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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

The Three Ways to Recieve a Compliment

For many of us, receiving a compliment is difficult. We doubt whether the praise is deserved or genuine, so we respond in uncomfortable, unexpected ways that discourage others from giving us compliments in the future.

Unfortunately, this doesn't just affect us. Our discomfort with compliments limits the movement of information about the quality of work through the group. Compliments (and feedback of any sort) are an interchange, and this discomfort with giving and receiving compliments discourages the sharing that is necessary for the function of learning.

As leaders, we both need to model giving and receiving compliments in an effective manner, and we need to help others learn and practice doing so. Here are the three ways that we can respond to a compliment.


This is the way that we are taught to receive a compliment: say "thank you." Accepting a compliment makes the process "work," if you will: the giver recognizes another person's positive accomplishment and provides this feedback, and the receiver accepts the feedback graciously. The interchange is completed, and the positive emotion reaction takes place. However, there is a hidden opportunity that we miss if we just say, "Thank you." I'll come back to that in a minute.

For many of us, accepting a compliment is hard. If we feel like we could have done better - which is true for many strivers - this acceptance feels disingenuous. And for those of us who are shy, the nice gesture feels like a moment of vulnerability and embarrassment. This brings us to the second way to respond to a compliment...


When acceptance feels too uncomfortable, we reject the compliment, saying something like, "It could have been better." The trouble with deflection is that giving a compliment is always a bit risky; for the giver, it feels a tiny bit (or perhaps a lot) like going out on a limb. It's also a nice gesture, one that we expect to be accepted. So when someone deflects a compliment, even if their deflection is understandable, the giver feels a bit hurt.

This discomfort in both the giver and receiver breaks the interchange relationship, which is not productive for individuals or the group. What we need is a way to turn the compliment into a statement of shared vision that builds a more productive interchange...


The solution that works is redirection. This is when we turn the compliment back to the giver, team, or another person. We say something like, "Thank you, I'm really happy with the results and the team's support in the back end was really valuable." Redirection has the benefit of implicitly accepting the compliment, while also complimenting others at the same time. It spreads the wealth of praise.

This is the most productive, but also the hardest, way to receive a compliment. It is hard because it requires us to think on our feet. We often don't expect the compliment, so we have to immediately come up with a witty, gracious, and clear statement to recognize others' contribution without taking away from our own.

Redirection works best when it both explains the success in terms of vision and when it shows the relationships that created the success. This is when we can truly lead from anywhere, as we can take a compliment that was given without these connections and add them in when we redirect, creating a statement that tells the story of vision and reinforces productive relationships. This might occur in a single small compliment for a task well done, it might be a speech we give at an awards ceremony, or anywhere in between. What is important is that we recognize the moment of praise is an opportunity to lead through the three functions.

And In Practice

So how do we get started redirecting compliments? Here's the simple trick: be aware of the connections between our work and others. When someone says something nice about us, we have already considered how the success came to be and who contributed, so we are ready to point out how the topic of the compliment helped make the shared vision become real, and how the connection between vision and the group's process of work created excellence.

If you haven't gotten tired of hearing this from ReDefine, leadership depends on seeing what actually takes place in the group. Giving and receiving compliments is a way to lead from any level and position, and it allows us as leaders to help the members of the group act upon the functions of leadership. To do this well, we also have to give effective compliments and learn from the feedback we receive. When we do this right, we create an environment where the members of the group can learn to do the work better, faster, and cheaper.

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