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Celebrating Successes: The Power Of Compliments
by Bill Lampton

Years ago, when I was new in management circles, a veteran administrator decided to share his self-described secret of success. He said: You have to be careful, Bill. I've learned not to compliment my people. Makes them too self-assured, and they get lax in their work habits. Better to keep them guessing.

As I listened, I uttered silent thanks, grateful that Don was a professional acquaintance--and not my boss. Both intuitively and from experience, I knew that managers build loyalty when they celebrate their employees' successes with compliments.

To use a familiar analogy, criticism has the same impact on people that salt does on plants. Stated positively, compliments act as nutrients for people, just as fertilizer does for flowers.

Having played golf for several decades, I remember the teaching professionals who helped me the least--and the most. The least helpful were those who spent the whole half hour describing my faults: bending your left arm. . .not enough weight shift. . . tempo is too fast. Jim, my favorite pro, accents the positives: swinging better than last time. . .hit that shot really square . . .now that's the way to finish in balance. Not surprisingly, I wanted to swing better for Jim.

When I think of compliments, I remember my father's advice. For forty years, he managed a sizable department store. When I took my first supervisory position in higher education, he counseled me: Bill, one thing I have learned is that workers perform better when we let them know we appreciate their performance. Remember to commend those who do well. Then they'll keep improving.

During the twenty-three years I spent as a department head, I followed his recommendation. Even a simple comment--You did a good job drafting those letters--boosted morale and cultivated organizational loyalty.

As a communication specialist, there are several tips I will share about using compliments.

Avoid flattery, say no more than the situation merits. While flattery exaggerates our evaluation, the compliment reflects our honest opinion. For example, if you choose to tell an employee that she handled that customer superbly, better than anyone else could possibly have done, she might silently question your authenticity. A more believable comment: I liked the way you helped that customer. I'm sure you made a good impression she will remember.

An employee--just like a friend or family member--detects shallow praise. Fortunately, when you have deep convictions about the praise you extend, co-workers will sense your authenticity.

This leads to a second characteristic of a compliment: It sounds realistic. If somebody told me that I am a wonderful dancer, I might laugh out loud. Sadly, so would my wife, who has endured my errant feet for a long time.

Be timely in issuing compliments. We should give the compliment almost immediately after the event that prompts our praise. Imagine that on Tuesday Dorothy makes the biggest sale she has ever made. Clearly, her training has brought beautiful results. Even fellow employees admire her accomplishments with this order.

If you wait until Friday to compliment her, you've lost a grand opportunity. Give her your attention before Tuesday ends, while she's still aglow with pride. Try this: Dorothy, I think you noticed that all of us were delighted with that special order you handled today. You've made lots of progress, and it shows.

Another tip: Issue compliments in moderation. Managers lose credibility when they praise employees too frequently. Like the most gorgeous flower, a compliment becomes grander with irregular appearance. No, we can't go as far as my colleague Don, never issuing favorable comments. However, good judgment will help us find the reasonable pacing that works.

Again: Use compliments in proper context. When you tell Fred late in the day that he is one of your most dependable people, your compliment becomes suspect when you add: Oh, by the way, Fred, you're supposed to have Saturday off, but I'm going to have to ask you to come in then to help us handle those weekend wedding orders. Any time a compliment appears manipulative, it loses force. . .and we lose face.

Yes, compliments can be chancy. Some employees might accuse us of playing favorites, being too syrupy, or trying to win favor for our hidden agendas. Risky, that's true. . .but worth the risk.

When you become known for offering genuine, realistic compliments in moderation, at the right time, and in the proper setting, you'll notice your employees responding positively. In fact, they will compliment you for your thoughtfulness and encouragement.

Copyright Bill Lampton. All Rights Reserved.

Bill Lampton, Ph.D., helps organizations achieve CPR—Cooperation, Productivity, Renewal of Mission! He wroteThe Complete Communicator: Change Your Communication, Change Your Life!

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