Mindful communication

Feel the love: how to accept positive feedback at work

We know that giving praise and positive feedback is a surefire way to keep colleagues and team members engaged. Paradoxically, accepting praise can be difficult. When teammates gives us positive feedback or a compliment, we don’t always listen. We may even deflect the compliment. And it’s somewhat unlikely that we’ll absorb what’s being said to us and let that positive feedback inform how we work.

Oddly, accepting compliments is a skill. Internalizing them could be a secret superpower. Imagine if you truly listened to and absorbed the positive things people say to you about your work. Not only would this drown out your internal critic, but it could start to systematically shut your internal critic down. You would gain new information about what you’re especially good at or where others see your strengths.

Here are a few strategies for turning the positive feedback you receive into fuel for moving work (and your career) forward. When you accept positive feedback gracefully, you also set a good example for your team to share more praise and interpret praise as valuable information.

Instead of deflecting compliments, absorb them

Melody Wilding, a licensed therapist and professor of human behavior at Hunter College, says that we should erase the phrase, “Oh, it was nothing” from our vocabulary. “We can work on curbing that automatic response, that word vomit where we say ‘thank you’ and use minimizing language to deflect or rationalize away what’s been said.” Instead, try to see compliments as information. If you are consistently told you’re good at something, it’s likely it’s a skill you enjoy using. Can you sharpen that skill? Is that skill transferable?

When you receive a compliment, Wilding says, “Say ‘thank you,’ and then actively listen to the other person and ask questions. You could get more information, instead of letting the conversation go flat. Look at what you’re consistently told you’re good at, ask questions around why that is, and look for similarities.”

Ask a follow-up question (really)

It’s not fishing for compliments; it’s asking for more information. Hana Ayoub, a New York-based executive coach, says that asking a follow-up question after receiving positive feedback is key. “Respond with acknowledgment of the praise, and a follow-up question to better understand it,” says Ayoub.

“A question might be, ‘Thank you so much, that means a lot coming from you. Do you mind if I ask you a little more about how you saw me in that meeting, so I can get a better read?’” Ayoub acknowledges that posing this question can feel awkward, so practice first with peers, a mentor, or a coach. It’s worth the effort.

Use praise to uncover your natural abilities

This, Ayoub says, is the “secret sauce.” Sometimes, we’re completely accustomed to doing something, we don’t realize that it’s a special skill or that we do it in a unique way.

Says Ayoub, “From an outsider’s perspective, when something is highlighted as a strength, it differentiates you. When you can internalize that strength, you can use it, articulate it, and make it part of your value proposition. In the future, you’ll be leveraging these natural talents.”

This is where managers come in, and they can use the way they frame conversations about praise to engage a more passionate, effective team.

“I think hearing it from an outsider is a big game-changer,” says Ayoub. “Managers can use the conversation around praise as an opportunity to get clear on what these differentiators are. A lot of people can get a lot of jobs done, but if you help the right person get clear on what they do best in the right role, it will be even better for them. They’ll be more productive and efficient and creative with that.”

“When management can motivate the right people in the right roles, their employees are energized, happier, and empowered.”

Managers can give praise an action plan

Giving praise during a performance review can be tricky. “Oftentimes people will tune out the positive stuff because they’re waiting for the bomb to drop,” says Ayoub. Instead, managers can devote equal attention and dialogue to praise. “Managers can create an action plan for the praise, just as they would a negative point to work on. Employees would feel energized and empowered. Organizations would be enhanced.”

Managers can notice what their employees are best at, explore whether it’s something their employees are interested in, and if so, formally encourage them to develop that talent by giving them projects where they can practice and learn. “It’s working smarter, not harder,” says Ayoub. “When management can motivate the right people in the right roles, their employees are energized, happier, and empowered.”

Foster cultures where teams freely offer praise

In a February 2016 article, the New York Times Magazine explored Google’s work to establish best practices around creating “psychological safety” in organizations and on teams. “Psychological safety” is a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson to describe “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking… a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

Says Melody Wilding, “A team that gives praise and compliments freely is a team that has psychological safety.” Wilding says that it’s important for team members to give one another praise and that giving praise freely is supported by the company culture.

“Too often, praise is condensed to annual review. You do something great, and your boss will tell you in three months when it’s time. But that praise would be better now…. We should be generous with praise and give positive feedback freely, in positive forms. It can be as simple as a quick email after someone’s client presentation saying, ‘Hey, you did great.’”

Liz Funk is a New York-based freelance writer who covers entrepreneurship, careers, and happiness at work.

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