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When compliments go wrong

April 23, 2012

You Are Beautiful, by Max Wolfe

“Nice job.”

(“Like” clicked.)


The world is filled with empty praise. Managers are instructed to “catch people doing something right,” a standby from the excellent book, “The One-Minute Manager” [aff. link].

What could be possibly be wrong with rewarding people with a “nice job” or an “attagirl”? Doesn’t the working world have enough bosses who can easily name all the things they dislike about their staffers?

These drive-by compliments highlight a disconnect often found in the working world. When the boss or even the boss’ boss comes trotting through the office, such compliments-lite come off as insincere. Workers who feel underappreciated aren’t likely to be swelling with pride over a 2-second assessment.

Having worked at several publications, I know compliments were few and far between. I myself was guilty of being stingy on praise, for fear that too many compliments would weaken their meaning. I was wrong.

Even in the blog world, such flimsy positive comments can be viewed as spammy, a cheap way to get a link back to one’s own site. (In fact, spambots litter sites with stock phrases millions of times an hour.)

A truly effective compliment has both specificity and sincerity.

Being specific in the details turns a drive-by compliment into a real connection. It shows that the giver is actually paying attention.

“Jane, I really liked how you presented your critique in this morning’s meeting. It showed careful thought and consideration of the project team while also giving us alternatives in moving forward.”

The giver points out a particular action that merits notice, the when, the how, the why. Will Jane continue this behavior with positive reinforcement received?

Being sincere shows the receiver that the giver cares about him as a person. It comes from delivery cues, such as eye contact, a smile, enthusiasm and, if appropriate, a touch on the shoulder or even a pat on the back.

Genuine heart moves it from caring only about self (drive-by praise) to caring about the other person (real compliment). It’s not about showing off how much a supervisor pretends to care, but about elevating someone else for cleverness, extra effort or courage.

Praise matters. As “One-Minute Manager” authors Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson assert, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions,” referring to both praise and constructive criticism.

If people go to work for companies and leave because of their bosses, often it’s because they feel underappreciated for all the good work they do. Employees find that a little praise can go a long way in boosting morale and squashing the feeling that they’re toiling in obscurity. But it takes an observant and involved leader to be both specific and sincere.

I mentioned earlier that I had been a manager who failed at giving compliments frequently enough. But once I learned the secret, I caught colleagues doing things right on a regular basis. While turnover in the newspaper industry was always high, my department had almost no turnover for years.

And even on something as simple as a leaving a comment on a blog post, I write why I liked it: the clarity of the writing, the author’s willingness to share something personal and revealing, the links to other information, a funny sentence at the beginning.

Authentic positive feedback improves performance, improves morale, improves employee retention and keeps the lines of communication open and healthy. It encourages people to repeat good habits.

And for those who are consistent and even a little lucky, it becomes contagious among everyone in the office.

Photo: Max Wolfe (CC)

Have you complimented someone today, in person or on their blog?

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 10:47 am

    I was tempted to just click ‘Like’, then decided it wouldn’t be very appropriate. Thank you for writing this article, as it is very relevant to so many of us out there right now. So many companies whittled down to bare bones during the recession, discovered that the work was still being done, and decided to continue on in crisis mode, no matter the human toll. Oddly enough, simply recognizing and acknowledging the increased workloads goes a long way towards contentment in employment, in my opinion. Your article shows true understanding of the frustrations of many of us grinding away out here.

    • April 23, 2012 2:09 pm

      You’re welcome. What a nice comment, and an insightful one, too. I hope more leaders will take this advice to heart. I hope more of us take it to heart.

  2. Amy permalink
    April 23, 2012 3:41 pm

    Wade, I had to share this on FB, this is an excellent article. I think too many do fall into the generic pat on the back without understanding that it is meaningless without tying it to effort or accomplishment. The best motivator I ever knew would pay specific compliments and give bonuses, meals, etc without saying, “X is your goal and if you reach it you will get Y.” The rewards and compliments were always more generous and more appreciated than if it were transactional. I have tried to learn from that wisdom, and I had to tell you you are the first person since Jack Cabral that I have heard this advice from.

    • April 23, 2012 11:51 pm

      I appreciate it, Amy. It takes real effort to get to know someone, their strengths and weaknesses, their goals and their personal problems. “X to get Y” reminds me of scientists getting rats to run the maze faster.

  3. Clark permalink
    April 23, 2012 3:53 pm

    Thanks Wade – right on the point. This also has me thinking that the components of a good compliment are the same as those for a good apology – specificity and sincerity. For both, the point of connection to the recipient should be key.

    • April 23, 2012 11:54 pm

      That is remarkably insightful, my friend, and reminds me of all the bad apologies I’ve ever had to endure. I will have to keep it in mind the next time I have to apologize to someone.

  4. April 23, 2012 4:19 pm

    Thanks for addressing Wade. This is a soapbox of mine and it blows my mind how many managers think that it should be enough just to get a paycheck. My favorite line is “I don’t need plaques on the wall. I motivate myself. These people need to grow up!”

    What a golden missed opportunity to personally, genuinely express appreciation. The problem isn’t that bosses don’t show appreciation, it’s that they don’t HAVE appreciation.

    Who really needs to “grow up?”

    • April 23, 2012 11:58 pm

      You’re welcome, Stephen. This reminds me of when things go wrong, I always look to see who’s leading the trainwreck.

      I’ve had to motivate myself through many bad jobs and offices and situations. When faced with a boss who can’t dole out any praise, I find myself motivated to run away as fast as I can. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do so, when not everyone has that luxury.

  5. April 24, 2012 4:41 pm

    Wade you truly are a “Man-o’-Fire”! I am always enlightened by the depth of content you share. You don’t know it but since our meeting a few years back you have truly motivated me to find new and more meaningful ways to market and promote all of my many projects. I love your insightfulness and the way you use stories and analogies to paint a picture. Kudos to you! Maybe you can give me some pointers for my new blog as well. : )

    • April 24, 2012 9:48 pm

      Karen, it looks like it’s off to a great start. Keep blogging, and think of visuals to include with every single post: photos, illustrations, charts, icons, videos, slides, etc.

      • April 24, 2012 11:03 pm

        That’s great feedback! I’ve been thinking about that very thing. I will definitely do so on future posts.


  1. The 2012 index to posts « Birmingham Blogging Academy
  2. When compliments go wrong, part 2 | Birmingham Blogging Academy

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