If someone's fishing for a compliment, it means they really want you to acknowledge something about them or their work. It's a transparent move, sure, but it may be a successful one, too, according to a working paper from researchers at the Harvard Business School, London Business School, University of Michigan, and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Fishing for compliments is formally known as "best-self activation," and researchers find that it can "lead to behaviors and interaction patterns that make you more engaged with people, more creative, and better able to perform under pressure." Yet, this activation isn't always so well-received, and researchers speculate this may be why organizations don’t better help employees refocus their narratives about their self-concepts. So they conducted a series of experiments to see if offering people reflections on times they were at their best would lead to positive and social change.

In one experiment, 123 volunteers went on a mock job interview, where participants either received positive notes or neutral notes previously written by close friends; some participants were asked to write out their own accomplishments and qualities. The participants who received positive notes performed better in interviews compared to the two other groups. And in a different experiment, 75 volunteers were tasked with creative and cognitive performance tests. Again, those who had been encouraged by others beforehand were more successful.

Overall, the experiments showed that "best-self activation improved participants' positive emotions and physiology, including their immune system." It also seemed to buffer "negative physiological arousal associated with stress-inducing tasks, and increasing problem-solving performance under pressure."

The researchers added: "Taken together, studies…demonstrate that activating people's best-self concepts spark adaptive outcomes that have the potential to lead to longer-term changes to the social system."

Researchers, however, were still curious to know more after these two experiments and conducted a third, where they randomly assigned newly hired consultants to one of three groups: control, social network, and best-self activation. Researchers administered a survey to assess the degree to which consultants' "narratives became more or less transactional as the employment relationship developed," if it resulted in "greater burnout and propensity to quit."

The control and personal reflection groups received the usual new hire orientation, but the personal reflection group was asked to answer certain questions; they were asked to focus on individual strengths and watch a seven-minute video on how to promote said strengths. Then, they actually listed three examples of them being their best self. As for the social network group, they were asked to think of close family, friends, and colleagues who knew them well and could provide examples of them being at their best. These people were then called to provide examples, which were then delivered to consultants weeks later.

In this experiment, the results indicated that "the slope for transactional narratives was positive" and it increased employment relationships, with the social network group repeating significantly more benefits of best-self activation. The social group was also more effective at predicting burnout and intentions of quitting relative to the personal reflection group.

"In two lab experiments and a field experiment, results showed that rather than making people complacent, best-self activation inspired them to substantial improvements in their emotions, physiology, cognitive ability and relationships," researchers wrote. "People whose best-self concepts were activated felt better and were more resilient to stress, more resistant to disease and burnout, better at creative problem solving...and formed stronger relationships with their employer."

Of course, the researchers acknowledged certain limitations. For one, they did not measure or examine how people link new concepts to themselves; they also did not examine what attributes of the friend and family stories were most effective, or any possible negative emotions that could emerge from best-self activation.

That said, these results do suggest that there is "considerable lost potential in keeping silent about how others affect us when they are at their best." So, compliment your co-worker, will you?

Source: Cable DM, Lee JJ, Gino F, Staats BR. How Best-Self Activation Influences Emotions, Physiology and Employment Relationships. Social Science Research Network. 2015.