Pat on the Back or Kick in the Pants

Some people respond well to a pat on the back, others to a kick in the pants.

Mary practically ignores, “The way you handled Bob’s objection was beautiful.” But, she lights up and leans in when you say, “You created unnecessary controversy in yesterday’s meeting.”

When does a kick in the pants work?

large bird

Pat on the back:

Inexperience needs more encouragement.

Focus on commitment not progress. Affirmations that focus on progress may cause inexperienced people to ease back. You make them feel satisfied, not fired up.

Encourage greater effort, when inexperience is involved, by praising commitment. “You worked really hard even though you weren’t sure of the results. Way to go!”

“I’m impressed with the way you worked through mistakes to get the job done.”

Energize inexperience by honoring commitment.

Kick in the pants:

Kick experienced teammates in the pants to improve their performance.

I’m an experienced presenter. A pat on the back feels good. But, when someone says, “I can help you with the joke that flopped,” I lean in. I’m not offended. I’m excited.

Happy talk:

Encourage the inexperienced; challenge the experienced.

You have to work your butt off to build and sustain positive work environments. But happy talk may deliver sad results.

Happy talk isn’t effective unless it focuses on the right behaviors.

  1. Reward results.
  2. Recognize effort.
  3. Praise behaviors.
  4. Respect the person.
  5. Honor commitment. Remember that celebrating progress may diminish motivation.


A kick in the pants offends those who think they’ve arrived but helps those committed to grow. Read, “Mindset,” by Carol Dewick.

Research on the impact of positive and negative feedback.

When is positive feedback least effective?

How can negative feedback be used to motivate?