Many people have a love-hate relationship when it comes to compliments.
Love: It can be incredibly validating when your boss says you crushed that presentation, or when a coworker you admire says they shared your latest report with their entire team as an example of what to aim for. Hate: It can also be seriously intimidating to be put on the spot or forced to brag about yourself.
So it’s no wonder we’re inclined to reply to positive reinforcement by brushing it off, or worse, throwing a fake or half-hearted compliment back at the person. While well-intentioned, these aren’t the best ways to react.
Here’s how you should actually respond to a compliment at work if you want to look just the right amount of confident.
Why is your reply important?
To understand why responding to a compliment at work appropriately matters, it’s important to understand why people give compliments in the first place. It’s about cultivating strong relationships, according to Eloise Eonnet, a Muse career coach
and the founder of communication coaching service Eloquence
“Everything that you get out of work comes from the relationships that you build,” Eonnet told Fairygodboss. “Giving compliments is signaling two things: One, that you see that person and that you see the work that they’re doing,” she said. “And then the next step of that is, ‘I am your ally.’”
Reciprocating those feelings in the form of a clear, respectful response signals back to the person who complimented you that you appreciate their feedback and ultimately value them. In other words, “It's encouraging that positive relationship building,” Eonnet said.
When we, especially women, struggle to accept a compliment (and thus respond poorly), it’s often because we’re worried about coming across as vain or stuck-up, entrepreneur KT Bernhagen previously wrote on The Muse
. But, Bernhagen added, “These reactions are dangerous—for our self-confidence, for our careers, and even for our work relationships.”
Eonnet said to think about receiving compliments less as a bragging opportunity and more as a guidepost for future work. “Look at it as a check on the list of things that you're doing well and a signal to keep doing things that way,” she said. “That's all it needs to be about.”
How to respond to a compliment at work
The next time someone says to you, “Awesome job!” take these seven steps in response.
1. Say “thank you.”
Saying “thank you” isn’t just polite — it’s the simplest way to validate someone’s words.
Easy as it is, “You’ll be surprised at how often you’re tempted to skip saying ‘Thank you’ in favor of immediately steering the conversation to something different,” Kat Boogaard, an employment advisor at a local college and freelancer who specializes in writing about careers, previously wrote on The Muse
“Yes, you might be breaking into a cold sweat at the very idea of having all of the attention focused on you,” Boogaard added. “However, resist that urge to hurriedly jump out of that spotlight so that you can at least offer a genuine response.”
2. Don’t deny or dismiss it (if you really did earn it).
The particularly humble among us may be inclined to immediately dismiss our achievements or even deny we did anything at all. Instead, “We respond by talking about the things we should have done better. We suggest that other people deserve to share the credit. We explain that there’s still so much more to be done,” Bernhagen said.
Perhaps you struggle with imposter syndrome
so you feel that the work you’ve done doesn’t deserve praise, or maybe you’re just suspicious of flattery. Add to all this the fact that in some cultures
, humility is heavily prized, and accepting a compliment could be perceived as having an overly superior sense of self or thinking you’re better than others.
But when you receive a compliment, remember that someone has taken the time and effort to provide this positive feedback to you. “Undermining other people’s comments isn’t doing you any favors — and it’s only going to make your conversational partner feel pressured to continue saying nice things about you in an attempt to pad your ego,” Boogaard said
Eonnet added that by denying the feedback, you’re “dismissing the power” of the compliment — in other words, you’re ignoring what it can offer you, whether it’s valuable feedback for the future or a confidence boost for right now.
3. Don’t reciprocate or change the spotlight — unless it’s warranted.
You shouldn’t be afraid to own your accomplishments, and you also shouldn’t feel obligated to deflect the compliment onto a coworker or team or toss a compliment right back at someone just because they gave you one.
“People feel like they need to give a compliment in return,” Eonnet said, but it’s not necessary. “It's really important to thank the person and…fully own that moment.”
That said, if there’s someone else that deserves just as much — if not more or all — of the credit, be honest, Eonnet said. (Wouldn’t you want someone to pass the recognition on to you if the roles were reversed?) “Let them know you’re the wrong person to be complimenting, she added, “and redirect them to the right person.”
For example, you could say:
- “Yes, I loved working on this project, but [Name] is the one who was responsible for its success.”
- “This was a great initiative, and [Name] is the one who led it!”
- “Thank you so much for saying that. I could not have made this happen without my team: [Name, Name, and Name]. I'm grateful for our collaboration.”
4. Acknowledge how it makes you feel.
People feel good when they know they’ve made you feel good. Eonnet said it’s OK to let the person who complimented you know how their feedback resonates with you, whether it makes you feel supported or motivated or seen — but only if it “feels natural and true to you,” she added. In other words, don’t make something up just to please them.
