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The Hidden Power of a Compliment

Can you remember the first conversation you had three days ago? How about what you had for dinner a week last Wednesday? No? You wouldn't be alone.

However, I bet you could tell me the last time someone gave you a meaningful compliment. I'd be willing to bet that you can remember exactly what the compliment was.

What makes a compliment so memorable?

Is it that we have some inbuilt mechanism for remembering compliments? More likely, it's simply their lack of frequency - they are a rare treat. They are also one of the greatest motivational tools available. What was it like last time someone complimented you? Did you feel warm? Happy? Energized? Did you feel encouraged to do more of what is was that provided you with the compliment in the first place?

Regardless of whether this happens at home or work; how easy is it to inject energy and positive motivation into that environment, and give the gift of that warmth, energy and happiness to the people around you? Praise costs nothing, but it is worth its weight in gold. So, if we all have the potential to enrich our homes, workplaces and organizations with this power, why don't we do it more often?

Nudge: I suggest that you ramp up your "praisometer."


Positive reinforcement is a tactic every parent knows well, because recognizing someone's efforts and achievements is one of the simplest, yet most effective ways to reinforce positive behavior patterns and to empower them. We do it with our kids, subconsciously crave it for ourselves, yet for some reason forget how important it is for others in our lives, too.

You have to be smart about praise, though. Throwing random compliments at everyone isn't going to have the desired effect. Like all worthwhile things in life, you have to put some effort in to make it work. Here are three key rules to follow:

1. Be sincere. We all love praise, but if it isn't sincere, relevant or honest, then it will feel like what it is - false. If your choice of compliment isn't credible, then you won't be, either.

2. Be timely. Just as we punish our children as soon as possible after they do wrong to reinforce what behavior is unacceptable, the same is true of praise - it needs to be at the time the praiseworthy action occurred or as soon as possible afterwards.

3. Be creative. Say things the same way, and they'll quickly lose impact. Innovative methods generate energy, so mix it up and keep it fresh. If you praise someone outside formal channels, it will stick out to them and others more so, rather than keeping compliments for the morning staff meeting, be a little unexpected!

4. Be specific about what the compliment is about. You can't reinforce positive behavior if the person doesn't know what behavior is being reinforced! Instead of 'You did a good job on that presentation', try 'Thanks for your hard work on that presentation. You did some really great research and the additional information you found really brought the subject to life.'

5. Be selective. Don't worry about making people feel 'left out' when you compliment a single member of a team - the point of this sort of specific reinforcement is to be targeted so, if one member of a team stood out, tell them why they caught your attention, rather than just giving a half-hearted thank you to the whole team.

6. Be meaningful. Tailor what you say and how you say it to fit the recipient. Some people are naturally quiet and don't like 'fuss', whereas some people thrive on approval or are more outgoing. These people will love a public pat on the back, whereas others will hate it. When energizing a team member, communicate in a style which fits their own, as it will resonate with them more deeply.


7. Be proactive. After reading this, you may be all fired up with good intentions, but it's the action that counts. Don't forget to speak out, be creative and give out that energy, otherwise all you'll have is a good intention.

Ready to go but stuck for ideas? Why not try some of these ideas for some surprise-praise?

- Give someone a handwritten card or notelet. - Leave a small gift on someone's desk - flowers, candy, or a gift certificate. - Put congratulatory messages in the organization's newsletter. - Put a thank you note on a bulletin board.

The crux of the matter is that demonstrating to people that you respect, value and appreciate who they are and what they do unlocks a huge amount of discretionary effort and energy which reverberates through the organization. Fuelling your team on heartfelt, individual and targeted praise is quick, easy and doesn't need to cost a penny.

When was the last time you did it? When will the next time be? How about "sooner rather than later?"