Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!
A few weeks ago, I read a funny story about pick-up lines. I don’t remember the context or where I read it (maybe I’m getting old?), but one part in particular stuck with me. Out of all the lame pick-up lines out there, it argued that the standard and most unimaginative compliment a guy can give a girl is, “You’re so pretty.”
Apart from applying some make-up, your face is basically just your face. It’s like saying, “Congratulations on being born with that.” I found it funny as it showed just how ridiculous that statement really is, but I also thought how relevant it was to compliments in general.
Saying someone is pretty isn’t necessarily a negative, but it isn’t an open question that could lead to an interesting conversation. And wouldn’t that be the goal? To me, a slightly better compliment would be to say, “You have a strong presence” or maybe “You look like you could fight the biggest person in the room, and win. Is that correct?” But that’s assuming you know nothing about this person.
The best compliments are about something someone achieved. If you know a person put in a lot of effort and creativity into something — and that you can acknowledge it and give them proper credit — then talk about that.
These are the best compliments you can get, and they lead to interesting conversations — about what thinking went into it, what the learnings were, or what you would’ve done differently. And this is relevant in all aspects of your life, especially at work.
A “job well done” compliment isn’t necessarily negative, but it’s a closed compliment. There’s not much more you can do as the recipient of that compliment other than to smile awkwardly and say thanks. It’s seldom the start of an interesting discussion.
But complimenting someone on one particular detail or action shows interest and leads to an interesting conversation, and you might even learn something more in the process.
The compliment doesn’t even have to feel like a compliment to have the same effect. You don’t have to go into compliment mode to achieve the same result.
If you say “Why did you take that one specific action at that point?,” you start a conversation in which you can express your gratitude and admiration. That is much more valuable than a shallow compliment.
The goal of managers giving compliments isn’t just to make everybody happy. The ultimate goal is to make people feel appreciated and important, and to meaningfully reward good work. And it’s only when you drill down on their actions that you can make them feel like you truly appreciate them. Otherwise you might as well just tell them they look pretty.
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