Reinforce Positive Behavior – How to Give and Receive a Compliment

Doug Staneart  |  April 14, 2020
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How to Give ad Receive a Compliment

Once we start coaching our team, we want to consistently reinforce positive behavior that we see. The best way to reinforce positive behavior is with a strength-centered compliment. In this session, we will show you, step-by-step, how to give and receive a compliment. This single skill is something that can absolutely set you apart from other leaders. It is also a valuable way to build more of a team culture within your organization.

Bad Managers Reinforce Negative Behavior. Great Leaders Reinforce Positive Behavior.

I hate to start in the negative, but it is important to set the stage as to why negative reinforcement is such a problem. Most managers think of their role as being a “fixer.” What I mean is that most managers have trained themselves to look for problems and then go fix them. The big challenge here, though, is that a problem has to exist before the manager has a role. If he or she doesn’t see a problem, they just look harder until they find one.

Good coaches and leaders, however, look for positive behavior. Then they reinforce that good behavior so that they get more of it. For instance, John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach had an incredible career. His team won the NCAA championship 10 times in 12 years, had four perfect 30-0 seasons, and at one time, had a record 88 game win streak. One of the secrets to his success was creating a phenomenal “reserve team.”

Coach Wooden decided that he would have more success if he limited playing time to just seven or eight players. That meant that his reserves (his bench) were not likely to ever see any playing time in an actual game. Coach Wooden, knowing how frustrating his method was to these reserves, used a different coaching style for them. He knew that his regulars received positive feedback from the crowds and the media. The reserves didn’t receive that affirmation, though. So, he made a conscious effort to use verbal praise, telling the reserves about the value they brought to the team. (Gallimore and Tharp.)

Did it work? At the end of the day, the praise caused the reserves to work harder, which made the regulars better. Bill Walton once said that actual games seemed slow because the pace of practice was so much faster.

People Are Resistant to Giving Praise and Compliments Today.

A few years ago, my daughter, Colleen was at a church camp. I invited my dad to drive down to the camp to pick Collen and her friends up. As the three teenagers squeezed into the backseat, my dad just nonchalantly paid them a compliment. He said, “It sure is nice to be surrounded by so many pretty girls.”

I’m ashamed to admit that at that moment, I was thinking, “Oh gosh, my dad has turned into a dirty old man.” My whole frame of reference shifted instantly, though. Immediately from the backseat, I heard a three-part, “Aaaawwww.” An hour or so later, I dropped dad at his house. As soon as the car door shut behind him, one of my daughter’s friends said, “Colleen, your grandpa is so sweet!”

It hit me that young children are growing up in a time where everyone is resistant to giving a sincere compliment. They aren’t used to the positive attention of telling them something nice just to make them feel better. (It is actually very sad.)

Compliments and Flattery Are Totally Different Concepts.

One of the reasons why people resist giving compliments is because of the negative connotations of flattery. For instance, when someone flatters the boss, we call him or her a “brown-noser” or “suck up.”

There is a big difference between flattering someone and giving them a compliment. When I flatter someone, I do so to get something in return. However, when I compliment someone, I don’t expect anything in return. I give it just to make the other person feel more confident.

When you attempt to flatter someone, the other person will sometimes respond skeptically. “Wait… What do you really want?” The person is looking for an ulterior motive. It is similar to the way that we react when a Barrister contacts us via email. You know… The email where you are receiving $9.2 million dollars because your long-lost uncle in Dubia just passed out. (I think the writer intended to say “passed away” though.) [By the way… Totally off the subject. If you want to see a hilarious rendition of one of these scam emails, click here.)

The point is that flattery is undesirable behavior.

Sincere Compliments Are Needed to Build Confidence.

On the other hand, a sincere compliment is always appreciated. In fact, in some situations, a sincere compliment is the only way to build your relationship with another person.

In the movie As Good as It Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, Nicholson’s character has a mental disorder. His nature is very off-putting to other people. Helen Hunt’s character is trying desperately to be nice to him but is getting nothing but negative in return. The compliment that finally turns the relationship around has become an iconic movie scene. In fact, both actors won an Academy Award for the performance. The acting was fantastic, but I believe that what made the scene so dramatic is because it is relatable. Viewers can put themselves in situations just like they were portrayed in the movie.

In the movie, Hunt’s character had shown positive behavior. But she was at a point where she was just about to give up, because Nicholson’s character still hadn’t shown any new behavior. When Nicholson’s character finally gave her a sincere compliment, it encouraged her positive behavior. And she stuck around because of it. I know it’s just a movie, but the scene does a good job of showing examples of positive reinforcement.

Reinforce Positive Behavior

People Are Gun-Shy Because We Don’t Want to Be Misperceived.

We live in a very litigious society, and everyone is super conscious to not offend anyone. As a result, we tend to see opportunities to complement a coworker or direct-report, and we hesitate. We don’t want the compliment to be misinterpreted as inappropriate behavior. So we just say nothing.

recent survey reported that 60% of men are afraid to have one-on-one meetings alone with a woman at work. That percentage is up from 46% just a year ago. Some are claiming this is due to recent social causes, but the percentage has been increasing for decades.

The reason is pretty obvious. Although reports to HR and lawsuits have weeded out a number of really bad actors, in some cases, innocent people who just had a lapse in judgment have been punished as well.

