Compliment — don’t complicate

Colleagues, here is another classic from the previous instalments of this column.

Sam Hlabati

This is one of those where I had to pick a shining antique from my treasure box; I always pick this piece and polish it. This piece is about complimenting the team that is under you as a leader.

Rewarding employees takes a number of initiatives other than paying them cash remuneration. These initiatives include development opportunities, work-life balance and recognition among others. In this instalment, we will discuss the aspect of recognition through giving feedback for good work done. Complimenting an individual who is under your charge who has done good work should be a good opportunity to reinforce the possibilities of further good work.

However, some leaders do a shabby job of complimenting good work; such that they actually destroy chances of repeated good output in the future.

The choice of words is important when giving a team member a compliment. It is a leader’s prerogative to give instructions when necessary, however, once an instruction is given; the output is achieved through the efforts of the subordinate. This is true even in the instance where the subordinate had wanted to do the task at hand in a different way that was most going to be ineffective or inefficient.

Once the task has been performed, the compliment that goes to the employee should not attach to the fact that the result was achieved through the intervention of the leader.

A leader might be tempted to say, “You see how things turn out if you do the task according to my instructions, that was a good job”. The mentioning the fact that the task was not performed according to the subordinate’s way of thinking is a crude reminder of control.

People value independence and autonomy in doing their work; this is an intrinsic motivator. The distinction between “I choose to do this” and “I have to do this” is the core of autonomy. The fact that you have praised the individual for the good work is undermined by the control element that may come through in the compliment. Some leaders may say partisan statements that may also be inclined towards control, such as saying “This is how I want my people to perform, good job”.

In some instances, leaders would give compliments that are condescending in their causal effect. In the present business environment, we have leaders who may be younger than their subordinates.

Let us consider the scenario in which an employee who is older than their leader does a good job. The leader would then realise that the age of the employee is not an impediment to their performance and pass a compliment such as “That was good work, who says one cannot teach an old dog new tricks”. Even when the statement is said in good faith, the results can be unintended demotivation. This may get the employee to ponder on the underlying meaning of the statement.

Some leaders love the limelight to the extent that they will not pass an opportunity to compliment themselves whenever an opportunity, not matter how small arises. These leaders start by praising the subordinate and then promptly shift the focus to their own historical achievements.

The compliment may be like this, “That is a good report, let me tell you about a good report that I delivered a few years ago”, the leader then rides the gravy train of their own self-praise. The unfortunate subordinate has the unenjoyable task of listening to the leader’s mini autobiography.

The compliments to the subordinate become invisible because the greater part of the conversation and the final statement is about the leader. What will the subordinate walk away with from the conversation? It is obviously not the compliment regarding their own performance but the “noise” of the leader’s self-praise.

In an earlier instalment of this column, we discussed the systemic issues that kill performance, among them was the fact that good performers are rewarded with more work; more of punishment than reward.

We discussed that leaders tend to load good performers with more work compared to poor performers because the leader is certain that the work will be done. Leaders may start out with praising a subordinate for good performance and then conclude the conversation with loading the individual with another assignment.

The conversation may take the following form, “That was good work, I am impressed. Now I have two more assignments that I want you to do for me at the same standard of quality that you have just displayed in the previous assignment”. Logically, new tasks have to be assigned to the subordinate at the point when a current task is finished. However, the assignment of new tasks has to be separate from the compliment. One simpler way of achieving this as a leader would be to compliment the subordinate for the good work and stop at that.

The assignment of new work should then be done in the normal course of doing day-to-day work. The compliments and the assignment of work have to be divorced in terms of time of delivery and may not be inked in the rationale of why the new work is being given.

The leader may be giving the subordinate a compliment in the context of other issues that did not go well. The killer of the compliment for the good work would be the use of the word “but”. This occurs when the compliment is followed by the word “but” which essentially turns the attention towards the aspects that did not go on well.

An example would be that of a job well done but was a day late, the leaders would then say something along these lines, “That was great work, you did put your mind to it, but next time it should be in on time”. It is natural for human beings to be affected by the word “but” that comes after a compliment. In social circles it may be a case of a friend saying to you, “I like your new car, but an automatic transmission system is not advisable given its maintenance costs”.

The moment the word but is used, the compliment’s effectiveness evaporates and the receiver’s focus would turn to rebut the “but” part of the statement. The negative effect of the word “but” can be counteracted by the positive effect of the word “and”.

A positive statement would take the form of “that was great work, you did put you mind to it, and next time if you bring it in on time, we will have enough time to review it”.

On the other hand, there are ways in which compliments could be enhanced. Compliments can be enhanced by the leader’s sincerity and the specificity of the compliment that focuses on the person and the moment being complimented.

William James, a philosopher and psychologist, who was an original thinker in and between the disciplines of physiology, psychology and philosophy once said, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

Giving compliments should be easy, but surprisingly, most people need practice to do it right. Always compliment; Politely, be sincere, and use a genuine tone of voice, insincere or snarling compliments are pointless; Precisely, be precise and detailed about exactly what the employee did well; Promptly, be timely; Publicly, usually, it is best to praise in public. Shy people and those with cultural prohibitions against public praise, are best praised in private.

Compliments that are delivered in the wrong way are not worth the effort, they have unintended consequences that may be worse than that the result of no compliment at all.

Sam Hlabati is a senior professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). Email:; twitter handle; @samhlabati