Management The best version of ourselves

Rainbows and Unicorns

Peggle is a casual game developed by Popcap. Originally released in 2007, the game is memorable because of it’s absolutely over the top level finishing sequence.

In an explosion of rainbows, fireworks, unicorns, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, you are generously emotionally rewarded when you finish a level. As a friend commented at the time, “It is likely the most consistent and unadulterated source of positive feedback you’ll get in your life.”

The gaming industry has spent billions of dollars successfully figuring out how to design and build products that provide Peggle moments – that tap into the parts of your brain that reward specific behavior. They’ve figured out when to reward you in order to keep you entertained and engaged. There are companies and products which do this well, and there are those who are total douche bags about how they choose to re-enforce behavior, but the rules are tried and true and deeply wired into your brain.

And there is absolutely no way they can’t be used for good (or evil) in a product, team or company

Moments of Disproportionate Satisfaction

I’ve been thinking about games for a long time, and I believe there are three rules that define a good game:

  • Do I have a continual healthy sense of progression?
  • Am I learning and mastering the game via timely and effective feedback?
  • Do I have the impression that I can win?

Let that soak in a moment because I’ve been working on that list for a long time. While I’ve made a name for myself writing off-the-cuff remarks on Twitter, this list is considered. It explains why a Rubik’s cube isn’t a good game (but a great puzzle), but Minecraft is an amazing one.

True story. I’ve been writing versions of this piece for a good two years. The vast gaming surface area described by this list paralyzes me each time I attempt to finish, but as I’ve edited, I’ve realized that these rules also apply to building a healthy team. Specifically one, “Am I learning and mastering the game – the system – via timely and effective feedback?”

What a horribly dry rule. I need my wisdom with a dose of poetry, so how about a more specific version, “Compliments work.”


I’ll write about the two other rules and how they relate to good leadership and a healthy team another time. This article is about the power of a compliment. A compliment is a selfless, timely, and well-articulated recognition of achievement. To start to understand the value of a compliment, let’s go back to that Peggle video. Play it again.

It’s a visual and auditory feast full of familiar sights and sounds designed to give you joy.

When it comes to the motivation of humans, we’ve designed all sorts of communications tools and interesting cultural artifacts to help us move forward. Here’s a deadline that clearly tells us when we should be done. Here’s a Gantt chart to explain where we as a team and how we collectively get us from here to there. I am tell assertive which means folks who like to be told what to do will appreciate my communicative style. All of these structures, articles, communication styles, and threats can motivate, but game makers have learned the elegant motivational properties of a compliment. Allow me to demonstrate:

Thank you for reading this article. I spend hours on these articles. I fret over them, I love them, and then I hate them. Eventually, I toss them into the world wondering what you’ll think. If you’re still here, I don’t know if you liked this piece or not, but I do know that you’ve spent just under five minutes of your life reading something I wrote which means I held your interest, so thank you. I appreciate every single one of my readers.

Are you feeling it? You should because I mean it.

Peggle rewards you when you perform a simple task. It’s saccharine and over the top, but you can’t say that Peggle doesn’t own the compliment. They want you to celebrate your achievement in the loudest most ludicrous way, and it works.

However, the Peggle compliment does fail to meet my definition. While it is a timely and well-articulated recognition of achievement, it is hardly selfless. It’s fun, but it’s designed to be fun so that you keep playing the game. It’s a timely endorphin boost that is designed to train your brain to crave finishing because… that head-banging unicorn. He’s the best.

Let’s decompose a useful compliment.

The Compliment Breakdown

Once more, my definition of the compliment: A selfless, well articulated, and timely recognition of achievement. Let’s take that apart.

First up, the reason this compliment needs to exists is that of achievement. This human did something notable, and you want to recognize this fact. The magnitude of achievement is a factor, but I find compliments small and large carry the same weight. We want to highlight when the team or team members are at their best; we want to recognize meaningful acts of being human.

