Never Underestimate the Value of a Compliment

Grateful to a colleague of mine for discovering a recent scientific study on the power behind giving people compliments.

How frequently do you compliment people? Are you reluctant to compliment someone? What could stop us from complimenting people?

We will explore and answers these questions and give implications for what you can do to give more compliments and better recognition.

Compliments and Scientific Evidence

Erica J. Boothby and Vanessa K. Bohns, from the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University respectively, conducted research on Why a Simple Act of Kindness Is Not as Simple as It Seems—Underestimating the Positive Impact of Our Compliments on Others.

They conducted five studies to explore how givers of compliments perceived a recipient’s reactions to their compliment. It appears that compliment givers underestimate how positively recipients feel after receiving the compliment.  

People have genuine anxiety about their abilities to give meaningful and effective compliments. Their awkwardness transfers into an attitude of misforecasting, or underestimating, the effect their compliment will have on people. Compliment givers thought the person they complimented would feel less happy, good, pleased, and flattered than they did. Yet, researchers also found the compliment givers felt pretty good themselves after giving someone a compliment. 

The recognition significance from this research is that because people underestimate the value of their compliments on others, they refrain from giving compliments. The same principle likely applies to appreciating people for who they are and recognizing them for what they do. If a person doesn’t think that recognition is valuable in the eyes of the recipient, they likely won’t recognize deserving people around them.

Implications for Improving Recognition 

In looking at these different studies it made me aware that we have not done sufficient work in analyzing and sharing recognition perceptions and program data to all employees, versus just to their managers. 

  1. Find out how your employees feel about giving recognition.

This means that we need to survey all employees and determine the positivity and perception they think of the recognition they give to others and of the recognition they receive. 

You could ask employees how happy, good, and valued they thought a peer would feel because of receiving genuine recognition using a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 = not at all, and 7 = very/very much). This gets at the employees’ perception of how their recognition giving is perceived by the recipients of recognition. A different measure than what we typically use. The higher the score the more likely employees will recognize one another. The lower the score the less likely recognition will happen and the need for some education.

Similar to the research study, you should also ask employees how likely they would be to give genuine recognition to a peer for doing great work well or helping others, again using a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 = not at all likely, 7 = very likely). You would use this score and link it with the perceived value of recognition to see the outcome. 

2. Share broadly how valued recognition is to employees 

After this you need to capture personal anecdotes in the form of video interviews of employees who have given consent to record them, and for all employees to hear and see the value recognition has on others from these recordings. Imagine asking each of the interviewed employees to describe how they feel after someone has recognized them.  How do they feel when they haven’t received recognition? 

It is also important to teach employees from all levels, not just managers, how to give meaningful and effective recognition so they don’t feel awkward or anxious about what to say or how to give recognition in the right way. 

Studies like the one referenced above help us see recognition in a different light. 

It has always been said that awareness is sixty percent of the solution. If we can make everyone in an organization more aware of the importance and value recognition has on others, we have automatically reduced the risk factors people feel on whether to recognize someone. Give them the education and training they need on how to give better recognition and you will have a winning combination of awareness and skills working hand in hand.

Recognition Reflection: How often do you stop to assess why people don’t give recognition to others?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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