Why is it that we are often reluctant to pay another person a compliment or recognize them when they have done something well? Does it go against our human nature? Are we afraid that we will not receive a compliment back? From the workplace perspective, how does this affect company cultures? Well, it starts at the top. Research shows that only 14.5% of managers agree that they are giving good feedback. Studies have found that many factors play a role in why people are hesitant to give compliments. These factors, coupled with the belief that people, (in this case, managers,) naturally underestimate the power of compliments/recognition, are the very reason why they find it difficult to pay it forward and give out more recognition frequently. 

In the Psychology Today article titled, Random Words of Kindness: New Research Explores the Impact of Giving Compliments, researchers break down the factors that paralyze people from paying compliments, how this can affect the workplace, and how managers can pivot from the natural tendencies to create a culture of recognition. 

Psychologists have extensively explored why people are hesitant to give each other compliments. We break down the top three factors below, plus, add some thoughts on how to remedy the situation.

#1) People Feel Uncomfortable Approaching Others with Compliments

Studies show that social anxiety is a driving force in the hesitation to recognize one another. “In this view, we experience discomfort while making the compliment, and so we assume the other person feels awkward as well.” Managers may agree that their employees are doing a great job but are hesitant to say anything due to the workplace’s demands. Instead, managers need to use compliments/recognition to lighten the atmosphere of their working environment and create a culture of positivity and appreciation. 

#2) People Feel Incompetent When It Comes to Giving Recognition

Employees want to feel like the recognition they receive is genuine, or it will be misinterpreted as an attempt at ingratiation. One of the issues can be that managers feel their compliment will come out wrong, meaning the intended meaning will not be interpreted well. “Plenty of previous research has considered this issue in other social exchange contexts, such as making small talk or expressing gratitude.” The key to ensuring your employees understand the authenticity of your recognition is that “people on the receiving end are much more influenced by the warmth that is expressed rather than by how smoothly the words are spoken.” A key to combating any misunderstanding is for managers to display a warm presence to their employees before giving compliments; this can be achieved through emails, video conferencing, and daily affirmations. Your employees are bound to receive compliments/recognition better if they know that management always displays a positive aura in the workplace. 

#3) We Tend to Underestimate Our Significance in Other’s Lives

A study conducted by psychologist, Erica Boothby, showed that people tend to underestimate the effects of compliments/ recognition; thus, we may not compliment others as much as we ought to. Taking it back to the workplace, this thought pattern could lead to managers underestimating the impact of recognition, making employees feel like they are unappreciated by their leadership. It pays to be “liberal with your compliments” in the workplace. Employees want to receive recognition, from their leadership, for their contributions. They also want to receive recognition from their coworkers too. This is where a system like WorkProud comes into play. 

The good news is that although we are not inherently wired to give compliments, managers can utilize a system that will make it easier for them to give compliments and recognition. Companies can enable managers to give better compliments by using a unified platform, such as WorkProud, to ensure their managers create efficient, engaging, and authentic recognition. Giving compliments should be a continuous process that includes reinforcing and driving positive behaviors to build company cultures where employees are inspired to give their best. 

To hear more about Erica Boothby’s research, check out this episode of the Freakonomics podcast: https://freakonomics.com/podcast/nsq-books-influence/