(By Mark Goulston)
“Think about how you commonly respond when someone recognizes you. Do you actually hear the compliment or do you laugh it off? Or, do you play what Littlefield refers to as “compliment ping-pong?” Someone compliments your dress and you then feel obligated to compliment his or her shoes. Do you pass the credit? (“It was a team effort!”) Or do you do what I did with Warren’s comment and downplay your success? (“It was nothing…it wasn’t that big of a deal!”) Or do you quickly say “thank you” but dismiss the compliment in your head?“
Not long ago, my mentor and friend, Warren Bennis, gave me a very generous unsolicited compliment. I hemmed and hawed and went on about how he didn’t need to say that and really it was nothing. Warren in his loving, but not suffering foolishness (or false modesty) manner, stopped me and said, “Mark, when you hear something like I just said, there is only a single two-word response: ‘Thank you.’”
Giving a meaningful thank you is its own art form. But accepting praise? That can be even more complicated.
Since this is an area I clearly need to work on myself, I sought out Christopher Littlefield, founder of AcknowledgementWorks, for advice. Littlefield coaches and trains leaders in the effective use of recognition in the workplace. He interviewed over three hundred people over the course of a year while riding the subway in Boston. His understanding of how people related to giving and receiving recognition has been shaped by speaking with parking lot attendants, CEOs, doctors, Delta ground crew members, Harvard professors and many others.
According to Littlefield, I was correct in assuming I was not alone in my uneasy response to praise. In his research, he found that although the number one thing people associate recognition with is a feeling of being valued (88%), nearly 70% of people associate embarrassment or discomfort with the process of being recognized. Most of us can’t take a compliment and often don’t even realize it!
Think about how you commonly respond when someone recognizes you. Do you actually hear the compliment or do you laugh it off? Or, do you play what Littlefield refers to as “compliment ping-pong?” Someone compliments your dress and you then feel obligated to compliment his or her shoes. Do you pass the credit? (“It was a team effort!”) Or do you do what I did with Warren’s comment and downplay your success? (“It was nothing…it wasn’t that big of a deal!”) Or do you quickly say “thank you” but dismiss the compliment in your head?
Littlefield told me that there is nothing wrong with these reactions; often they are unconscious knee-jerk responses that we have learned from our culture, parents, and past experiences with recognition. He would argue, though, that none of those responses is actually accepting the giver’s compliment.
In our day-to-day interactions, it’s normal to respond to a casual thanks with a “you’re welcome” or a “no problem.” The discomfort arises when someone is authentically recognizing us and the same conditioned response won’t cut it. You know what I mean if you have ever mustered up the courage to approach a boss, mentor, or teacher and thank them for the impact that they have had on your career — only to have them respond to your heartfelt appreciation with…”It was nothing!” and walk away.
Now here is what most of us don’t realize; according to Littlefield, “Recognition is often more about the giver than the receiver.” When someone is complimenting you, they are sharing how your actions or behaviors impacted them. They are not asking if you agree. It really takes something for someone to get up the nerve to share the impact you have had on them, and to them, giving you that recognition is liking giving a gift. As Littlefield says, “Even if you didn’t like the pink and purple socks your aunt knitted you for your birthday, you wouldn’t throw them back in her face! The key to accepting recognition is to relate to it as though it is a gift.” It doesn’t matter if you disagree with it or feel you don’t deserve it; it is someone else’s experience of you. Let them share that gift. If their compliment made a difference for you, let them know. It will make their day for them to know they made yours.
People often say, “I don’t need recognition,” and the truth is they are right. We don’t need it. But like healthy food and exercise, life is a whole lot better with it. When we are uncomfortable with recognition, we avoid giving it and, just as bad, we avoid letting it in. And when leaders are uncomfortable with recognition themselves, they can pass that standard on throughout their teams and organizations.
1. Relate to recognition as though it were a gift.
2. Become acutely aware of how you respond when people recognize you. Even if you think the person has an ulterior motive, just say, “thank you.” The more comfortable you become at accepting recognition, the more comfortable you will be with giving it.
3. If you catch yourself diverting the compliment, it is never too late to go back and thank them. You can tell them, “I am working on being better on accepting compliments. Thank you for what you said earlier.”
4. When others divert recognition, call them on it (in a friendly way). By doing this, you interrupt their conditioned response, and help them develop their ability to accept compliments.
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