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Team Productivity

The Psychology and Practice of Complimenting Your Team

Daniel Threlfall
January 14, 2016

“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 and 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.

It could be a sincere comment from an English professor. “You have a gift for writing.” And that shy 9th grader, goes on to win a Pulitzer prize for fiction.

Apart from the dubious hype over self-esteem and our cultural morass of narcissism, we can’t argue with the fact that compliments are significant and life-changing.

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.

Why we love compliments (the science)

A compliment is “a polite expression of praise or admiration.”

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

Social psychologists have come up with a theory called the “norm of reciprocity.”It’s also called the “rule of reciprocity,” or the “reciprocity norm.”

It has 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.

This was 1976 or so, when email and Facebook hadn’t quite gone mainstream. Ergo, mailed cards. 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."

What was going on here? Why were people saying “thanks” and writing long letters to some Kuntz guy they never met for a Christmas card that had a picture of an ordinary family they didn’t even know?

How do we explain this? Answer: The rule of reciprocity. Here’s how it works in daily life, sans Kunz’s experiments.

Pretend with me for a minute. Pretend you stand up from your chair, 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. Deal with it.) What do you do after she says, “Hey, Dave”? If you’re sort of normal, 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, didn’t look at her, and didn’t respond, it might seem rude. You reciprocate her behavior.

Reciprocation rules our lives. From the way that 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 to person B a compliment, person B feels obligated to give back in some way. The rule of reciprocity governs the interaction.

The power of a compliment is just as powerful as handing out cash, says one study. In the Forbes article covering the study, contributor David DiSalvo wrote:

Compliments may not pay the rent, but according to new research, they help improve performance in a similar way to receiving a cash reward. [The cash reward research came from a corollary study.]

When I examined the study he cited, I gained some fascinating insight into how compliments can change someone’s behavior.

In the study, researchers complimented specific workers on their performance. They did not compliment others (the control group). Overwhelmingly, those who received the compliments performed better in subsequent analyses and data-driven testing.

The title of the study made the finding clear: “Social rewards [i.e., compliments] enhance offline improvements in motor skill.”

It looks a little complicated, but these graphs sort of say the same thing:

(You’ll have to trust me on this one. Or you can read the study.)

Another aspect of compliments is the way that they alter a person’s 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.

One study confirmed the hypothesis that compliments had a significant effect upon self-perception for both men and women.

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

The so-called “Golden Rule” (Luke 6:31) assumes the validity of the reciprocity rule:

Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

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 of complimenting/receiving/feedback is rewarding and reciprocated. Kindness begets charity. A smile elicits a smile. And a compliment can revolutionize an individual’s behavior.

Why don’t we give compliments as often as we should?

Some of us are great compliment-givers. We’re like a veritable Santa Claus when it comes to handing out these things. Others of us? Maybe not so much. We’re not exactly the Grinch, but we struggle with the whole compliment thing.

Why? We don’t know what to say.

Complimenting takes a bit of finesse. “Hey, uh, nice shirt!” is easy enough, but the fine art of the compliment goes beyond the nice-shirt-nice-tie platitudes. We feel like we’re manipulating people.

This is a tough one.

Some people use compliments as a form of manipulation. This is a low blow to human decency, and it’s certainly an unethical way to use language and persuasion.

Perhaps in an effort to veer as far towards the honesty end of the spectrum as possible, we tend to give few compliments. We feel artificial.

Complimenting takes the focus off of self and onto another person. This by itself is difficult enough.

When it comes to verbalizing our appreciation for someone else, it’s easy to freeze up. For some reason, this unnatural action makes us uncomfortable or a bit artificial perhaps.

We don’t know how complimenting works.

I think this is probably the biggest roadblock to compliments. We just don’t understand how they work. I think that if we knew more about the power of compliments, we would give more of them out to people. So, in the interest of opening up your eyes to the full-orbed power of a compliment, consider these points.

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.

How to give compliments.

At this point, I need to issue a little disclaimer. (It’s the whole flattery thing again, making us feel all awkward.)

Compliments are not flattery. Compliments and flattery 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.

As Proverbs 29:5 makes clear, “A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet.” The point of the proverb? Flattery will get you into trouble.

Someone who delivers compliments, however, does so in order 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 or employees:


Compliment, but be normal. As important as they are, compliments have a way of getting weird. It can get awkward if you deliver your compliments in an artificial tone of voice, or with poetic effort.

Just be real. Don’t overdo it, overthink it, or try too hard. Just say what you mean, and mean it.

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.

Who can you compliment today?

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