January 7, 2019
If I receive a compliment (albeit rare, but it does happen), it makes me uncomfortable. I always say “thank you,” and at the same time, I am beset by all the basic demons — I don’t deserve it, the person has mistaken me for someone else, he only wants to meet my wife and finally back to I don’t deserve it.
So I turned to the Harvard Business School’s Dr. Teresa Amabile, who is the co-author of a book called “The Progress Principle.” I could have turned to my shrink, but what does he know about compliments?
Amabile knows whereof she speaks. She has amassed daily diaries from 200+ professionals working on 26 different creative projects in seven companies in three industries. The study is designed to understand the best way to motivate employees in your organization. She measures psychological states, performance ratings, personality, cognitive style, etc. What she finds is that compliments to your workers matter greatly. It is proven that people like to receive praise.
The thing that interests me is why it is so hard for some people to accept and embrace that praise. If our strengths come to us naturally, we may not recognize their value. “Compliments can be a rich source of information.” They make you pause and consider yourself.
Amabile argues for acknowledging “small wins.” At work, we often blast right past the successes, because significant challenges still loom ahead. Her research shows that “meaningful praise can measurably boost motivation.” (This works well at the gym.)
But there is a puzzle here. If you are the CEO, if you are the entrepreneur charged with taking Hamburger Hill, then who gives you praise, and if you get it, can you accept it. The research shows that we humans “tend to dwell on failures more than compliments.” It is a bit of the famous loss aversion theory from Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky. When the market goes up and we take a profit, so what, but when it goes down, we are troubled greatly. Taking a loss is painful, so we do not sell.
Amabile quotes Dr. Kristin Neff, of the University of Texas at Austin, who says, “Our ancestors who were negative worrywarts were the more likely to survive, so our brains are designed to look for problems.” (Finally, a scientific answer to my Jewish mother who had a Ph.D. in worrying. Trust me, I learned from the best.)
The next problem with a compliment is that our “internalized messaging tells us that it is not good to seem like we are bragging.” Modesty is the mantra, so we explain away our achievements, even when the fact is that we did win the gold medal. We need to give compliments to ourselves for genuine achievement. She says it is OK to brag (but internally and only for a few seconds, and not very loudly).
Amabile says, “At work, the most impactful moments are celebrations of the small moments of progress.” If you create an elegant solution to a problem, she says we should take a moment and reflect on it. In fact, the quiet self-administered back slap was seen as more important to the employee than the public call-out of praise.
Even worse than no praise is if “the external praise is perceived as empty attaboys.” Then the boss has undermined the worker and has actually begun to create resentment. You all remember first grade where everyone gets a medal for simply showing up and breathing.
Amabile has found that the best way to celebrate small wins is to keep a diary, a daily list of accomplishments. She is not promoting a to-do list; rather she is arguing for a daily reflection, a quick box score on the day. Neff suggests that simple tasks like eating a good meal or taking a nice shower also qualify as worth listing. (Not in my world). But in fairness, she reminds us that the small setbacks have the greater negative impact “three to four times stronger than the triumph of a small win.” That is just the way we are wired, she says, “so be deliberate in reminding yourself about the positive.”
In the end, Amabile says, “the best way to feel good about your progress is to actually make progress.”
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to [email protected].
Rule No. 591
“Miles to go before I sleep.”
— Robert Frost