Mark Twain, an American author, stated that he could live for two months on a “good compliment”.
It’s a long time without food, shelter, or Amazon Prime. But I get his point.
Complements are powerful.
One sentence, delivered by the right person in a right way, can completely change someone’s life.
Stories of famous poets, novelists, artists, or leaders whose success was attributed to small compliments from a teacher or mentor are common.
Complements can have a profound effect on the microcosm of your company. Maybe we don’t feel comfortable complimenting others. Maybe we don’t understand how. Perhaps we don’t know what words to use. Maybe we don’t realize the power of compliments to transform lives.
Science behind our love for compliments
Merriam-Webster defines a complement as “an expression or respect for, affection, or admiration.”
Understanding how people respond to kindness and human behavior is key to understanding the science behind compliments.
Understanding the rule of reciprocity
Social psychologists have developed a theory called “norms of reciprocity” (or “rules of reciprocity”) that is so well-known that scientists are comfortable calling it “rules,” just as 2 + 2 = 4.
The idea is that humans feel obligated to return a favor they have received.
One experiment saw Dr. Phillip Kunz, a sociologist, mail hundreds of Christmas cards to random people. Each note was handwritten. He also included a photo of his family in the Christmas letter.
Guess what happened. 37% of Kunz’s recipients responded. Remember that he sent these Christmas cards to complete strangers, hundreds of them. Why? Kunz was a normal-looking dude. It certainly wasn’t his photograph.
Kunz was shocked by the number of responses. I was also surprised at the number of letters written, some of which were three- or four pages long.
How can we explain this? The rule of reciprocity.
How the rule of reciprocity works daily in everyday life
For a moment, pretend you are me. Let’s pretend you get up from your desk and walk down the hall. A colleague is walking down the hall. She says, “Hey Dave!” (Maybe your name doesn’t sound like Dave. This is not the point.
What do you do when she says “Hey Dave”? Most likely, you smile and say “Hey, Dave” (or whatever her name is). Why? Because you are extending your friendly greeting and behavior to her. It might seem rude if you don’t say anything.
Reciprocation rules our lives. It has huge implications on how we interact with our children, our spouses, and our coworkers.
The act of complimenting someone is woven into the application of this rule. Person A can compliment person B and feel obligated to do so in return. Interactions are governed by the rule of reciprocity.
Because humans are responsive, compliments are powerful. Humans are wired to respond in a similar manner to other humans.
Consider compliments through the lense of the communication model. Complimenting is a two way street. You compliment the other person. The compliment is received by the other person. The receiver receives feedback based on your behavior.
It is rewarding and reciprocal. Charity is born out of kindness. A smile can elicit a smile. A compliment can change a person’s behavior.
What is a compliment?
It is difficult to quantify the impact of compliments, and even harder to summarize their effect in a few bullets. Here are some observations on compliments.
Compliments enhance performance. Although they may not pay rent, compliments can improve performance in the same way as receiving a cash reward. Research shows that one compliment on someone’s work or performance will directly impact their performance.