The Tragedy of an Unaccepted Compliment

For many of us the scene is all too common: we completed our presentation. A well-rehearsed speech in 5 minutes seems to be a disgrace towards the weeks of diligent preparation, late nights and personal sacrifices that collectively summarize themselves in the neat and concise work.

Your professor, boss, team or board applaud to confirm what you already know: you did a great job.

As you sit down to take your seat, the compliments rain down on you from your audience. Instead of accepting the praise, however; you treat each kind word like droplets from an intrusive storm…you put up the jacketed front of “it was a team effort” or “thanks, but it really was not that hard” or maybe even “o, I don’t deserve that”.

I fall within this lot as well. I am guilty of repelling compliments and I will later share one context that inspired this blog post. Together, I want to explore a few concepts:

  1. The basic definition of a compliment.
  2. The implications of not accepting a compliment.
  3. How to accept one gracefully.

Compliment – A Quick Definition

Dictionary.com defines a compliment as:

  • An expression of praise, commendation, or admiration,
  • A formal act or expression of civility, respect or regard,
  • A gift, present

What are the implications of not accepting one?

If you Google the subject of “how to accept a compliment” a few different articles on the topic will hit your search results. For the sake of brevity I only provide an article by the Huffington Post.

Humility is one reason why folks decline compliments. Mike Austin, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University suggests that humility is not an impermeable jacket we can wear to protect ourselves from praise as suggested in the onset of our discussion. Instead, “humility is more about a proper assessment. A big part of humility is knowing our own limits, our strengths and weaknesses…”. Humility, therefore, should inform us when we are deserving of a compliment and when to accept.

The premise of our discussion is based on the empowerment of the individual to accept a compliment; however, it is the responsibility of the manager to create a healthy culture where compliments are valued. I have worked in an office culture where compliments were passed out like stale candy bars on Halloween. It is easy to decline when you know the compliment is not specific to your duties; is given so frequently it loses meaning and if the compliment is given as a political move and not out of sincerity. As an introvert, a public praise can be uncomfortable. A manager needs to avoid the pitfalls of the over allocation of compliments. That same manager needs to know the personalities of their team and avoid discomfort by providing that praise in a situation where it can be accepted.

My Compliment Challenge

I was in a meeting with a previous employer a few years ago. He paid me a compliment about some milestones I recently achieved in our community engagement. I deferred the compliment by saying I was just doing my job (in retrospect, a very silly statement yet a common phrase we all use). The conversation continued; another compliment towards the assignment boomeranged back into the conversation. I again dodged. My director sternly but kindly said “…KUDOS” with the tone of “accept it, dude!”.  I eventually did and we continued with the meeting.

After I left his office I realized that I achieved a career-changing milestone goal. Yet, I declined the opportunity to celebrate, reflect and appreciate that growth moment.

As public servants in the nonprofit sector, wins are often few and far in-between. They are often only measured by accepted grant applications, funds raised, and other budget line items. However, these measurable are realized because of the intangible community networking, partnerships and coffee meetings with our stakeholders.

When we do not pause to reflect on our successes and accept compliments we stunt our growth.

Speaking as a black male, I argue that the stakes are higher for minorities and women in leadership roles.

When compliments are made and if we shoot them down with our false humility then we ironically support historical pressures that still exist culturally (thanks to de facto norms) but once existed and were reinforced by institutional norms and laws.

Growth in the work place calls for us all to take an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses and to take stock of the fruits of our labor as they are realized.

So How Do We Accept Compliments?

As the Huffington Post article argues, we ought to warmly accept compliments for the value that they bring to both the messenger and the intended audience. When we do not gracefully accept we build distance as we decline the invitation for comradery. Perhaps the most ironic and tragic note is that we may also hamper our own career and personal growth by highlighting phantom set-backs and flaws that are built only by false humility.

The speech is done. The work is over. The task at-hand is completed. A job well done is communicated. A compliment, hopefully, is accepted.

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