When "Good Job" Isn't Good: Accepting Acknowledgement

As leaders, we know acknowledging our employees for a job well done helps keep them motivated, especially in the face of ongoing change. Yet sometimes our compliments get a strange reception: the individual stammers or deflects, or worse, acts like they don’t even hear your words of praise! Is your feedback missing the mark? Or are you just surrounded by falsely modest teammates?

A study on sports teams looked at this unexpected phenomenon, and found that some players did enjoy getting recognized for an achievement, like being voted MVP. They took it on as a part of their identity, and gave Oscar-like acceptance speeches acknowledging everyone’s role in helping them achieve their dreams. Other players, though, would roll their eyes at this display. To them, celebrating praise didn’t look joyful; it looked self-centered and narcissistic.

On the other hand, when more modest players won awards, they accepted them in a perfunctory, almost embarrassed manner. Doing it this way made them feel dignified and worthy of trust and respect—but it drove the coaches crazy! In their eyes, the modest folks looked like party poopers.

How you accept praise is a question of individualism vs. collectivism. Individualists see people as operating independently—if a team gets a win, individualists tend to see it in terms of each person’s contributions to it, and have a harder time recognizing co-created results. Collectivists see people as inseparable from each other—a positive outcome is something the whole team achieved—and tend to notice and appreciate the co-created aspects, whether intentional or not.

Of course, standard precautions apply here: individualism vs. collectivism is a continuum, and people can see things collectively in one situation (at home) and individualistically in another (at work). And you can’t just look at a person and know whether individualism or collectivism is operating for them at the moment.

But if we want to make an employee who rejects our praise feel valued and rewarded, what can we do? Because individualism is so baked into US culture, it might be tempting to try to coax your more collectivist folks into acting more like individualists. But this would be a mistake. Praise is meant to be a reward – for individualists, it’s like cake, but if you don’t like cake, then it won’t feel like a treat. Instead, try one or more of the following tactics:

  1. Celebrate and reward the whole team. It will validate the fact that the accomplishment is a team effort, and allows colleagues to appreciate each other without putting anyone’s effort above another’s.

  2. Temper your praise. Researchers found that another key difference between individualists and collectivists is how they react to criticism: individualists deflect it, while collectivists accept it. Therefore, one possibility for getting your praise and gratitude heard is to add some constructive criticism. A collectivist type will feel seen and cared about if you show how the good can become even better.

  3. Praise the effort, not the outcome. By focusing on the input, you’re more likely to appeal to their work ethic while reducing the likelihood they’ll feel like they’re appearing self-centered.

 
 

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