By Steve Kelman

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We underestimate the value of complimenting others

thumbs up (megaflopp/

As some blog readers may remember, I am a regular reader of a Harvard Business Review publication called The Daily Alert. It publishes several short pieces a day of practical, research-based advice about running a business better in particular, and managing better in general.

The Daily Alert recently published a piece called “A simple compliment can make a big difference,” by Erica Boothby of the Wharton School, Xuan Zhao of Stanford, and Vanessa K. Bohns of Cornell. Positive feedback, the authors write, “has been shown to mitigate the negative effects of stress on employee performance. Neuroscientists have even shown that the brain processes verbal affirmations similarly to financial rewards.”

Yet the piece provides research evidence that we tend to underestimate the benefits of complimenting others. In one study, the researchers “asked participants to estimate how another person would feel after receiving a compliment. We then asked those same participants to actually compliment another person, and we compared how that person actually felt after receiving the compliment to how participants imagined that person would feel.”

They found that “people underestimated how good their compliment would make the recipient feel. Compliment-givers tend to believe the other person won’t enjoy their interaction as much as they actually do; in fact, they often believe that their exchange will probably make the person a little uncomfortable. Yet receiving a compliment brightens people’s day much more than anticipated, leaving them feeling better, and less uncomfortable, than givers expect.” (The study was conducted separately among pairs of friends and pairs of strangers, and results were the same.)

People give too few compliments, the authors argue: “When it comes to deciding whether to express praise or appreciation to another person, doubt creeps in. We find that people are overly concerned about their ability to convey praise skillfully (‘What if my delivery is awkward?’), and their anxiety leaves them overly pessimistic about the effects their messages will have.” In one experiment, where participants were asked to formulate a compliment for a colleague, only half actually sent it out even after doing so.

There is also a worry that “giving compliments too often will devalue one’s compliments or make them seem less sincere. Our research suggests this is simply not the case. Although people in one experiment expected that those who received one compliment a day over the course of a week would feel increasingly less positive each day and find the compliments increasingly less sincere, contrary to expectations the compliments actually brightened recipients’ mood similarly each day.”

There is another reason we may underappreciate compliments not mentioned in the piece. In some workplace cultures – I think, stereotypically and perhaps incorrectly of military cultures – “toughness” is valued over warm behaviors that may be seen as soft. Real men don’t fool around with compliments.

Over the years I have written a number of blogs about inexpensive or even costless behaviors by managers that are available to any manager and can improve how an organization works. Compliments should be added to that list. Let’s make sure this is in our repertoire.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 02, 2021 at 7:01 AM


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