How to Accept a Compliment — Even if It’s From Yourself

12 mins read

The FINANCIAL — Pumping yourself up after a big win can feel a little awkward. You want to acknowledge good work, but you don’t want to feel arrogant. It’s that tricky balance of quietly reveling in a job well done without coming off as … well, a jerk.

Despite that awkwardness, getting credit for your work gives your brain good feelings and helps you accomplish more. Companies use praise to try to boost productivity and even revenue, and experts say that the psychological impact of keeping a positive view of your accomplishments can decrease stress and encourage better habits.

Unfortunately, not all praise is rewarded equally. Studies show that in the workplace, women, and especially women of color, are often given less credit and assigned important but undervalued projects, meaning less recognition come promotion time.

But even if you’re bad at taking a compliment, or you’re not getting external recognition, you can still enjoy major psychological benefits from celebrating your achievements on your own, according to Dr. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of “The Progress Principle.”

“They don’t have to be big breakthroughs or huge successes,” she said. “Even small wins can lead people to feel terrific.”

Here’s how to embrace the power of those small wins and get comfortable taking credit — even if you’re giving the kudos to yourself. Why compliments are worth accepting

Research shows that meaningful praise can measurably boost motivation and performance and can improve your brain’s ability to remember and repeat new skills.

And yet: As we all know — and the research shows — humans tend to dwell on failures more than compliments.

That’s because the ancestors of ours “who were negative worrywarts were more likely to survive, so our brains are designed to look for problems,” said Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Compounding our difficulty accepting compliments is the “internalized message that it’s not good to seem like we’re bragging,” which leads to the common tendency of explaining away achievements, according to Melody Wilding, a licensed clinical social worker, professor of human behavior at Hunter College and performance coach for clients in high-powered jobs.

“Many times our strengths come so naturally to us that we don’t realize their value,” she said, which is why compliments can be rich sources of information.

By looking for patterns in feedback, people can even discover talents they otherwise take for granted, Ms. Wilding said.

This intentional reframing helps us correct our own negativity bias, and it can be a helpful foundation to draw from during salary negotiations or career transitions, Dr. Neff said.

So compliments can be useful, but how do you actually deal with the awkwardness of accepting them?

Keep it short and sweet, with responses like: “Thank you, I’m glad you said that,” or “I appreciate your noticing, thank you for letting me know.” No word vomit or undermining allowed.

If you’re still afraid of looking bigheaded, or if you’re genuinely interested in more feedback, asking a follow-up question is a great way to show you value the compliment giver’s opinion and know there’s always room for improvement.

The power of self-given kudos

Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, you just aren’t going to get recognition — and that’s O.K. You don’t have to wait for someone else to notice to start celebrating and learning from your successes. You don’t even have to accomplish any big goals.

“Even in the absence of recognition, people often felt incredible elation when they made progress in work that was meaningful to them,” said Dr. Amabile, who has studied the impact of daily events on one’s productivity and inner work-life, “which is the thoughts and feelings and motivations that people experience as they react to and try to make sense of events at work.” She found that the most impactful events are small moments of progress, reinforced by the process of reflecting on them.

What work counts as meaningful depends on the person, but motivation is typically stronger when it’s connected to your core values. Dr. Chris Cascio, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that when participants were subconsciously primed to think about things they cared about, and then shown messages encouraging new exercise habits, the areas in their brain associated with reward and positive self-valuation lit up. That group also went on to change their behavior, by improving their exercise regimens, the most often.

Dr. Amabile’s team even found that personal satisfaction had a stronger impact than external praise if employees felt like the compliments they received didn’t connect to work they valued or “were just empty attaboys” from management.

So what does this mean for you?

Keeping a daily list of your accomplishments can be one of the most powerful ways to improve your intrinsic motivation, productivity, creativity and mood.

Celebrate the small stuff

How you track your wins is a matter of personal preference, but like budgets and diets, the best method is the one you’ll keep up with.

All you need to do is jot down tasks you complete throughout your day, or carve out a few minutes in the evening to write a reflection. Unlike the aspirational and often ambitious to-do list, the focus here is looking at what you’ve already accomplished, not things still on your plate.

That’s because these “small wins,” even if they barely chip away at our larger goals, can still boost our mood and motivation, giving us an important sense of progress, according to Dr. Amabile.

Achievement tracking can be just as powerful in our personal lives. When we’re going through hard times we’re often coached to imagine how we’d speak kindly to a friend in a similar situation, but it’s easy to forget that same mind-set also works for embracing praise, Dr. Neff said. Depending on the person, tasks like eating a healthy meal, showering or reaching out to a friend can be worth listing as accomplishments.

“Since we tend to be pretty good at reminding ourselves about our self-doubts,” said Dr. Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist who wrote “Choke” and is president of Barnard College at Columbia University, “it’s important to “be very specific and deliberate in reminding ourselves about the positive.”

Because small setbacks can have a negative impact three to four times stronger than the triumph of a small win, keeping a list of achievements isn’t just helpful in giving you a motivational boost that day. It can also be an affirming reminder of your strengths the next time you go through a rough patch.

How to cash that credit (and make change)

Keeping a record of things you’re proud of and of meaningful compliments you’ve received does more than give your brain good feelings and boost your self-perception.

Eighty-six percent of recruitment decision makers agree that it’s important for candidates to be able to clearly communicate their achievements, “but because our brains have a way of discounting the positive, we often don’t remember them when we need to make a case for ourselves,” Ms. Wilding said. To avoid blanking, she recommends using your daily reflections to build a “brag file” of tangible contributions you’ve made.

Experts said it’s also worth carving out a few minutes every week to talk about your accomplishments with a co-worker, friend or family member.

This can help you get comfortable having these conversations so that when the time comes to share your wins in a more serious setting — e.g., a job interview — you know exactly how to talk about them. It also helps reinforce the positive feedback loop and gets you actively thinking about your recent wins and how they build toward bigger goals.

But reviewing concrete examples of achievements comes in handy during more than just negotiations or interviews, Dr. Beilock said. Building awareness around how we spend our time and where we place our energy can also be a useful catalyst for change and dealing with challenges, she said. Feeling secure in our strengths often improves our ability to hear constructive criticism, according to Dr. Cascio, and being able to notice and be motivated to change bad habits can spark more progress worth feeling proud of.

“The best way to feel good about progress,” Dr. Amabile said, “is to actually make progress.”

The New York Times, HBS

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