As I prepared to write this article on leadership, I had an interesting personal experience on the power of compliments. I was having a great conversation with a dear friend about how the best leaders take the time to compliment people, (which is the topic of my new book.) My position was that it is so simple, so easy to send a compliment… it only requires a moment of time and thoughtfulness, and yet it can motivate people for days.
My friend said after a moment “It does matter that a leader pays a compliment. But the value of the compliment is based on whether you care about the leader’s opinion.” I asked her to explain.
“When I started working at my current company,” she confided, “I had done something in the first month that caught the attention of the CEO. He sent me a quick email, really only a few words, that essentially said ‘I saw your work; well done!’ And I was really, really excited to get that message from this man.”
“But, as time went on, I got to watch this person in action, and I saw how abusive, selfish and arrogant this guy was. I can’t stand the guy now. Here’s the point: last week he sent me an email saying “Great job on that project,” and CJ… I couldn’t have cared less. I suppose receiving a compliment was better than the brutal tongue-lashing everyone, including me, regularly receives from him. But I don’t put any weight on his words; his praise is meaningless to me.”
I was a little taken aback by my friend, who is a resolutely positive and affirming person. For her to speak negatively about anyone would require a special level of bad leadership.
When you are complimenting someone, if you’ve exhausted the emotional bank account, there is a good chance that your kind words will fall on deaf ears. But don’t think that one moment of praise will make up for a year of animosity. Imagine a guy sending his sweetheart flowers. If he’s sending the flowers to say: “I adore you and I think you’re great,” she’s going to be singing his praises all day. If, however, the guy is in the doghouse and he sends them to say “Sorry, I messed up and I’m a shmuck,” she’ll receive the flowers with a raised eyebrow, suspicion and disdain. They may end up automatically tossed in the trash! Same flowers, but the reaction is based on how the receiver feels about the giver.
You should continue to compliment and uplift people, even if your efforts are initially met with a cold shoulder, for each successive kind action will rebuild the goodwill between you. However, if you have been tough on your staff, remember that it takes a hundred “atta-boys” to make up for one harsh criticism. Now, it’s up to you to cheerfully offer 99 more comments of praise.