Healthy Leaders


The Difference Between Flattery and Appreciation

Adrian PeiAdrian Pei

This is the fourth part in a series on giving and receiving feedback.

Part 1 – How to Make Feedback Fun (Really!)
Part 2 – How to Decide If and When to Give Feedback
Part 3 – Feedback: The First and Most Important Thing to Say
Part 5 – How to Deliver Feedback Effectively
Part 6 – Putting Negative Feedback into Perspective
Part 7 – How to Receive Feedback Graciously
Part 8 – Disagreement ≠ Defensiveness
Part 9 – Feedback and Ethnicity

Have you ever been told “great job,” but it felt like something was empty or missing?  Or somebody threw you a compliment, but it just didn’t feel completely sincere?

I’ve been thinking about what genuine appreciation looks like, and how it is different from flattery. Here are two differences:

Flattery is more transactional … there is usually an ulterior motive. “You are so awesome … now do something for me.”  Or, “great job … now we need you to up your game and get more results.”

When I was in college, there was this “Thank-A-Thon” program where we volunteered to call alumni, just to thank them for their faithful donations to the school. Every single call went exactly the same:

Me: “Hello, I just wanted to thank you so much for your donation last year!”

Them: “Okay, sure…”

Me: “So, thank you!  Because of your donation, we were able to fund this-or-that program, etc.”

Them: “So … what do you need?”

Me: “Nothing!  Just wanted to thank you!”

Invariably, they just couldn’t believe that we weren’t asking them to give more money. A couple of times, they even offered themselves to give a donation even though I wasn’t asking!  Instead of feeling like the call was a transaction, they actually felt appreciated. They felt human. And that made them want to give more.

Flattery tends to stay positive, and doesn’t delve into the realm of acknowledging the hard and challenging aspects of what a person has been through. Appreciation “embraces the negative.”  I can’t overstate the importance of this. Across the board, I’ve felt the most appreciated when people have made the effort to understand and appreciate my reality. For instance:

“What you did wasn’t easy. I appreciate it because you invested effort and energy at a time when things were challenging in your life.”

“It must have taken a lot of time to plan this. I appreciate what you did, especially because of the resilience and perseverance it took to make this happen.”

Great leaders are able to even acknowledge hard realities that they may have created themselves:

“I know it wasn’t always easy working with me, and I said and did some things that weren’t helpful. What you did was so special because you stayed true to your values despite a lot of criticism and complexity.”

Each of these statements isn’t afraid to embrace the negative. Often in our work, we do things that require hard work and sacrifice, and it makes a big difference when people “get it.”  It honors us when they’re able to communicate, “I see you. I see the cost and sacrifice in what you did.”  The goal of true appreciation is to meet people’s needs to be seen and valued, not just to say the words “thank you.”

There is also one key word in each sentence above that adds invaluable meaning: “because.”  I like what you did, because… What you did must not have been easy, because

True appreciation explains why we’re grateful, not just that we’re grateful.

So the next time you appreciate someone, try these two things. Just thank them, and don’t ask for anything else. Acknowledge their hard reality … and always use the word “because.”  Make it your one and only goal that they understand your gratitude.

They will appreciate it.

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Adrian Pei