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Career Column: Making the Most of Compliments

Have you been receiving too many compliments lately? Probably not. Have you been giving too many compliments? I doubt that scenario also. Compliments are a just a set of words that provide helpful information to motivate behavior. Research suggests that this kind of human word-processing on an emotional level actually increases our endorphins, the "feel good" chemical in the brain of both giver and receiver. But we don't need brain research to tell us that altruism or genuine helpfulness, even in the simple form of compliments, just feels pretty darn good. So why do we hold back on giving compliments and seem to have difficulty receiving compliments at times? The short answer is faulty thinking and fear. But rather than go into the dynamics of fear, which is indeed a powerful motivator of human behavior, let's just "feel the fear" and think differently anyway. We'll zero-in on some common sense tips for giving compliments in the workplace and receiving them fearlessly.

Let's consider some of the main reasons for giving sincere, effective compliments in the workplace:

  • to help assure that a job well-done will be noticed and continued
  • so the giver will stand out and be remembered (such as in a job interview)
  • so the receiver may develop the confidence needed to fine tune a skill

New supervisors often think that just saying "thank you" to an employee is enough. A genuine and effective compliment addresses individual behavior, specific competence, or contributions. Here are some examples of effective and no as effective compliments:

Thank you.
You're a good interviewer.
I like your work.
Thanks again for 100% accurate data in your report.
I'm glad that I could rely on you to start on time.
Your work is above the quality of other beginners.

Have you ever given someone a compliment and ended up wishing you hadn't? If so, it is probably because the receiver said something that created an awkward or conflicting moment for you. Would you, as the giver, be more likely or less likely to compliment that person after that? We each know the answer. Just as giving a compliment can serve as a source of empowerment, so can receiving a compliment. A compliment well received demonstrates social grace, diplomacy, even courage. One of two different approaches can be applied to receiving a compliment effectively: A closed-end response consists simply of the magic KISS (Keep It Short and Simple...unless it's a loved one or someone who can literally be kissed outside the workplace). The words "Thank you" or "I appreciate that" are effective closed-end responses. Eye contact and a smile, along with this basic approach, paints a warmly authentic picture of the receiver. Avoid the mistake of following such a brief response with controversial remarks (best for a separate conversation) or anything that puts yourself down or takes away from the compliment; we're all tempted at times, but can make a conscious decision to keep quiet and not do this.

An open-end response is one that figuratively opens the door for more helpful feedback. In some ways it does the giver of the compliment a favor by providing an opportunity to be more effective. The open-end response often takes the form of a question. For example, "Thanks. Can you tell me what I did, specifically, that you liked?" An open-end response in the form of a statement could be, "I've often wondered how you felt about my work in that area and I'd appreciate more detail." The receipt of this information can be followed up with "I appreciate your feedback." Or, "Okay, that's helpful to know and I'll keep in it mind."

If you change the way that you think about compliments, compliments can change you. Most adults were not sent to charm school. Many of us grew up as the children of parents who did not lavish us with compliments, so opportunities abound in adulthood to practice and grow from the skills of effectively giving and receiving compliments. Don't miss your chance. Try giving at least one effective compliment every day to a supervisee, a co-worker and even your supervisor (called "managing your boss"...wink-wink). Since research has found that an altruistic compliment can affect chemical neurotransmitters in the brain, why not do yourself a favor and "rev up" these feel-good chemicals by dealing with compliments more often. You'll feel better, whether sending or receiving. And who doesn't want to feel good?

Debi Carter-Ford is a professor of psychology and consultant to management in the areas of applied psychology and employee training. Questions and comments may be sent to careers@dunsonandassociates.com.
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