Part of a good workplace vibe is good contact between colleagues, as well as good contact between you and your supervisor – or between you and your supervisee. A potentially complex ingredient is the power of compliments. Compliments, per definition, are meant well. However, they can backfire enormously, when they are not received in the spirit in which they are meant. Additionally, part of being in academia is being in an environment where everyone focuses on improving, and not so much on highlighting what is already good.
First things first: there is no fool-proof way to guarantee that a compliment always lands the right way, especially in an international environment. Different cultures come with different norms. Then there can be significant language barriers when neither the compliment-giver and the compliment-receiver are communicating in their native language. However, some compliments more easily go wrong than others. A – potentially obvious – one is that complimenting someone’s physical attributes, especially non-chosen ones (“such beautiful eyes”) is a bad idea in the workplace. In general, any comment on personal appearance, be it clothing, hairstyle, or something else, is walking a fine line, especially if it is between colleagues of a different gender or if there is a difference in power or rank (professor to student, for example). It is too easily perceived as inappropriate, and only works if the personal relationship allows for this positive feedback on personal choices.
What is the right way to give a compliment?
Compliments, or feedback in general, should be specific, process-based, include impact and most of all, be authentic! This means that a compliment should not be about the person themselves, but about the process; “the abstract you have written is easy to read with a high information density, well done”. This compliment contains an observation of an achievement (“writing an abstract with a high information density”), and what the effect was of the achievement on the person in question (“easy to read”). That makes it much more substantial and effective than a simple “well done”. Specific, authentic compliments, based on work performance, are an excellent tool to improve the vibe and make people’s day!
How to respond to compliments
Now comes the second tricky part about compliments: how to react? It is easy to simply dismiss it “ah, the abstract wrote itself”, or contribute it to others “Mary and Ahmed provided me with the key input”. Of course, if you lead a team, then it is good to acknowledge that team. However, do not dismiss your own effort: you are allowed to take credit where credit is deserved. This is the compliment meant for you – not for Mary and Ahmed.
So, a specific answer could be “Thank you, it means a lot for me to hear you say that. Mary and Ahmed also provided input, and then I put it all together”. But really, most compliments only need a “thank you” as reply. Allow yourself to bask in the positivity for a moment, since there will be enough battles to fight later on. A trick I stole from the internet is to keep a folder in my inbox for emails with genuine positivity. When I feel down, I can have a peek at them, and remember the existence of positivity.
“most compliments only need a “thank you” as reply”
Why is it so hard to accept a compliment?
In the academic environment we continuously strive for improvement: to become better scientists, and thereby finding new knowledge and improving on science itself. We ask ourselves and our students to deliver perfection, or something close to it. That means that we are used to comments on how to improve, especially when writing papers. This should theoretically be shaped as constructive “negative” feedback: specifics on what content needs to change, or what needs to be dropped. Unfortunately, it is more commonly phrased as “this is wrong”, or even “you are wrong” – making it personal. When receiving such feedback, it is important to remember that also negative, unconstructive feedback is not a judgment of you as a person. Negative feedback too often feels personal. So give yourself the time to process and see if it actually means something else, like your text not conveying the message you had in mind, or some key information that is not given.
In our academic environment negative feedback is a key ingredient (though not the only ingredient!) of the daily working life. This creates its own traps when compliments are given: if feedback is usually heavy on the “what to improve” side, then how can we trust the positive compliments? It quickly breeds imposter syndrome, where you feel a certain pressure to perform equally well in the future. So when you receive a compliment, remember it is simply a compliment, it is a job well done. It doesn’t imply you are asked to repeat the same trick exactly like the same way the next time. And for those giving the compliment: know it is important to only give those compliments which are authentic, so to avoid the overly positive “cheerleader” effect.
Practice the art of complimenting!
In short, giving and receiving compliments is an art – from both the giving and receiving side. Yes, compliments can backfire. They can be an accidental venture into personal space by complimenting appearance, they might not translate through a language or culture barrier, and they can be an inadvertent push-of-the-button of the impostor syndrome of the receiver. As a potential compliment-giver you might worry about having your compliment misinterpreted, or that you are going to be seen as a kiss-up. Of course, one way out is to not give compliments at all. However, giving compliments can make the world a little bit better and brighter for the receiving party. Doesn’t that make it an art well-worth practicing?
Edited by Elenora van Rijsingen and Hannah Davies.With Inspiration from: How to Give and Receive Compliments at Work by Christopher Littlefield