Recognition is our next attribute and herein lies improvisation. Is this a compliment you want to land 1:1 at the moment it occurs or is it the type of compliment that you want to tuck away so can you can land it in front of the entire team for maximum recognition? I don’t know. There are so many contextual variables to consider here that it’s hard to give universal advice? Do they hear it? Or do others need to hear it about them? Understand what behavior you want to recognize and why and make a call.

Timeliness is our easiest attribute to understand. My default is to compliment as quickly as possible because I believe it’s the most effective way to reinforce behavior. That’s what we’re doing here, right? The blandest version of what you’re saying is, “This thing you do is important.” The faster that you take the time to compliment, the more they’re going to remember – not your compliment – but the act.

Well articulated is the attribute that is the hardest to define and the most important. Let’s start with what looks like a horrible compliment. The vapid “Good job!” seems like an F, right? Not true. A well-timed “Good job!” can be an effective and timely recognition of achievement. Even better, how about this?

Thank you for taking the time to build the technical overview document for Q&A. The feature you built is great, and we not only better understand how to test it, but support it.

The specificity of this compliment documents the act, the value, and the impact. It is that detail articulation that will make it memorable.

The most nuanced part of compliment is selflessness. This is also entirely context dependent, but a good compliment is one that comes without perceived social cost or dependency. You know what doghouse roses are? It’s when you buy flowers for your significant other because you screwed up. Yes, they are pretty, but all the recipient sees in those roses is the screw-up. It’s a thoughtless empty gift that erodes trust. A good compliment contains nothing about you or what you want. It is entirely about the achievement of the other human.

A Compliment Career Shift

What are the moments that defined your career? Sure, I bet you can rattle off the disasters because the mental magnitude of disasters has staying power. Keep thinking. I suspect you can think of compliments that changed the course of your career.

My first start-up. A senior engineering VP who ran brusk and terse was working with me on compensation adjustments for the team. We were efficiently and quietly working our way through a spreadsheet and comparing notes. Halfway through the spreadsheet, he looked up at me and out of nowhere said the longest sentence of the day, “Understanding people is your super power, Lopp. Don’t forget that.”

A well-constructed compliment has an emotional payload. It is full of rainbows and unicorns. It is this strange, unpredictable payload that makes us nervous about compliments. There is the risk, but when used for good, a compliment is an elegant and lasting way to recognize and reward when we are the best version of ourselves.

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5 Responses

  1. Maheedhar Gunturu 7 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I enjoyed reading the article and found it very useful & informational. Having the ability to mentor through short stories is a rare skill.

  2. I once worked at a big company, supporting litigation from the business side. When a CRITICAL conference call concluded, and the tide in the litigation had shifted favorably, … due to my boss’s AWESOME performance in the call. I thought … “I need to say something he will never forget, to compliment this moment and him.” and then I remembered a compliment I had heard a female colleague in a previous job make of a job interview candidate who was off-the-scale-good: “Would I be out of place if I offered to bear him a child?” I stole her idea (despite being a male) and said “Jim you did so well, would I be out of place if I offered to bear you a child?” and all in the room laughed for 5 minutes enjoying the victory, and the aptness of a nicely played selfless (stolen) compliment. Nice job identifying distilled essence of compliments Rands!

  3. James 7 years ago

    “Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise” – Dale Carnegie

  4. M Sims 7 years ago

    I read every article you post in my feed reader, which unfortunately discourages the extra step of leaving a comment. But I appreciate all the things you write – they help me understand people better, so that I feel like some of your super power has rubbed off. Thank you for the time you spend putting these together.

  5. Erica 7 years ago

    I had a manager who was terrible in almost every respect (really, really terrible… when he started managing my team there were five of us, and three left within a year, and then he got promoted). But he did one thing right: whenever someone on the team completed and released a project, he sent an email out to the team, his manager, and our business counterparts talking about the successful project, all the technical goodness it contained, and all the value it provided to customers. He never wrote anything negative, even if the project was three months late and riddled with bugs. I left his team four years ago and I still miss those emails.