Awesome You Be



A Leader's Guide to Compliments

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

One of the most powerful and cost effective communication tools you have available to you, as a leader, is the compliment. As a motivator, it can be more effective than a cash payout and a heck of a lot less expensive. It pushes your direct reports to learn faster and it promote creative thinking. You can even use compliments with your hierarchical peers in order to get them to do your bidding. And, complimenting others makes you feel better about yourself. Can you think of better or more handy communication tool? 

So, let us look at the powers of compliments.


Research has shown that if you compliment individuals when the are learning a task, each learns how to perform the task faster and retains the relevant knowledge better than she would if she had not been complimented. As a result, she is using the new knowledge sooner and more effectively − and has more time for additional tasks; but a nice person like you would never overwork a direct report, would you?

Job Performance - Good Leader versus Bad Leader

The good leader makes it a point to compliment her direct reports when they perform well. As a result, those people are motivated to perform to gain more compliments. After all, we all love compliments, especially from our superiors! As a result, those direct reports are likely to try out new ideas, take reasonable risks and make an extra effort to perform well and get compliments.

The bad leader criticises her direct reports when they perform badly or just when she is in a bad mood. As a result, her team members are motivated to perform to avoid criticism. She avoids risks, does not try out new ideas and does not do more than is expected of her. After all, why should she risk criticism?

Clearly, if you want to get great performance from your team, compliment them.

What About When People Screw Up?

"Well, what about when my direct reports screw up and make mistakes?" I hear you ask me. "Surely complimenting poor performance and unsuitable behaviour will only encourage more of the same."

Good point, however, you can combine criticism with a compliment in a way that better motivates your erring team member to do better in the future. Let us imagine you've asked one of your budding design talents to design an interface for a web app your company will soon launch. let us further imagine that he presents you with three designs that are technically competent, but boring. One is almost identical to a competing product's look and feel. Another is too garish and the third is so boring, you struggle to stay awake while looking at it.

The bad leader says, "These are terrible, Bart! I don't know how an idiot like you ever graduated from design school! Go away now and do not come back until you can show me something respectable!"

The good leader says, "These are professionally done and look ok. But they are not spectacular, Bart. Now, I know you are have a creative mind and you've done some really inspiring work for us in the past. I know you can do much better! Have another go and show me some of your incredible talent!"

Which response do you think is most likely to motivate Bart to come up with a better design? If you are not sure, here's a hint: if Bart feels better about himself as a creative thinking designer, he is more likely to come up with a creative design.

Manipulating Other Leaders to Do Your Deeds

A surprisingly effective way to get people to do favours for you is to include a compliment with the request. Since you cannot order around your equals, on the ladder of corporate hierarchy, you need to manipulate them instead. You can do this by complimenting your colleague based on her skills related to the task you'd like her to perform. For example: "Would you mind reviewing my pricing calculations for the IBM proposal? You are much better with maths than I am and this proposal is important to the company."

When using this technique, never ever say you want someone else to do a task because you do not have time to do it. This implies your time is somehow more valuable than your colleague's time. That might be true, of course, but your colleague does not think so. Instead, always from the request by indicating how your colleague's superior ability or skill enables her to do the task better than you or anyone else.

Cartoon: leader complimenting team memberCompliments Make You Seem More Competent

When you compliment other people even for things you do as well, if not better than they do, you actually make yourself look more competent. This is because, people like to think highly of themselves but may doubt others recognise their skills. By complimenting someone for her actions, she feels you are insightful and knowledgeable enough to identify her skills. Hence, she feels good about her own ability and she feels better about yours.

A Worthwhile Addition to Your Behavioural Toolkit

Compliments are marvellous tools for training and motivating staff as well as convincing people to help you out. Use them wisely, and you not only make people feel good, but you get things done effectively. As an added bonus, when you make others feel good about the work they do, it makes you feel good too!

 Word of Warning 1

Compliments are fantastic, but in the workplace, focus compliments on actions rather than appearance. A male leader telling a female direct report how beautiful she is can be perceived as creepy by her and others on the team. Excessively complimenting her appearance could be perceived as workplace harassment. So, focus instead on her abilities and compliment those.

As a rule of thumb, do not compliment a member of the opposite sex in ways you would not compliment a member of your sex.

Of course, if a colleague asks what you think about a new haircut or suit − go ahead and compliment it. But do not go overboard.

Word of Warning 2

Most people love compliments and absorb them happily. However, an individual with low self-esteem will be suspicious of compliments. She will not believe them, question your judgment and even wonder if you have ulterior motives for complimenting her.

If one of your direct reports becomes uncomfortable or seriously dismissive of compliments, this could be an indicator of self-esteem issues. Unfortunately, in the work environment, there is not a lot you can do to help an individual with self-esteem issues. That said, if one of your team is overly dismissive or uncomfortable about an ability based compliment, you could try asking her why she doubts you and then address those doubts individually.


  1. When training people, compliment them as they learn new tasks.
  2. Try to use positive reinforcement as much as possible, that is compliment good behaviour rather than criticise bad behaviour.
  3. Positive reinforcement encourages creative thinking and sharing.
  4. When you do need to criticise someone, compliment her first, then criticise.
  5. If you need a favour, compliment the other person's ability to do the task better than you could do.
  6. Compliment actions and abilities rather than appearance.



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