When I was a kid I was pretty motivated to try to new things, to take on leadership roles, and to have the favor and approval of the teachers. Yes, I wanted to be praised by my teachers. I was that kid. I wanted the adults that I admired to be proud of me. I wanted their validation.
I think as children, we all want that to some degree. We want someone older and wiser to see our talent and potential and for them to approve of us. Maybe even be impressed.
As an adult in my late twenties I have had a difficult time putting my finger on why being showered with compliments by older adults has not set well with me. A “great job” or a congratulatory remark are wonderful and needed to make us feel like we are doing well and our work or contributions are appreciated. But an over selling of compliments feels belittling.
When people are in leadership roles it is so important to lift others up, letting them know that we see and appreciate their gifts. And if we have a platform and the power to provide opportunities to help our people share their skills, then we should certainly step aside and share the limelight. And then tell them they’re doing great.
That being said we need to be aware of the danger of falling into two pitfalls:
- Constantly complimenting or showering with compliments gets awkward really quickly. It can be hard enough to learn how to graciously accept a compliment, but several in a row can be uncomfortable. Why? Because sometimes it can feel disingenuous, and even condescending. Go back to when you were a child and wanted validation from the adults and leaders around you. It felt good and helped you develop your strengths. Now, as an adult, not only have you gained more confidence, the fact that you have a job pertaining to your skills or a degree (or multiple degrees) is more than enough validation of your talents. Who are we to assume that we are so important that their confidence and self-worth hinges on our validation of their talents? Now let me pause here and say that I know as a well-intentioned leader who falls into this trap too often that this is not the mindset. I find myself over-doing it with compliments all the time, because I want to be someone’s cheerleader. I want that person to keep up the good work. We want those around us to feel supported (because we want support too, and we know how important it is.) And we should support them! But let’s be careful that we aren’t overdoing it. The people around us don’t need our approval to be amazing; they already are. And it’s okay if they know it. They shouldn’t have to feign ignorance or being embarrassed just so that we feel like they need us to help them feel confident. One can be confident and also humble and grateful for support. Don’t over sell it. Just show up and congratulate. They’re not helpless.
2. Taking credit for someone else’s success as if we “discovered” them is stealing what doesn’t belong to us. If we’re constantly talking about how we “gave” someone an opportunity while disguising it under how thrilled we are to see their talents shine, we need to stop and assess what’s going on. Why are we telling others about this story? Is it to brag on that person? Why are we including the detail about how we “noticed” that person? What does that add to the story? Why do we want our listener to know that we were the ones who acknowledged that person’s talent? Why are we inserting ourselves into a story that supposedly isn’t about us? Often times, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We’re talking about a great experience within our lives where someone shared their gifts and talents when maybe they had never had an opportunity to do so before. That’s a great story to tell! But then we slip in details here and there about how we were the ones who noticed them, then we asked them, then we spent hours working with them, then we found the perfect opportunity for them… And suddenly the story is not about the other person, but about us. Sometimes minor details are necessary to get the whole picture. So here’s an example of a self-centered version of the story, and a more selfless version:
“Our company needed someone to take on a presentation for a big client. We had a small group of people on our team that always did the presentations, and they do a great job. But some of our talented people fly under the radar who might have some strengths they could bring to the table. I noticed Haley always takes good notes when I speak at our meetings, she asks me great questions, and she shares great research with me. I thought she had a lot of potential, so why don’t I ask her? She was very excited to that I gave her this opportunity, and she knocked it out of the park! I’m very impressed, she exceeded all of my expectations.”
“Our company needed someone… Haley always takes good notes, asks great questions, and she does her research. She had so much potential, so I asked her to do the presentation. She was very excited, and of course she knocked it out of the park! It was great to have her skills be recognized by so many people in our company and with our clients.”
In the second narrative the word “I” was only used once, and it was just to share an essential detail of the story. Otherwise, the story was focused on Haley’s competence and not on the boss’s discovery and validation of her. While we may not be purposefully looking to take credit for someone else’s success, this could be a hidden motivation in inserting ourselves in the story. If we’re getting notoriety for helping someone, we’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
When we are supporting others, let’s be careful and care-full with our compliments. The people around us aren’t some sad baby bird who are just waiting for us to swoop in, save them, and help them fly. Typically, we don’t think of them in that way; at least not consciously. But we have to caution ourselves that our leadership habits reflect that we see these people as our peers and colleagues, not our good little students who need a gold star or pat on the head. Let’s support them without being condescending and let’s help them without taking any credit. There’s so much talent out there and enough room for all of us to share and enjoy it.