Giving a compliment is harder than it seems

21 February 2022 |

You can never give too many compliments, true? In fact, even though you mean well, it is harder than you may think to get it right. Professor Bart Soenens, at the faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, is conducting research on the fine line between development psychology and motivation psychology. He talks about why compliments are so delicate and what to watch out for when giving them.

“No one has ever read a text as well as the way you are reading this one.” It’s hard to say whether this compliment is true, but the intention is honest. If it works, you should feel delighted to read the rest of the article. “A compliment can give a great boost to motivation. With any luck, the person receiving the compliment will feel more capable and gain confidence in their own abilities”, according to professor Bart Soenens.

We can use the compliments

“According to the self-determination theory, this feeling of competence is one of the basic needs for continued intrinsic motivation. This makes your activities more enjoyable and allows you to keep them up for longer. You feel more comfortable and perform better.”

"During these days of lockdown there is very little direct interaction. This makes it particularly important to put compliments on mail or to express them in a meeting."

During these days of lockdown, everyone can use more compliments. Bart Soenens: “There is currently very little direct interaction, which makes it difficult to read between the lines. Many employees are uncertain about their performance. This makes it particularly important to put compliments on mail or to express them in a meeting.”

The many pitfalls in compliments

Even so, there are a number of pitfalls when giving compliments, and these are best taken into account. “There’s much more to a compliment than you may think. I compare it with a vaccine: it can be very powerful and do wonders in prevention, given the right dosage. The method of administration, timing and type of compliment determines whether or not it is motivating.”

Soenens refers to the first pitfall: “If you give an evaluative compliment, you want someone to do something or push them in a particular direction. For example, imagine a parent who compliments their child because they have done their homework in the desired way. Then, above all, the compliment highlights a hidden agenda: ‘don’t you see that it works when you do it my way’. Recipients quickly see through such surreptitious intentions and they therefore do nothing to boost motivation.”

Another pitfall is only to give compliments on the end result. Soenens: “Imagine, as a promotor, you only give doctoral students a compliment when an article is actually accepted. The message you then give is: you can only count on my recognition and appreciation once you are a success and achieve perfection. In this way, you create a condition for compliments and they become a controlling and coercive means that can cause a great deal of pressure. This can also cause a kind of downward social comparison for bystanders, as you also set the same standard for them: you’ll only get a compliment if you get a good final result.”

Compliment the process, not the person

Rather than focusing on the end result, it is better to regularly praise the steps in a process. Soenens stresses the importance of process-oriented rather than person-oriented compliments: “Compliments about someone as a person, like ‘you really are smart’, are risky. They give people the impression that they only have themselves to thank for their success. However, this means the opposite applies as well. A setback is inevitable at some time or other. And then someone can feel like a failure and lose all self-esteem. Indeed, it means their own self-worth is connected with the achievement or non-achievement of a norm.”

"Compliments about someone as a person, like ‘you really are smart’, are risky. They give people the impression that they only have themselves to thank for their success."

““Ironically, we all tend to give a person-oriented compliment to people who are already unsure of themselves. With the best intentions, to boost their self-esteem, however, this actually has the opposite effect. It is healthier to give a compliment about a specific effort, such as ‘you handled that situation well’. In doing so, you gradually build a sense of competence.”

Here’s how to give a motivating compliment:

  • Avoid using a compliment to get something done or installing your own will
  • Give a compliment about the process, and not about the person
  • Don’t save a compliment until the end, but give it along the way

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