Research has shown that receiving praise, a compliment, or a positive work review can have the same effect on someone as receiving a cash award. But if this is really the case, then why don’t we find the whole experience more, well, pleasant? Oftentimes, receiving a compliment can feel pretty awkward.
Unfortunately, most of us aren't born with social graces. Some people (think politicians, salespeople, and many extroverts for example) easily respond to compliments with quick, appreciative gesture; the rest of us, however, often become flustered and stammer out the first response we can think of — which often isn't the best choice and doesn't convey the actual gratitude we feel. Ideally, your response should leave the complimenter feeling appreciated and validated.
The same way you respond in person: with a thank you!
A short note is acceptable — what you want to convey is that you've seen the praise. While not responding may seem like a good idea, especially if you're trying to avoid clogging up their inbox, trust me, you'll want to acknowledge you received the message.
The reasons are varied, ranging from not wanting to appear big-headed or vain to not wanting to be seen as taking the credit for something we may not have been totally responsible for. Perhaps you may struggle with Imposter Syndrome and feel that the work you’ve done doesn’t deserve praise for that reason, or maybe you’re just suspicious of flattery.
Add to all this the fact that in some cultures, humility is often heavily prized, and accepting a compliment could be perceived as having an overly superior sense of self or feeling better than others. I’ve certainly seen instances of this firsthand throughout my career, as well as noting the differences in people’s comfort levels when giving and receiving compliments across cultures and nationalities.
When you receive a compliment, the most important thing to remember is that someone has taken the time and effort to provide this positive feedback to you. So despite your feeling the urge to deflect or downplay it, the simplest and easiest response is to say a genuine and sincere “thank you” to the person who complimented you.
If you are given a compliment in person, it’s always important that you first and foremost communicate gratitude by saying “thank you” to the other party directly, ideally accompanied with eye contact, a positive demeanor, and a friendly smile. Depending on the nature of your relationship with this person, you may even choose to say, “Thank you, I really appreciate you taking the time to say this.” This way, it shows that you really do acknowledge the compliment and aren’t just shrugging it off with an “oh, thanks.”
One area that has been known to cause especial discomfort is when someone compliments an individual of the opposite gender, especially at work. Certainly, not all supposed “compliments” are warranted — some are even flat-out inappropriate. You need to use your own personal judgment based on the relationship you have with an individual before complimenting them, but of course, positive feedback and genuine merit-based compliments should only bring happiness to the workplace.
It’s always important to remember that the person who paid the compliment needs recognition, too, for taking the time to pay it to you. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you then need to throw a compliment straight back at them! Should you find an opportunity to provide praise or a compliment back, then do take it. Be sure to be specific about why are you complimenting them, though, so that it doesn’t seem disingenuous.
This is especially the case if the compliment you’d be giving in return isn’t totally unwarranted. You’ll seem insincere, and the other person will likely wind up having to share in your awkwardness.
For those of us who have grown up in or worked in a company culture where giving praise or paying compliments is rare, we naturally assume we don’t really deserve it and surely the other person must be “after something” from us in saying it.
First and foremost, resist your urge to just “shrug it off” and use those immortal words of “Oh, it was nothing.” You may think you are being modest in saying that, but in reality you are potentially diminishing the feedback the person has just provided you. Worse still, it may be seen as a sign that you are actually “fishing” for more compliments (yikes!).
Think of a time when someone complimented you on an item of clothing. I suspect your first response was along the lines of: “Oh what, this old thing?” That could be seen as a way of you eliciting further compliments about your clothes or style when it was never your intention, but instead the result of your quick response. Besides, we should all be the practice of learning how best to take credit for the awesome work we do; therefore, undermining our work and achievements isn't in our best interest.
In the same way that it’s useful to always be specific when providing feedback, know that you don’t need to ask for a detailed explanation of what warranted the compliment. Just accept it for what it is. However, if you genuinely want to understand what specifically drove the person to call it out, you can always do that in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they are being interrogated by you, or like they shouldn’t direct praise toward you.
If you happen to receive the compliment via email or over social media, still take the time to thank and acknowledge the person in a timely fashion. Don’t just assume you shouldn’t say “thank you” for receiving it just because it wasn’t in-person. A genuine compliment via any form of medium still carries the same importance, and therefore a response is always appreciated.
If you truly feel that the compliment doesn’t solely belong to you, take the time to acknowledge any others who may also deserve the recognition or praise. Make sure all contributions are acknowledged.
You may choose to say something like, “[Name teammates] also contributed on that piece of work — it was a true team effort! Thank you so much for taking the time to acknowledge our hard work.”
Try naming the others involved and giving the person the opportunity of also thanking them directly. Alternatively, if they feel more comfortable this way, you can always say that you’ll pass it on and again thank them for taking the time to provide the feedback.
If a person’s achievements and/or contributions deserve a call-out, always be honest and specific. Simply saying, “hey, that was a great job,” doesn’t allow the person to know exactly what they did that warranted such a compliment.
All of us are, in actuality, eager to receive praise and have our hard work recognized by our peers. So getting the chance to hear exactly what the specific skill or task we demonstrated was can be valuable in ensuring we’re able to repeat it again in the future.
Go on — go give a compliment to someone who deserves it!
Lis Brown is a People Leader with more than 25 years experience in the Management Consulting and Technology Industries. She has spent most of her career working around the globe and has truly embraced operating across different cultures and working styles, often being the only woman leader in the room. Lis is a passionate supporter of all aspects of Diversity and more importantly in ensuring inclusive and supportive environments for all. She is known for her strong moral compass and has no fear in speaking out and doing the right thing.