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How Compliments Can Backfire

The dark side of praise.

Key points

  • We do not appreciate positive recognition when it is presented as inferior to the accomplishments of others.
  • High-power participants may be likely to discount feedback more, as compared to low and equal-power participants.
  • Compliments can backfire and cause powerful people to form negative impressions of subordinates.
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We instinctively acknowledge a difference between authentic admiration and cheap flattery. But how do respective differences in power, status, and rank impact the way compliments are given and received?

In Conversation, Context Counts

Do you ever have co-workers fill in for you when you are out of town? When you return, would you rather hear “Thank God you're back,” or how well your replacement did in your absence? Even when delivered in jest, a glowing appraisal of the stellar work performed by your substitute is unsettling. Even well-meaning praise can create conflict and competition.

Selective praise can be off-putting and offensive. A peer amidst a group of teenage girls who only compliments the flowing tresses of the Marsha Brady lookalike has unwittingly insulted the rest. It is no different with adults, whether selective praise is delivered personally or professionally. A supervisor who gushes over the accomplishments of a colleague without acknowledging our efforts is distinctively remembered—and not fondly.

Comparisons are also not always helpful. As has been demonstrated since biblical times, when celebratory revelers danced and sang: "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands," causing King Saul to be very angry and jealous of David (1 Samuel 18:7-9), we do not appreciate even positive recognition when it is presented as inferior to the accomplishments of others. Such comparisons are not only memorable, they are destructive to our sense of self-esteem. Research corroborates this experience.

Praise and Positive Feedback

Praise from a parent or a boss builds confidence and contentment. We don’t usually question the sincerity of a compliment from a trusted source who is superior in status. But how is flattery viewed when the tables are turned?

Jonathan W. Kunstman et al., in a piece entitled “Poisoned Praise,” examined the ways in which powerful people view the praise of subordinates. [i] They found that high-power participants discounted feedback more as compared to low and equal-power participants. They also found, however, that the tendency of high-power people to discount feedback only resulted in negative perceptions of others when positive, as opposed to neutral feedback, was discounted. In addition, they explained, “[t]he more high-power people discounted positive feedback, the more negative their impressions of their partners.”

They conclude that apparently, compliments have the potential to backfire and cause people with high levels of power to discount praise and form negative impressions of subordinates. So at least as applied to subordinates attempting to ingratiate themselves with their boss, it may not be true that “flattery gets you everywhere.”

Interestingly, Kunstman et al. noted that their results conflicted with research emphasizing the narcissistic qualities of powerful people, instead demonstrating that powerful individuals are not categorically swayed by praise, and may actually critically analyze motive in the face of flattery. Regarding self-concept, they note that because positive feedback is founded on achievements, discounting praise results in accepting less credit for success and viewing oneself in a less favorable light. In this fashion, discounting positive feedback requires sacrificing self-enhancement in favor of self-protection, to avoid potential deception and manipulation.

Inclusive Authenticity

Not only should we avoid alienating peers through selective praise, we are well-advised to consider the propriety of flattering the figure at the top of the food chain—even when we are genuine. A measured, neutral, and thoughtful approach is the best strategy to connect with peers and superiors alike, combining authentic admiration with honesty.

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[i] Kunstman, Jonathan W., Christina B. Fitzpatrick, and Pamela K. Smith. 2018. “Poisoned Praise: Discounted Praise Backfires and Undermines Subordinate Impressions in the Minds of the Powerful.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 9 (4): 470–80. doi:10.1177/1948550617712028.