OTTAWA, March 1 — Almost everyone likes receiving compliments. But, according to some employees, these kind words are rare in the workplace. Yet they can be a source of engagement, commitment and therefore productivity, provided that they’re meaningful and carefully considered.

Since 2003, March 1 has been known as World Compliment Day. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the many virtues of these congratulatory messages, especially in the professional context. Because a simple “great job,” “well done” or “good work on those results,” can make all the difference in the workplace. An employee who is complimented generally finds in these words a form of appreciation and encouragement. As a result, they tend to become even more committed to their work.

Canadian researchers demonstrated this by conducting an experiment during which volunteers were invited to complete a questionnaire. They asked an actor to pose as a psychology student, and to strike up a conversation with each of the study participants. The actor began by complimenting them on their clothes, before mentioning that he was handing out flyers for a university event. He then asked each volunteer to help him in this mission by distributing flyers themselves.

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It’s clear that flattery is a powerful motivator. The academics found that 79 per cent of participants who had been complimented on their attire offered to help the actor, compared with only 46 per cent of those who had not been praised for their good taste in clothing, reports the BBC. This can be explained by the fact that social relationships are based on the principle of reciprocity. When we are given something, we tend to want to give something in return.

Compliments work on the same principle. Receiving them has a galvanising and, above all, motivating effect. When a manager compliments an employee on their work, they are acknowledging the employee’s merits and implicitly encouraging them to keep up the good work. This culture of recognition can even encourage other workers to go the extra mile, creating a form of collective emulation. Still, managers should be careful not to fall into the trap of favouritism. A manager who always congratulates the same employee, in front of everyone else, runs the risk of incurring the wrath of their other coworkers. This can create a feeling of injustice and negatively affect confidence within the team.

Beware of empty words

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In general, compliments are a managerial tool to be handled with care. They can have a positive effect on an employee’s motivation and productivity if they seem fair and sincere. But compliments also need to be specific and meaningful, so that the complimented person doesn’t see it as an attempt to flatter or manipulate. For example, there’s no point in congratulating an employee for coming into the office when others are reluctant to do so. It’s better to congratulate them on their professional achievements, or on demonstrated behaviors such as taking the initiative or solving a problem they and their colleagues have faced.

Positive reinforcement is only effective when it is proportionate to individual efforts. Easy, empty compliments tend to inspire distrust rather than foster engagement. Indeed, 46 per cent of working people feel that the compliments they receive at work are meaningless, according to a survey conducted by O.C. Tanner among 36,441 office workers in 19 countries. This is almost certainly due to the fact that most managers are content to compliment their employees with very generic formulas, such as “well done” or “great job.” To be effective and impactful, a compliment needs to be more considered, more developed, without necessarily going overboard.

The context in which the compliment is given is also decisive. Praising employees in front of others has its advantages, but it’s also advisable to do so in a smaller setting. Not all employees are comfortable with being praised by their line manager in front of their colleagues. More introverted and modest personalities will appreciate receiving praise by email, for example.

Finally, resist the temptation of constant positive reinforcement. Compliments are a powerful lever for driving engagement, if used intelligently and sparingly. Overdoing it can be just as harmful as not complimenting people enough. Cultivating gratitude and recognition in the workplace is crucial, but it requires a certain finesse. Employees must not be motivated solely by the prospect of receiving a kind word from their superior. Compliments should be the icing on the cake, not the thing that keeps everyone going. — ETX Studio