What to do when people don’t accept your attaboys

We know it’s a good idea to acknowledge our employees for a job well done. Sometimes, though, when we wish to give our gift of praise, it doesn’t seem to go over so well: people stammer and deflect, stare at their shoes, or worse, act like they don’t even hear our kind words!

What’s going on with that?

Here’s a research study that might cast some light. The researchers followed a sports team for a year, noting how players reacted to praise and criticism from their coach and from fellow players.

Sometimes, when players got recognized for an achievement like being voted MVP, they really enjoyed it and took it on as a part of their identity. They gave Oscar-like acceptance speeches acknowledging everyone’s role in helping them achieve their dreams.

A lot of people enjoyed celebrating this accomplishment – but not everybody. Sometimes, when other players saw this, they rolled their eyes. Celebrating praise didn’t look joyful to them; it looked self-centered and narcissistic. They would have a hard time respecting anyone so thirsty for attention.

On the other hand, when players who liked modesty 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. Come on, they said, enjoy it, you’ve worked hard for it! Let us celebrate your awesomeness! In their eyes, the modest folks looked like party poopers.

What was going on here?

You might think it’s about self-esteem or jealousy. But it turned out to be something way less complicated. It turned out to be a matter of mindset - individualism vs. collectivism.

Individualists see people as operating independently from other people; doing their own thing without the influence of others. If a team gets a win, individualists tend to see it in terms of each person’s contributions to it: Peggy came up with the project, Javier closed the deal, and Joe took care of the admin. They appreciate that each person intentionally helped the overall outcome, but they have a harder time seeing the places where people unintentionally helped each other or co-created together: for example, where Joe’s excellent admin made it possible for Javier close the deal, or where Joe and Javier’s side conversation sparked Peggy’s idea for the project in the first place.

Collectivists see people as inseparable from each other. It’s like the finger and the hand: a finger may be a thing unto itself, but it is the hand that makes it useful. At work, collectivists see a positive outcome as something the whole team achieved, and tend to notice and appreciate the co-created aspects, whether intentional or not.

There are some caveats of course: It’s a continuum, and people can see things collectively in one situation (for example, at home or in a tight-knit community) and individualistically in another (at work, or in a leisure activity where they don’t know everyone). And even though we often talk about individualism vs. collectivism as an aspect of culture, you can’t just look at a person and know whether individualism or collectivism is operating for them at the moment.

So if we want to make an employee who rejects our praise feel valued and rewarded, what can we do?

The United States is a very individualistic country – possibly the most individualistic civilization that has ever existed on the planet – and our go-to stories are all about big reward ceremonies: think about the Oscars, election Night, and the MVP awards, which are all set up to honor one person’s contribution. Because individualism is so baked in to 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.

To solve this, let’s put on a collectivist hat. Collectivists value modesty and dignity. You don’t want to seem better than other people, particularly because you know what others have been contributing and you see it as valuable – critical, even. It seems ridiculous to accept a compliment and act all puffed up about your portion of it. You just did what anybody would do.

Here’s an option for dealing with your mix of collectivists and individualists: you, as the manager, could just decide to celebrate and reward the whole team. That validates the fact that it’s a team effort, and allows individuals to appreciate each other without putting anyone’s effort above another’s.

Or, you could adopt a different stance for the people who don’t take it well: Our researchers found that another key difference between individualists and collectivists is how they react to criticism. Individualists deflect criticism, while collectivists tend to accept criticism. That doesn’t mean they have a poor opinion of themselves, only that a little constructive criticism alongside your gratitude and praise may have help it get the intended effect. 

Therefore, one possibility for getting your praise and gratitude heard is to temper it with some constructive criticism. That doesn’t mean running them into the ground – it’s important that criticism be seen as a path forward in their development – a way for the good to become even better. This may help a collectivist type feel seen and cared about. To put that into practice, you would praise some specific aspects of their performance, gauge their reaction, and then add “and next time, consider also doing XYZ.” 

What if you end up criticizing an individualist? If you’ve offered constructive criticism, they might deflect it or come up with an excuse, as individualists do. That’s fine – they still heard and accepted the praise.

Finally, consider adopting a stance that has practically become canon in the field of education: praise the effort, not the outcome.

 Whatever your personal preference, don’t let your fear of negative reactions keep you from catching your employees doing something good.