Are compliments in the workplace a good thing?

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Some say compliments in the workplace are a good thing, whilst others argue they can lead to social awkwardness. AAT member, Sarah Knight, weighs up the virtues of both sides of the argument and finds we should all take compliments in the workplace with good grace

The thesaurus defines a compliment as an expression of praise, commendation, or admiration with a sincere compliment a boost to one’s morale. Wikipedia, meanwhile, states it as an expression of praise, congratulation or encouragement and concludes by starting that a compliment can be a formalized respectful action paid to one individual by another.

Why give a compliment in the workplace? It’s a nice thing to do and can make someone’s day. It’s also fun; igniting flashes of delight in yourself. The giving of a compliment also expands your own positivity, raising self-esteem and increasing your attractiveness both professionally and personally. Thoroughly acceptable, then? In my experience no, and for a few reasons.

Giving a compliment for the right reason

Some give in order to receive, which make a compliment insincere and devalue its intended meaning, reiterated by Mark Twain who once said Do not offer a compliment and ask a favor at the same time. A compliment that is charged for is not valuable’.  

Is it not ironic that the term ‘pay a compliment’ is used in the English language? A classic oxymoron. Instead, a compliment should be paid with no motive or intention. This is perhaps why so many individuals are reluctant to receive or accept them.

‘A compliment is something like a kiss through a veil,’ Victor Hugo, a French poet, novelist, and dramatist of the Romantic Movement said. His quote insinuates it is shrouded in mystery, obscured from view and without real connection. The irony again of such a quote from a man encompassed in an era of love, passion and desire. Perhaps it is the assumption of those receiving compliments: vain, egotistical & arrogant?

My experience of giving a compliment

I distinctly remember a period of my time at secondary school where this came true for me. During an especially slow RE lesson, my friend and I discussed her inability to talk to a boy whom she liked. Where I was empathetic, I simply suggested she ‘man up’. She pushed me further as to how this was to be done and I simply replied ‘Just tell yourself you are gorgeous and go up to him’.

The hum of conversation unfortunately dropped as I uttered those immortal words and was overheard by a particularly nasty group of girls who proceeded to sing Babybird’s ‘You’re Gorgeous’ at me for the next 18 months.

I had a mnemonic in my school planner: N.O.D (number of digs) and reveled when they finally started to peak at five – a day. Harrowing to say the least, and still bringing a chill to my bones even now.

Why it is okay to accept a compliment

Even with this experience, I cannot understand why people find it so difficult to accept a compliment and my immediate response would be ‘Thank you’. Is that not just common courtesy, anyway? A friend once said how well I took compliments and I really didn’t have a reply for her. I think I managed a smile; I hope it wasn’t a grimace.

I feel accepting compliments from others is all about self-esteem and self-confidence, and of having the ability to be proud of your achievements, without feeling guilty or belittling them. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, how can we realistically expect others to?

I leave you with two quotes from two highly influential women from my youth. These ladies are polar opposite, but sum up my thoughts to a tee:

Alanis Morissette

‘When someone says that I’m angry it’s actually a compliment. I have not always been direct with my anger in my relationships, which is part of why I’d write about it in my songs because I had such fear around expressing anger as a woman.’

Margaret Thatcher

‘We were told our campaign wasn’t sufficiently slick. We regard that as a compliment.’

Sarah Knight is a full member of AAT. Having successfully completed AAT, she has progressed on to studying ACCA.

Sarah Knight Sarah Knight is the winner of the 2013 AAT CPD Prize.

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