Hey Principals, Learn to Take (and Give) a Compliment!

Go ahead, say thanks, and mean it.

How to take a compliment

No one gets into education for the accolades, the applause, or the gratitude of their peers. We do this work because we believe in the transformative power of schools. But, it’s important to work on self improvement on a daily basis. Once in awhile, a well-meaning person reaches out with six terrifying words:

You are doing an amazing job.

If you have a hard time taking a compliment, you are not alone. Studies link difficulty receiving compliments to low self-esteem, reinforced gender expectations, and cognitive dissonance. Most concerning is the link between difficulty receiving praise and poor mental health. Learning to receive compliments can be an important step toward becoming a healthier, happier human.

Here is what you need to remember: Praise is important and necessary. In our work with children, we all understand that praise is an essential ingredient of high self-esteem and academic progress. In our work with adults, we know that it can be incredibly meaningful to show colleagues that we appreciate them. Why, then, is it so hard for adults in leadership positions to take compliments with grace and ease? Instead of feeling awkward about praise, what would happen if we accepted a compliment as if it were an unexpected gift?

It takes time and effort to learn to receive a compliment. Here are some simple do’s and don’ts to help you get started.

Don’t disagree.


Colleague: You did a great job designing that faculty meeting!
You: Ugh, it was terrible! I really need to work on my timing.

Many people’s instinctual reaction to a compliment is to reject it. If this is what you do, you probably don’t see that this has the potential to be seen as a rude and demeaning response. Rejecting a compliment shows a distrust of the person giving it, and rebuffing praise can seem dismissive.

Don’t deflect.

Colleague: I love the new system for logging morning tardies!
You: It was the team, not me.

If you’re not leading your team, what are you doing? We all know that it’s important to share kudos, but it’s equally important to own successes. Find a way to praise your team but do not take yourself out of the equation.

Don’t one-up.

Colleague: I love your jacket. You look so polished.
You: This old ratty thing? You’re the one who always looks amazing!

One of the worst things to do when someone gives you a compliment is to immediately compliment them in return. It sounds disingenuous, and it invites them to reply in kind. You could end up in a circular conversation for hours.

Do get your story right.

Colleague: I’m inspired by your confidence and poise.
You: Who? Me?! I’m not confident!

Some psychologists link a discomfort with compliments to an inability to see one’s strengths and assets clearly. When this is the case, a compliment can cause a mental rift between what we think about ourselves and how others see us. If you struggle with praise, you need to work on making these two realities match. Make sure that the story you tell you about yourself intentionally includes the good things that others see.

Do say thank you.

Colleague: I really appreciate your leadership style.
You: Thank you!

The best and most graceful way to navigate a compliment is to simply say thank you. When you don’t deflect or disagree, you affirm the giver and strengthen your connection.

Do keep practicing.

Colleague: You are so good at handling awkward situations.
You: Thank you! I’m really working on improving that skill.

There’s nothing wrong with expressing your appreciation for a compliment while being authentic and transparent about the ways that you are working to improve your skill set. A great leader grows her skills with intention and purpose, using every opportunity to do better.

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