Compliments seem like a good idea, but don’t always work out as planned. Some people view compliments with suspicion; others are mildly allergic to them. I like them when they seem real, but when they devolve into flattery, I find them irritating.
When I say that in wrangling freelancers we need to sweet talk the talent, what I mean isn’t so much to compliment or praise them–which might be nice to some, but could backfire with others–but to express our genuine appreciation for their work.
Appreciation makes our hearts soar, makes the sun shine, makes the world go round. Not compliments necessarily, and certainly not flattery. Appreciation.
However, not all expressions of appreciation are created equal. In order for appreciation to be meaningful, we might consider the following attributes:
By timing, I mean both when we express appreciation and how frequently. Expressing appreciation is like expressing love–it’s impossible to overdo it. Being lavish and generous with appreciation costs you nothing (and yields tremendous payoffs), but to be stingy with appreciation comes with a high price tag.
A common mistake is to express appreciation only during that first attempt at
seduction fishing luring the talent. This is when you call a freelancer to ask if she would like to work on your project, and you say, “I’m calling you because you’re one of the best!”
Booty call, anyone? These kinds of compliments can have the opposite of the intended effect.
This works with the rookies, but not with veterans who’ve ridden at this rodeo before. Freelancers who are the best already know they are the best, in the same way that elite athletes are pretty good judges of their own physical abilities; geniuses, too, have an accurate grasp of their intellectual capacities. They may be vain about this, they may not; it may simply be one of the facts filed away in their brains. No one in this world needs you to tell him or her what he or she already knows. To tell the best of the best that they are the best is like some guy on the street telling a passing beautiful woman that she is beautiful. So what.
Another common mistake is to restrict expressions of appreciation to the conclusion of a project: “Thanks for all your work on this project!” That’s like running to fetch an umbrella for someone who’s already walked ten miles in the pouring rain. It’s another so what. Thanks, I guess.
For appreciation to be effective and meaningful, it must be expressed regularly. Sure, it’s nice during that first phone to tell freelancers they are great or even the best (if indeed they are the best, see “authenticity” below) and that we always appreciate their work (assuming we do). Then we have to follow up throughout the course of the entire project by expressing appreciation every single time the freelancers do something right. Every. Single. Time. As in, “Thanks for getting that assignment in early–that means I didn’t have to work this weekend.” As in, “No edits on that set! I so appreciate your thorough and careful work.” As in, “Thanks for asking that question. I didn’t think of it, but it’s good for you have that information.” Not mechanically, though. It has to be real. If we don’t believe it, that disbelief and falseness will damage the relationship.
We can usually find something to appreciate. If we can’t, it may be time to reflect on ourselves and our bitter cranky cynicism. Or it may be time to let that particular freelancer go.
There is beauty and reason in proportion. Even people who adore compliments may dimly understand when they are being played with overblown praise. This is no place for hyperbole. Leave out words like amazing and incredible. Don’t say that you were awed (unless indeed you were). Don’t routinely say, “Thanks a million, you’re the queen of the universe!!!!!!!” (Unless you are one of those flamboyant souls who speak in extravagances, in which case, as you were, because your freelancers already know how to translate that into “Thank you, you were very helpful by giving me that information, and I appreciate it.”)
Don’t veer too far in the opposite direction, either. Understated appreciation is only slightly better than no appreciation. I don’t know, maybe this is just me, but to me, sometimes it feels worse than no appreciation when a muted unenthusiastic thanks is the only response to a herculean effort on my part.
Expressing appreciation doesn’t come naturally to all of us. Some of us, especially those of us who don’t receive a lot of appreciation ourselves, may have to work at it. Practice. Thank anyone who does anything for you. Thank the dental hygienist for removing the pale blue paper bib and for wiping spit off your chin. Thank your child for taking out the trash. Thank your friend for listening to you complain about how no one appreciates you. This expressing appreciation is an excellent habit that will serve us well in all our relationships.
The more general the expression of appreciation, the less it means. The more specific, the more it means. General statements don’t pack a wallop partly because they take minimal effort–it takes so little to say “Nice work!” But to be specific shows that you actually noticed and paid attention. We all want to be noticed.
Here are some examples of not so meaningful versus meaningful expressions of gratitude:
Not so meaningful: Thanks for all your hard work.
Much more meaningful: Thanks for writing 75 of the 300 items we delivered last week.
Not so meaningful: You did a great job.
Much more meaningful: You submitted items that not only contained no errors, but were written elegantly and thoughtfully.
Not so meaningful: That was a good passage.
Much more meaningful: The passage you wrote was perfect for the grade level, met all the specifications, and was playful, creative, and fun to read.
Once I edited a short text for a client whom I admire very much; her gratitude took the form of thanking me for understanding what she was trying to do and remaining true to her voice. Ah! The pleasure of her noticing what I intended to do!
It takes effort to compose meaningful expressions of gratitude, but the effort is worth it. Again, we can practice on our loved ones: Thank you for taking out the trash twice this week, Thank you for folding the laundry and putting it away, Thank you for making a yummy dinner, Thank you for going with me to walk the dog.
Still and all: general expressions of gratitude are better than nothing. If all you can manage in the moment is “Nice work!” then say “Nice work!” Just be sure to follow up at some point with highly specific thanks.
This may be the most important attribute of all. If you don’t mean what you say, you can say anything and it won’t make any difference. Only express appreciation that you truly feel.
Stop and think about a particular freelancer. Why do you want to work with her? What does she do to make your life easier or better? How can you thank her? It’s never to0 late to send a message to say Hey I was thinking. Remember Project X, when you saved my bacon by writing three extra passages? I was really up a creek and you brought me the paddle! Thank you so much!
I work with a protégée of whom I am so fond. And proud. Her work is excellent! She pays close attention to what she does. Mistakes are few and far between. There is evidence of such focus and effort in her work. We’ve been working together for three years now, and her skills are improving all the time. I just think the world of her. I truly am so grateful to supervise her in this work. I know that when I give her an assignment, I can absolutely trust her to do the best work she is capable of. It’s a wonderful feeling. I try to tell her this whenever I have the chance. Sometimes I worry that I tell her this too much and the words will lose their meaning, but I persevere. I feel compelled to tell her how grateful I am for her work.
I also have the good fortune to work with a client who is a role model for how to show appreciation to freelancers. In fact, I came up with the list of attributes by thinking about how this client expresses her appreciation to me, which she does frequently throughout the course of our working together. Her expressions of appreciation are always proportionate to the effort, highly specific, and authentic as all get out. She doesn’t express her appreciation in order to spur me on, but that is the result. I always want to do more and do better, because I know that whatever I do will be met with enthusiastic gratitude.