You get less of anything that you punish. However, you get more of anything that you reward.

This leaves a tremendous opportunity for good leaders in the workplace! A leader who knows how to give a sincere compliment in a way that has a 0% chance of being taken the wrong way has a distinct advantage. When this leader compliments his or her team, the behavior of the team members is rewarded. As a result, the team experiences more of that behavior! The use of positive reinforcement is a skill, and here’s how to use it:

How to Give and Receive a Compliment

There are a few ways that you can give a good compliment. Two of these ways have a higher chance of being taken the wrong way. The final way, though, is much better. Learn these new skills and the next time you want to deliver a compliment, the positive consequence will be profound.

What They Have

The most superficial way to compliment someone is on what they have. “Nice tie.” “I like your dress.” “Fancy car, Bill!” Although people often still like to hear these compliments, they have a higher tendency to be taken the wrong way. Obviously, if you choose to compliment a coworker this way, you want to make sure the compliment is professional, not personal. The tone of your voice also matters, as well, in order to get the desired response and not sound like you’re being sarcastic.

What They Do

This is a powerful tool and much better way to compliment a coworker. You can complement the person on what they did or how they did it. “Thank you so much for getting your report in early. You make my job so much easier.” Most people feel appreciated as a worker when they receive a compliment like this. Plus, focusing on positive things like this is the best way to root out unwanted behavior. By focusing on how they do a great job, you’ll start to see some of the problem behavior go away as they gain healthy self-esteem. However, as good as this process is, the final way is 10 times better.

Who They Are

This is the most effective way to compliment someone and to reinforce positive behavior. It is similar to complimenting on what the person does, in that we take the compliment to a higher level. Once you identify the action that the person did, take a step back and identify what strength or characteristic allowed that person to accomplish the task so well. So if a person turns in a report early, it might mean that she has a strong work ethic, is efficient, or detail-oriented. So, if you compliment her on that strength, in the future, not only will you get the reports early, but you may also start to see that positive behaviour in other areas as well. Do it enough times and you’ll see for yourself that positive reinforcement works.

Give a Strength-Centered Compliment to Reinforce Positive Behavior.

To make sure the compliment is top-notch, follow these guidelines.

  1. Start with the Strength. Identify the strength or characteristic that allowed them to do the task so well.
  2. Quickly Follow with the Evidence. Use the task that the person did as the evidence that the person does possess that particular strength.
  3. Keep It Short. The entire process should take 15 seconds or less. The shorter the compliment, the more meaningful it is.

If you need positive reinforcement examples, here’s an everyday life compliment you can use to encourage good work:

(Strength) Joe, one of the things that I appreciate about you is your diligence and work ethic. (Evidence) For instance, I noticed that you turned in the project report two days before anyone else. That makes my job so much easier.

How to Receive a Compliment

How to Receive a Compliment

Compliments are a powerful testament to the positive impacts we leave on others. But for many, the act of receiving a compliment can be as daunting as giving one. So, how do you truly receive a compliment in a manner that honors both the giver and the receiver?

First and foremost, maintain genuine eye contact and respond with a simple, “Thank you.” It might sound basic, but this straightforward acknowledgment is profound. Eye contact signifies engagement and authenticity, ensuring that the giver feels truly seen and appreciated for their gesture.

It’s essential to understand the courage it often takes to extend a compliment. Many individuals grapple with the fear of their words being misinterpreted or even outright rejected. By brushing off or downplaying a compliment, we inadvertently devalue the giver’s efforts and sentiments. This can discourage them from offering similar kindness in the future, potentially robbing both parties of meaningful interactions.

Conversely, when you’re the fortunate recipient of genuine praise, taking a moment to genuinely acknowledge it can have ripple effects. A sincere “thank you” not only reinforces the giver’s positive behavior but also fosters an environment where authentic appreciation becomes the norm. By doing this, you pave the way for future compliments and positive interactions. Over time, these interactions can bolster self-confidence and strengthen bonds between individuals.

In summary, while it might be tempting to deflect or diminish compliments, embracing them with grace and gratitude can be transformative. By simply thanking the giver, you validate their effort, encourage further positive exchanges, and contribute to a culture of genuine appreciation and respect.


In an age where people are becoming increasingly wary of compliments due to the fear of misperception, it’s paramount that we differentiate between flattery and genuine praise. By emphasizing specific behavior and using social reinforcers, leaders can employ one of the most effective ways to promote positive outcomes and curb undesired behavior. Compliments, when given genuinely, serve as a type of positive reinforcement, proving to be an effective tool in boosting an individual’s intrinsic motivation and mental health over the long term.

Yet, it’s not just about giving compliments; it’s equally vital to learn how to receive them. Pushing past resistance and focusing on positive feelings allows for a continuous reinforcement of good behavior, benefiting both the giver and the receiver. This is a testament to the power of small steps. By exploring different ways to compliment and accept praise, we can transform a potentially negative consequence into a series of effective methods to reinforce positive behavior. As we journey forward, let’s remember to harness the power of sincere compliments as a means to improve and enrich our interpersonal relationships and work environments.

author Doug Staneart
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Doug Staneart is president of The Leader's Institute ®. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Region. He is a specialist in corporate team building activities and custom presentation skills seminars.
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