How to Pay Someone a Compliment Without Sounding Like an Insincere Suck Up
Who doesn’t enjoy hearing that they did great work? Sure, you might respond awkwardly on occasion, but considering how nice it is to receive compliments, you’d assume it’d be pretty easy to dole out.
And yet—it’s not.
And that’s usually because you want to avoid coming off like a suck up. You don’t want to tell your boss you admire something she did, only to have her think you’re a teacher’s pet. You don’t want to tell your colleague he did something great, and have him assume you’re trying to get a lead role in his project. And you don’t want any direct reports thinking you’re trying to be the cool boss.
So, how can you praise others in a professional setting and strike the right note? Keep these tips in mind:
1. When It’s Your Boss
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to praise your manager; however, there is something wrong with making up compliments that couldn’t be further from how you really feel.
Don’t say, “Your notes on the client presentation were really helpful,” when you disagreed with all of them. You might think getting on her good side will make it easier to push back, but it’ll actually make things more complicated. Either she’ll notice you ignored her revisions and think you’re full of it; or else, she’ll think you understood completely and expect different work the next time around.
When your manager teaches you something—directly or by example—that’s a worthwhile thing to mention. After all, the best bosses want to see their employees succeed. So, when you share that she’s giving you the tools to be successful, it’ll make her feel good (and—bonus!—reinforce that you’re acquiring new skills).
The trick here is to get specific. So, if she helps you compose a tricky email, say, “Thanks so much on your advice for what to write back to Jane. I can definitely see how the line about what an additional week would allow us to accomplish would instill confidence that everything is on track.” By coupling your appreciation with a takeaway, you’re giving genuine praise.
2. When It’s Your Teammate
There are two things you want to avoid when you compliment a teammate. The first is a bunch of empty comments that make it seem like your only goal is to be well-liked. This approach will undermine any true, valuable feedback buried in the piles of kinds words.
The second is coming off authoritatively. If you’re constantly judging a teammate’s work—even to say it’s great—you’ll start to sound like you think it’s your job to evaluate her, making you seem power-hungry. So, skip overly formal lines like “That was a valuable contribution,” or statements that put the other person below you, even “You’re really good at your job” (because that shouldn’t come as a surprise).
There’s a lot to be said for praise among equals. It feels good when your colleagues see you as a valuable teammate. My favorite approach is to share something I’d like to emulate (e.g., telling a colleague you always take notes when he gives a speech, because he connects so well with his audience).
If your colleague saved the day with a skill you’re not planning to learn—e.g., his website updates made your clients happy, but you’re not about to tell him you want to start programming, too—discuss impact. You could say, “I’ve received five separate calls and emails from clients, just in the last two hours, to say how much they love the new website.” When you share specific, positive results, praise feels much more genuine than when you tell someone he’s “so great.”
3. When It’s Your Employee
Not all compliments are created equal, and employees want meaningful feedback. Praising everything to get a direct report to like you can send mixed messages.
For example, if someone’s been struggling with punctuality and she makes a change and suddenly shows up on time every day for two weeks, you should compliment her efforts and tell her you noticed. But if she’s been punctual since day one, and is working really hard on a new initiative, and you praise her in equal measure for getting to work on time and developing a new operating system, it’ll diminish the overall value of your praise.
Employees want to know they’re doing good work and exceeding their boss’ expectations. But the only way for them to know where they stand in your book is for you to tell them. So, look for moments when someone’s demonstrating growth and let her know you notice.
When a direct report suggests a new way to do things, wraps a successful project, or is making consistently making strides in an area that has needed improvement (like speaking up in multiple meetings or proofreading all of his work), compliment these positive changes. If you single out something he’s been working on, he’ll know you’re being sincere.
4. When It’s a Networking Contact
Hopefully, your network includes at least a couple people you think of as career superheroes. You look up to these people and they do big, impressive things like write posts that go viral, win awards, or speak at cool events.
And so, when you gush over their awesomeness, you’re not sucking up—it’s totally genuine. However, as flattering as idol-worship may be, it doesn’t make for a worthwhile networking relationship.
Even if you’re not an in-demand keynote speaker, you have a unique set of skills and ideas that are valuable. So, if you want to praise someone impressive—and forge a more memorable (or growing) connection beyond being a member of the fandom—think of what you can include in your exchange beyond praise.
So, let’s say you just read a brilliant LinkedIn post your contact wrote. Yes, you can tell her you loved it, but to separate yourself from everyone who’s saying that just to suck up, think of something else you can include in that email. Did it remind of something else you’d read? Have you seen other resources on a problem he pointed out? Is there someone you connect her with who you think she’d really enjoy meeting? By taking the time to couple praise with a value add, you’re demonstrating you aren’t just shooting off blind compliments.
The fact that you constantly find reasons to want to praise the people around you is awesome—you sound like an optimistic, thoughtful addition to a team. Just remember that overdoing anything (even saying nice things) can get a little Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf. In this case, it may seem insincere, which defeats your whole purpose. So, use the tips above to give constructive praise that’ll make people feel great, and avoid the impression that you have ulterior motives.
Sara McCord most often writes about making a better professional impression. She also covers topics specifically for working moms who want to excel in their careers. She's been published on Mashable (where she was a regular career contributor), as well as Forbes, Newsweek, TIME, Inc., and Business Insider. A Staff Writer/Editor for The Muse, Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. See more of her writing on her website or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author