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The power of a simple compliment

April 1, 2015, 4:02 PM UTC
Courtesy of Contently

Not long ago, I bought a business subscription that required a bit of training to learn. The account manager who walked me through the product on the phone did a phenomenal job. So good, in fact, that I wished others on my team had been around to see how she went above and beyond on the call.

This was the kind of person I would have loved to hire. On a whim, I decided to send her boss an email telling him as much. She embodied the two attributes I screen for when hiring for my company, Contently: Own It, and Be a Giver.

Her boss thanked me for the feedback. The next time I interacted with the account manager, it was clear that the praise had filtered down to her as well. I now had an advocate for life, and she had gotten well-deserved credit in front of her boss and peers.

Screening for problem solvers and givers has helped us build an office full of 80-some-odd obnoxiously kind people. But the real lesson I learned from this account manager is that being a giver—and specifically giving credit—isn’t just good for building a happy company; it’s also one of the easiest ways we can battle inequality. Research indicates that women often tend to take less credit for their achievements than they deserve (typically a sign of a giver), and men are more likely to toot their horn (typically a good strategy for climbing the ladder). It turns out that we often do these things unconsciously.

What results, however, is a world where women earn less, get fewer promotions, and have more of their ideas ignored. This is bad for society, of course, and it’s bad for business on two levels:

  1. Innovation happens when we look at problems from different perspectives.Gender inequality robs us of valuable perspective at every level of a business.
  2. When women succeed more at work, men succeed more, too. Inequality pulls everyone down.

I’m going to be honest: when I talk about inequality, I get self-conscious. Decades of studies show that I have things easier at work, on balance, than my female and minority colleagues.

But focusing on myself and the way I feel is shooting myself in the foot. Aside from being the ethical thing to do, it turns out that it’s in my own interest to speak up about workplace inequality. Recent studies show, unambiguously, that by helping others succeed, we make our own jobs easier. And research also shows that companies with successful women make more progress and more profit than homogeneous teams.

(It’s for these these reasons and many others that my company, is launching an internal effort called Ladies @ Contently, dedicated to helping the women on our team succeed personally and professionally).

In other words, everyone benefits from “leaning in”, not just women. I hadn’t realized when I sent that note to my account manager’s boss that the woman who’d done such a fantastic job was less likely to receive full credit in the workplace than a man doing a similar job. I sent the compliment because I was in a good mood. Now I realize that these simple acts of giving credit to people—to their bosses and peers—are part of how I can help end workplace inequality.

(Great news, too! My account manager was recently promoted to director-level. Well deserved, Blaire!)

We have plenty of habits to change when it comes to gender and work. One of the easiest ways for men and women to get started—to #leanintogether—is to give generous credit to our colleagues. We all need to build each other up and let others see our collective good work. As we look for ways to do this, we’ll build work cultures filled with obnoxiously kind people. We’ll build the kind of business world where powerful women lead and are heard.

And we just might get more work done, too.

Shane Snow is an award-winning journalist and entrepreneur, and the best selling author of Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success. He is the Chief Creative Officer of Contently, which he co-founded in 2010 with the mission of “building a better media world.”

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