A friend who runs a 4,500-employee manufacturing plant wasn't happy with his "Stop, Start, Continue" feedback. The list of things he should keep doing clearly wasn't the problem;  the "continue" portion of the exercise mostly just softens the "start" and "stop" blow.

The list of things he should stop doing also didn't surprise him; like many entrepreneurs who bootstrapped their businesses, he tends to jump in before his leadership team has the chance to take care of problems on their own. 

But he couldn't get past one of the things his direct reports told him he should start doing: Praising them, and people people on the shop floor, more often.

Why did that bother him?

Partly because he's a Don Draper "that's what the money's for" kind of guy; he sees the paychecks he provides as thanks. (He's wrong: Pay is an exchange of money for effort. Pay is not appreciation. Or praise. Or gratitude.)

But mostly it bothered him because he thinks people don't really like receiving compliments. He feels those exchanges, no matter how sincere, are awkward. That they make the other person uncomfortable. That complimenting someone too often will lessen the impact.

And because he doesn't think he ever finds the right words.

On the one hand, he's right. Research conducted by Christopher Littlefield on praise and recognition shows that while 88 percent of respondents associate feeling valued with recognition, nearly 70 percent also "associate embarrassment or discomfort with the process of being recognized." 

In addition, a series of studies published in 2020 in Personality and Social Science Bulletin found that people tend to "experience considerable anxiety and concern about their competence in giving compliments."

So yeah: Praise can be awkward on both sides.

But he's also wrong. 

The same series of studies found that many people significantly over-estimate how uncomfortable the recipient will feel, and significantly underestimate the impact a compliment will make.  Any self-consciousness the other person may feel is far outweighed by how good they feel about being noticed, recognized, and valued. 

And as for the whole "I suck at giving compliments" thing?

Recipients don't care about your delivery; they care about the quality of your compliment. The higher the praise, the better the person feels -- regardless of whether you found the "perfect" words.

Nor do you have to worry about doling out praise too frequently. In a 2019 study published in Self and Identity, participants who were asked to compliment a friend once a day for five days in a row, often for the same thing, assumed the recipients "would adopt to multiple compliments, with each feeling less positive and sincere." 

Nope. To quote the title of the study, "Kind words do not become tired words."

No matter how uncomfortable you may feel delivering them. And no matter how awkwardly they may be delivered.

What matters is that you recognize the judgment behind the decision. The interpersonal skill behind the resolution. The effort behind the achievement.

And, more importantly, that you praise it.

Because, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, people may soon forget the words you say, or whether they felt a little uncomfortable hearing them... but they never forget how you make them feel.