?” is actionable. When you hear this, you know that you did a great job on the report (good for you!) and you now know that adding some information on measuring value will make it even better next time.

Feedback should be constructive. “I have no idea why you did that,” is deconstructive. It’s an insult, not feedback. On the other hand, “I know from past history you can do much better” is constructive as it encourages the employee to take the feedback to improve.

Feedback should be timely. Waiting until the yearly performance review to tell an employee they aren’t doing their job well does a great disservice to the employee and to everyone with whom they work. Instead of using the time to improve, delayed feedbacks makes the employee feel like they are doing OK until that fateful moment.


Recognition is used to tell an employee that they’ve demonstrated a skill or behavior that you, as a leader, would like to see demonstrated again and again. It is best given publicly.

When you recognize someone, be clear about what you are recognizing them for. For example, “I want to thank Pavel for doing such an excellent job on the market analysis.”

Then, go deeper and connect the employee’s actions to the values of your organization. For example, “In completing a thorough market analysis for the customer, Pavel’s report really demonstrated the kind of professionalism and capabilities that have allowed us to capture the market.”

Express your gratitude on behalf of the organization. For example, “Pavel, we are all very grateful for the amazing job you did.”

If you are going to reward the employee in some manner (beyond the public recognition), make sure that the reward is meaningful. For example, if Pavel spent lots of overtime getting the report just right and his actions made a $1 million difference in the bottom line, a $100 gift card might be more of an insult than an incentive to repeat the behavior.

On the topic of recognitions – don’t forget that, when a public thank you isn’t possible, a handwritten note covering the same information can accomplish almost the same thing: an employee who knows that she is appreciated and valued.

Artisan Agility’s The Leadership Edge Training System

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  • Create a psychologically safe environment
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  • Elevate teams to continuous learning
  • Connect vision and purpose to daily decisions
  • Define and activate a team “operating system”
  • Use emotional regulation to remain calm, even in stressful situations
  • Synergize day-to-day operations with the world around her

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Have You Seen Examples of Poor Leadership?

What examples of poor leadership have you seen? Tell us about your experiences in the comment section below!