The Value Of Compliments
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Agile is about collaboration, and collaboration comes about through effective communication. But effective communication isn’t the only thing you need for great collaboration. In some of the most collaborative teams I’ve been part of, we’ve also had really strong bonds of trust, respect and rapport with each other. But how did we do that? To my mind, a huge part of this was the role compliments played in our communications.
When you compliment people by saying something positive about themselves or their work, you’re clearly demonstrating a number of agile principles. The first is the basic one of trust. Principle five of the agile manifesto states:
“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”
When you pay someone a compliment, you’re clearly showing them that you approve of and value them and / or their work, and that you trust in their abilities. Another approach commonly associated with agile is the idea of servant leadership, one of the principles of which is assuming good intentions on the part of everyone you work with. If you assume everyone does what they do for good reasons, then it’s hard not to compliment people regularly and frequently.
When you regularly compliment people, you also get another massive benefit, in that they will then want to communicate and collaborate with you more too. If someone’s always nice to you and appreciative of what you do, your defences come down and you’re more likely to share your work with them early and often, as well as valuing their feedback more. Conversely, if you’re always negative, critical and finding fault in people’s work, then it’s only natural for them to start to avoid showing it to you. As the saying goes, ‘you catch more flies with honey than vinegar’, although don’t think of the people you collaborate and communicate with as flies, obviously.
On top of these somewhat logical points, I’ve genuinely found that the more you compliment someone, the better their work gets, even if what you’re complimenting isn’t as good as it could be. I know this is an idea people have struggled to understand about the way I work over the last few years, but time and again I keep finding it to be true. Let me give you an example.
In 2015 I was looking after the features team of the radio station for Glastonbury Festival. Their job was to go out and record audio features about things happening at the festival and edit them into small audio packages, which would then get played out on air. I ran the team using Scrum, and we produced more features than ever before at higher quality too, but that’s probably something for another blog post.
One of my jobs was to listen to every feature produced and check that it was ok to play on air. There wasn’t much that wasn’t ok to play out, but we had to be careful to avoid swearing, or giving away any secret or embargoed information about things happening at the festival. One of the things I did as part of this work was to become effusive in the way I praised each and every feature I got given to listen to and approve. Many of them truly were great, but being a new team, some of whom had never met each other before, or even been to the festival before, some probably could have been better. Even the ones that could have been better though I praised and complimented massively, and do you know what, the quality of the features from those people start to go up by themselves. I hardly ever told people what they needed to improve, I just showed them that I trusted them and their good intentions, and they worked harder and harder to improve what they did all by themselves.
It may sound odd to some of you, but it’s not telling people what they’re doing wrong that helps them improve, it’s telling them that they’re doing a great job, even when they could be doing better.
But how do you give compliments though? It can actually be quite a hard thing to do, especially when you’re communicating with people via things like email rather than face to face, and especially if you’re from a naturally reserved and understated country like England. Let me suggest a solution to each scenario.
For the issue of email, it’s easy enough to write compliments to people, but to my mind, compliments arriving in plain text, just black and white, kind of fall flat. So instead, I like to send emails with images instead of text. There are loads out there, but some faves of mine include Tony the Tiger (implying the work is grrrreat!), The Fonz from Happy Days giving a thumbs up, or a panel of judges holding up scorecards displaying straight 10’s. There are loads like that out there, you just need to search for them on Google Images.
Spoken compliments though need a different approach. If you get too formal and business like with them, again I think they kind of become sterile and fall flat. Telling someone ‘well done’, or that they’ve done ‘good work’, or that you think they’re a ’strong performer’; none of these really connect on a human level, they just blend into the background noise of day to day work.
The approach I take instead is to see how over the top I can get with them. Not only do I find it quite fun myself to think up new gushing and effusive compliments, they generally make people laugh, realising a small endorphin rush, and being so different to anything heard before, they stick in the mind too. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed using over the years that might inspire you to craft your own:
‘I don’t just like this, I adore it. I want to take it in my arms, nibble its shell like ears and bear its many beautiful children’
‘This is literally the greatest thing I have ever seen. Anyone else working on something similar may as well go home now, nothing could ever surpass the work you’ve been doing right here, right now’
‘This is fantastic. I adore it. I worship it. I stand in awe of it. Do more of this, and the entire world with literally become 17.94% better. The ripples of its benefits will be felt as far afield as Sutton Coldfield’
So there we are then, compliments. I know it may sound counter-intuitive in a world brought up to believe that we need to give people at best constructive feedback, and more often give them critical performance reviews using formal business language, but I swear that every time I give people in a team nothing but fantastic compliments for their work, even if I think it could be better, their work improves by itself.