Why you should compliment your team members more often

People do better work when they’re reminded of times they excelled previously, so it pays to dish out plenty of praise

Two office workers giving each other a high five

(Dana Neely/Jetta/Getty)

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” That was the daily affirmation of Stuart Smalley, Al Franken’s defining character (you know, before he became a U.S. Senator) from Saturday Night Live’s 1991 season.

The power of positive thinking, lame as it seemed then, actually works. The phenomenon is called “best-self activation,” and studies have shown that when we think of times when we did something great, it boosts our self-confidence and makes us more likely to repeat the feat.

But a new working paper from Harvard Business School suggests that the power of positive thinking is even more powerful when it comes from others. We are, the authors conclude, more likely to be awesome when people in our social networks take a moment to remind us of a time we were awesome in the past. It creates a positive feedback loop. And how could that be a bad thing?

In one lab study, a group of participants received emails from friends, family and co-workers describing a time they witnessed the individual performing at his or her best, while another group did not. (Sample note: “You are unafraid to be intelligent…I can think of a time when you won the argument with class, and I found it inspirational.”) The first group read the messages before performing a series of tasks, including being asked to generate as many uses of a newspaper as possible in three minutes, and a game called “cyberball” designed to induce social stress.

The researchers found that “best-self activation” improved participants positive emotions and even their immune system. They scored higher on creative problem-solving as well. Another lab study put the theory to the test in the work place, finding that those who received positive notes from peers were less likely to experience burnout, fatigue or have intentions to quit. “Our model and results imply that activating people’s best-self concepts is beneficial both for humanistic and economic reasons,” write the authors. “That is, best-self activations are not expensive but can help people live better and help organizations operate better.”

As for how this might work in a company setting, the authors suggest work team members might write about contributions their colleagues have made to the company over the previous year—and see a boost in overall team performance. They even suggest this might be part of an alternative form of performance reviews. “These practices would stand in stark contrast to forced performance distributions that demand pre-set percentages of ‘worst employees’ and up-or-out promotion systems that require employees to be fired even when the team is functioning well,” they wrote.

So yeah, you could do a lot worse that write some nice notes to your awesome staff now and then. They might just become more awesome. Or they might write something nice about you. Either way, awesome.