Team Productivity

The Psychology and Practice of Complimenting Your Team

Daniel Threlfall
May 30, 2019
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“I can live for two months on a good compliment,” said Mark Twain, the American author.

That’s a long time to go without food, shelter, and Amazon Prime—but I see his point.

Compliments are powerful.

A single sentence—delivered by the right person in the right way—can completely change a person’s life.

You may have heard stories about how a famous poet, novelist, artist, or leader attributes their success to a small compliment given by a teacher or mentor.

In the microcosm of your organization, compliments can have a profound impact. Perhaps we’re not comfortable complimenting people. Maybe we don’t understand how. Maybe we just don’t know what to say. Or maybe we don’t realize how transformative compliments can be.

Mark Twain quote: “I can live for two months on a good compliment."

The science behind why we love compliments

Merriam-Webster defines a compliment as “an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration.”

To understand the science of compliments, we need to understand how people respond to kindness or to human behavior in general.

Understanding the rule of reciprocity

Social psychologists have come up with a theory called the “norm of reciprocity” or “rule of reciprocity.” It’s become such an established finding that scientists have no problem calling it a “rule,” in the same way that 2 + 2 = 4.

The idea is this: When humans receive a favor, they feel a sense of obligation to return that favor.

In one experiment, a sociologist named Dr. Phillip Kunz mailed hundreds of Christmas cards to random strangers. Each note was handwritten. In the Christmas letter, he included a picture of him and his family.

Guess what happened. 37% of Kunz’s recipients responded. Remember, he mailed these Christmas cards to total strangers—hundreds of them. Why? Kunz was just a normal looking dude, so it certainly wasn’t his photograph.

Kunz himself was taken aback: “I was really surprised by how many responses there were. And I was surprised by the number of letters that were written, some of them three, four pages long."

How do we explain this? The rule of reciprocity.

How the rule of reciprocity works in daily life

Pretend with me for a minute. Let’s say you stand up from your chair and walk out of your office and down the hall. You pass a colleague in the hallway. “Hey, Dave,” she says. (Maybe your name isn’t Dave. That’s not the point.)

What do you do after she says, “Hey, Dave”? Most likely, you turn, smile, and say, “Hey, Sarah.” (Or whatever her name is.) Why? Because you are reciprocating her friendly behavior and greeting. If you didn’t say anything, look at her, or respond, it might seem rude.

Reciprocation rules our lives. From the way we interact in our marriages, with our children, among our colleagues, or toward our employees, its implications are enormous.

Woven into the application of this rule is the act of giving a compliment. When person A gives person B a compliment, person B feels obligated to give back in some way. The rule of reciprocity governs the interaction.

Compliments are powerful because humans are responsive creatures. We are hardwired to respond to fellow humans in a similar way.

Look at compliments through the lens of the communication model. Complimenting is a two-way street. You give the compliment. The other person receives the compliment. And then you, the sender, receive feedback based on the receiver’s behavior.

The entire process is rewarding and reciprocated. Kindness begets charity. A smile elicits a smile. And a compliment can revolutionize an individual’s behavior.

What does a compliment do?

It’s hard to quantify the impact of a compliment, much less to describe its effect in a few bullet points. Nonetheless, here are a few observations about compliments.

  • Compliments enhance performance. Compliments may not pay the rent, but they help improve performance in a similar way to receiving a cash reward. In fact, research shows that a single compliment on a person’s performance or work will directly contribute to their improved skill or performance on that given task or other similar tasks.
  • Compliments boost self-perception. Most of us have a general feeling about how we look and act in the eyes of other people. We may not be confident, however, as to the accuracy of these perceptions. A compliment either affirms or enhances our self-perception with independent corroboration.
  • Compliments improve the overall environment of a workplace. A few well-placed compliments in a workplace can serve to bring up the satisfaction temperature of the whole group.
  • Compliments get the focus off yourself. As awesome as you are, getting the focus off of yourself is probably a healthy thing. In order to give a compliment, we must recognize value and worth in other people and their work.
  • Compliments affirm right behavior and actions. If someone is questioning their ability or actions, a compliment can give them a clear sense of their direction.
  • Compliments elicit goodwill toward the giver. We don’t give compliments to get people to like us. But, as the rule of reciprocity predicts, a compliment fosters a sense of closeness and friendship between the giver and receiver.

How to give a meaningful compliment

At this point, I need to issue a little disclaimer.

Compliments are not flattery. These are two very different things, even though they look a lot alike. The difference lies in the giver.

A flatterer gives to get. A complimenter gives to give.

Someone who delivers compliments does so to benefit others.

If you give compliments (and I hope you will) please do so with a sincere focus upon others and their well-being, not your own benefit or reputation.

Here are a few tips on giving a meaningful compliments to your team members:

  • Compliment authentically. I realize I’m repeating myself, but that’s okay. Authenticity is crucial.
  • Compliment frequently. Complimenting someone on a regular basis can be a great way to strengthen a relationship. I can’t give you a compliment calendar, but I can suggest that you compliment others when you sense they need or deserve it.
  • Compliment according to the other person’s comfort level. Some people are very uncomfortable receiving a compliment. If you’re not sure how an individual will respond to your compliment, try getting to know them a little bit first. Are they an out-there extrovert, with a desire to be recognized by others? Or do they shun the spotlight and prefer to keep a low profile? Compliments can be given publicly or privately, but should respect the comfort level of the person you’re complimenting.
  • Compliment specifically. Some compliments are cliché and shallow. “Nice tie” is less impactful than, “I noticed that you sent in that proposal 3 days ahead of deadline. You even included some extra details that will probably seal the deal! Well done!” Pointing out a specific trait, task, attribute, or accomplishment will give the person a greater sense of appreciation.
  • Compliment appropriately. Some compliments, kind and sincere as they may be, aren’t appropriate. I’ll leave “not appropriate” up to your imagination. Examples of appropriate compliments are remarking on someone’s work, productivity, family, achievements, etc. More personal compliments should be reserved for special relationships, not professional ones.

Who can you compliment today?

The more you compliment, the better you’ll get at it. And the better you’ll feel about yourself, your team members, and your work environment.

Just be real. Don’t overdo it, overthink it, or try too hard.

Simply say what you mean, and mean it.

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