The power of compliments

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management

Compliments are good for you. A genuine, well-placed compliment can boost self-esteem, motivation and fulfillment — whether you’re giving the compliment or receiving it.

Sometimes, the most effective compliments of all are the ones you “conduct” instead of give. Compliment conducting is the skill of seeding a compliment behind the scenes, like a midfielder toeing a leading pass to the striker. You’re prompting someone else who is in a better position to give the compliment.

Here’s a story to illustrate compliment conducting:

My friend slumped in his chair. “I might not want to do my job anymore,” he said. “I’m thinking about quitting.”

We all leaned in around the table. “What’s going on?” I asked.

He told us he’d been promoted and was about to start a big project. He’s responsible for the physical safety of his employees, among other things.

He was afraid someone could get hurt on his watch. “I’m not sure I’m cut out for this,” he confided.

“But the guys love you,” said another friend who works in the same firm.

My friend smiled politely, but I saw the compliment skip right past him. Now was a time for compliment conducting.

“What do they say about him?” I asked the co-worker friend.

“Oh, they’re always glad when he’s assigned to manage a project they’re on,” she said.

“Yes, but what do they say?” I asked, wanting my friend to get the full glow of the compliment.

“They’ll say ‘Yeah!’ and pump their fist and have a big smile,” she said. “They ask for him specifically. They know there won’t be any dumb mistakes or drama when he’s in charge.

“And they know they’ll be safe,” she added.

I watched the compliment land. I watched my friend’s shoulders straighten and a smile spread across his face. I couldn’t have given him the compliment because I don’t have firsthand knowledge of his work performance, but I could prompt his co-worker to do so.

Genuine compliments are not just about being nice and giving someone a verbal present, however. They are also good management.

Research out of Japan found that compliments help improve performance in a similar way to receiving a cash reward, according to Forbes.

“We’ve been able to find scientific proof that a person performs better when they receive a social reward after completing an exercise,” said Norihiro Sadato, a professor at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Japan.

Researchers theorize that complimenting someone’s efforts acts as a catalyst for better “skill consolidation” during sleep, according to Forbes. Praise seems to provide the right memory boost for the brain to more efficiently consolidate learning while asleep.

Giving and receiving compliments is important for well-being, regardless of how senior you are in your career.

“Who gives you compliments at work?” I asked one of my coaching clients, a senior vice president at a local manufacturing company who wanted to work on his confidence and motivation.

“Oh, at this level we’re expected to perform without appreciation or acknowledgment,” he said. “We’re supposed to give positive feedback, not need it ourselves.”

After I finished shaking my head, we strategized about where he could get genuine and specific compliments at work, identifying trusted allies who could point out what he does well, as a tactic to boost his energy, determination and confidence.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.