A Simple Compliment Can Make a Big Difference – Harvard Business Review (Erica Boothby, et al | February 2021)

An African-American man in a wheelchair high fives a woman with a desk between them

Establishing a positive organizational culture, one in which employees and managers support one another, should be a top priority for organizations. Expressing praise and gratitude is particularly important for keeping up morale. Gratitude makes people feel valued, and positive feedback has been shown to mitigate the negative effects of stress on employee performance. Neuroscientists have even shown that the brain processes verbal affirmations similarly to financial rewards. As Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford, has been quoted as saying of his employees, “It’s all about appreciating them, respecting them and thanking them at every step of the way.” While the importance of expressing praise and gratitude for establishing a positive organizational culture is clear, our research suggests that people may not follow Mulally’s advice because they underestimate the positive impact of kind words on others.

In two independently conducted lines of research, we asked participants to estimate how another person would feel after receiving a compliment. We then asked those same participants to actually compliment another person, and we compared how that person actually felt after receiving the compliment to how participants imagined that person would feel. Using the same basic experimental paradigm both with friends and strangers, we consistently found that people underestimated how good their compliment would make the recipient feel. Compliment-givers tend to believe the other person won’t enjoy their interaction as much as they actually do; in fact, they often believe that their exchange will probably make the person a little uncomfortable. Yet, consistently, receiving a compliment brightens people’s day much more than anticipated, leaving them feeling better, and less uncomfortable, than givers expect.

From the outside, it seems obvious that receiving a compliment would make someone feel better. Who doesn’t like when someone praises their way of handling a tense situation at work, their choice of attire, or their presentation skills? Indeed, when asked, nearly 90% of people believe that they should compliment each other more often. And yet we tend not to give them in practice. In fact, only 50% of people in one experiment who wrote down a compliment for a friend actually sent the compliment along when given the chance, even though they’d already done the hardest part — coming up with something nice and thoughtful to say. That is, despite the widely shared desire to give more compliments, when faced with the decision people still often forgo low-cost opportunities to make others feel appreciated and valued.

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Establishing a positive organizational culture, one in which employees and managers support one another, should be a top priority for organizations. Expressing praise and gratitude is particularly important for keeping up morale. Gratitude makes people feel valued, and positive feedback has been shown to mitigate the negative effects of stress on employee performance. Neuroscientists have even shown that the brain processes verbal affirmations similarly to financial rewards. As Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford, has been quoted as saying of his employees, “It’s all about appreciating them, respecting them and thanking them at every step of the way.” While the importance of expressing praise and gratitude for establishing a positive organizational culture is clear, our research suggests that people may not follow Mulally’s advice because they underestimate the positive impact of kind words on others.

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