An important task you have as a leader is to give compliments and know how to deal with criticism. Compliments motivate; criticism has a negative effect on relationships. And good relationships already facilitate an environment in which the other is more willing to do things differently. In this article we therefore focus on what the effects of compliments and criticism are. In a future article, we will concentrate on a related skill: Giving feedback.
Let others know what you appreciate in them
There are cultural differences regarding the giving of compliments. In certain cultures, it is almost natural; in others people feel a little uncomfortable about giving them. Yet it remains good practice to do just that. The funny thing is that giving a compliment sometimes has a greater effect on the giver (Lange, 2006) than on the receiver. The giver always knows he or she has given a compliment, even when the receiver doesn’t even notice. In order to give a well-meant compliment, you are forced to actively look for something that is positive about the other. And by looking from a different point of view, this has an effect on you too. When the other realizes a compliment has been received, this usually also gives them a good feeling. This does mean the other will have to notice it! But when they do, knowing they’re on the right path gives encouragement. This way, giving and receiving compliments has a motivating effect on both parties.
So what exactly is a compliment? To start with, it is an opinion you subscribe to, one which is positively colored and directed at the behavior or characteristics of another person. Even a simple compliment such as ‘You’re looking good today!’ is both an opinion (you feel that way) and your observation, saying something about the dress sense, choice of make-up (characteristic of the other person) or positive manner (behavior) of the other person. That the compliment only has the desired effect once it is perceived as well-meant is obvious.
A compliment isn’t an introduction to broach negative behavior
To recap, a compliment is a positively worded statement through which you genuinely indicate what you appreciate about another person. It is most effective when it is short and sweet and not immediately played down. Therefore make a habit of noticing what others do well and give a well-meant compliment as a matter of course. A compliment, however, loses its power completely when it is used as an introduction to broach a negative point.
Criticism is a way to vent your negative feelings towards another
The opposite of a compliment is criticism. Both are expressed opinions of the other or their behavior; yet criticism is generally experienced as negative. The reason for this is that criticism usually says more about the giver than the receiver, as it is a way for the giver to vent a negative emotion. That then feels like a rejection, a rebuke or an attack. The receiver’s negative experience is further magnified by the fact that there usually is nothing they can do about it or with it. That is why criticism is experienced as personal; it gives the feeling that the other doesn’t like you. For leaders the advice is therefore: Simply don’t do it!
Others may also level their criticisms at you, however. The origin of the other’s bad feeling leading up to that criticism is seldom relevant. How you react to it is. As it concerns criticism, you can’t really do much with it except accept that it is their opinion and remember that you are the stronger party in the interaction (that is, you forgive them their ineptness). What certainly doesn’t help is to get defensive. The two best methods to deal with another’s criticism are: ‘I notice this irritates you, is there something I can do to lessen that?’; or ‘What makes this difficult for you?’
Feedback is about behavior that can be modified
Feedback, on the other hand, is about behavior that can be changed. It is different from criticism, in that the person receiving the feedback is actually able to do something with it. Some like to overcomplicate by calling feedback positive criticism, or by calling criticism negative feedback and compliments positive feedback. As far as I’m concerned, let’s keep it simple and call everything what it is: Compliment, criticism or feedback. In a future post we will delve further into what feedback is and how to deliver it effectively.