5. Tie it back to work.
Tying your response back to work can be a great way to set up productive conversations down the road.
“Think strategically about what you want out of that relationship,” Eonnet said. For example, if you’re being complimented by a client you want to work with again or renew a contract with, maybe you say something like, “Thank you, I’m so glad you feel that way. I'm really looking forward to working with you over the next couple of years.”
Or if your boss compliments you and you’re hoping to get a raise in the near future, maybe you respond with, “Thank you for saying that. It's been such a wonderful year of growth, and I'm really excited to keep growing.” This, Eonnet said, allows for no surprises when you eventually make your ask.
In short, Eonnet added, “Say something that is advancing the relationship that you want, given that you're in a position of power because they're happy with the work that you're doing.”
6. Use it as an opportunity to grow.
Compliments are a signal that you’re on the right path and an opportunity to get even better at your job.
“Anyone who’s willing to give you this kind of reinforcement is also making it clear that she’s taken the time to think about a project you’ve worked on,” Richard Moy, a former recruiter, previously wrote on The Muse. “Take advantage of the time she’s given your work and ask a few follow-up questions. Find out what she liked, why, and how she thinks you could duplicate those efforts in the future.”
7. Take it to heart.
No matter how you respond to a compliment externally, it’s important to remind yourself that you deserve it.
“Don’t just hear compliments, actually listen to them,” Boogaard said
. “Not only will those kind words brighten your day, but they will also boost your confidence — meaning you’ll feel that much more comfortable the next time you’re faced with praise.”
And, Moy added, “You’ll eventually train yourself to stop living your life as if everyone is out to tell you about everything you’ve messed up.”
Example responses to a compliment
When in doubt, Bernhagen said
, keep things short and sweet: “A smile and a simple ‘thank you so much’ works in most scenarios.”
But if you’re looking for more elaborate responses, here are some other things you could say:
“Thank you so much, [Name].Your encouragement is really meaningful to me/I really appreciate the feedback.”
“Thank you for those kind words. I'm so proud of [the achievement that this compliment relates to].”
“Thank you! It makes me feel [how you feel] to hear you say that. I’m excited for [what comes next].”
“Thanks for saying that. It’s been great to work on [what you’re being complimented for]. I’d love to get your thoughts on [what else you’d like feedback on].”
What kinds of compliments are inappropriate at work, and how should you respond?
Some compliments — or “compliments” — have no place in a professional setting. If Pete from sales is basically catcalling you as you walk by on your way to a conference room, that’s obviously not okay.
But compliments are subjective and context-dependent, which means in some cases it can be hard to identify when a compliment borders on inappropriate. For example, a work friend telling you, “I love your outfit today!” is often harmless, if not flattering. But the same comment said a different way — or with a different tone — by a superior or someone you’re not as close to can come across offputting, if not creepy. Eonnet said that when in doubt, “trust your gut” — you know best how someone’s words make you feel and why you feel that way.
When something doesn’t feel right, Eonnet said, not responding is often the best thing you can do. “The most important thing is to pause and take your time because responding in the moment can make you flustered or even more uncomfortable,” Eonnet said. From there, she added, figure out “what feels right to you, whether it's going to HR, whether it's sitting down with another coworker who's above that person and having a conversation.”
“If you thank someone for a compliment that sits really, really wrong with you, you’re going against your truth and what feels right to you, and you're also getting yourself into a sticky situation where the person can be like, ‘But she was fine with it. She said thank you,’” she added.
If you feel like you have no choice but to respond, Eonnet suggested focusing your response on the work itself: “Skip the thank you, skip how it makes you feel, and go straight to, ‘It's been a really incredible project to work on.’” And then leave it at that.
(If you think someone’s compliments at work constitute sexual harassment, take a look at The Muse’s guide to dealing with sexual harassment to help you handle the situation.)
Make sure you give compliments at work, too.
There’s no right or wrong frequency, Eonnet said. “As long as it comes from an honest place, you should be giving compliments as soon as it feels appropriate,” she said.
She added that while tying the compliment to a major success — such as closing a sales deal or hitting a revenue goal — can be a good strategy, giving compliments
at random has its merits: “That’s oftentimes the most heartfelt compliments and the ones that are received with the most joy.”
Alyse Kalish has spent eight years reporting on careers and business news and running freelance desks at Insider and The Muse. Her work has been featured on Fast Company, Forbes, CNBC, and other major outlets. You can check out her website or follow her on Twitter @Alyslice.
Fairygodboss team editors also contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.
What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for responding to compliments at work? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!