Naughty or nice

Don't give backhanded compliments.
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Mar 01, 2009


Dr. Cindy Adams
Q: Co-workers complain that I give backhanded compliments. What does this mean and how can I stop it?

A: A backhanded compliment is an insult in disguise. For example, "I can't believe you finally caught a missed fee," is a negative statement compared to, "Great job on catching that missed fee." It's a subtle difference that can mean a lot, says Cindy Adams, MSW, PhD, a veterinary communication professor at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. If your co-workers aren't thankful for your praise, you may want to re-evaluate how you give them compliments.

"Sometimes, without intention, there's a mismatch between what we say and how we say it," Adams says. "For a compliment to have the impact that you want, be specific. Focus on the observed behavior and describe the benefits." If a co-worker worked late last week, thank her and say, "You're such a critical part of the team. Your willingness to go the extra mile around here makes this a great place to work." By being descriptive, your sincerity is hard to miss.

But that doesn't mean co-workers will always be receptive. You can't control their reactions. Maybe your compliments weren't the exact ones they wanted to hear, or maybe they're in bad moods. That's not your fault. All you can do is be aware of your tone, your body language, and your words, Adams says.