Avoiding Backhanded Compliments
Often without intention, leaders offer compliments that are insulting. Couching a hard truth in less-than-genuine praise is the very definition of a backhanded compliment.
Funny enough, when people receive compliments laced with insult, they often respond positively — until they get the chance to think through what was actually just said. Then they seethe, as the insult echoes loudly.
Without always meaning to, leaders unwittingly give backhanded compliments and damage their relationships with those who receive them.
“You were surprisingly good!” is a perfect example of a compliment that is indirectly insulting and proves to be no compliment at all. Here is a short list of backhanded compliments leaders offer by accident:
You’re really quite charming when you make the effort.
You’re coping with the situation so much better than I thought you would.
I would never be able to challenge others like that.
You look so much more enthusiastic when you pay attention.
You did so much work today.
This conference isn’t worth my time, maybe you should go.
That presentation was really good. It must have taken an enormous amount of time.
I could never get that upset at a colleague.
That’s an interesting idea. I used to think like that earlier in my career.
Good for you for trying your best.
I respect how you’re handling such an embarrassment.
Good leaders don’t avoid delivering candid feedback by indirectly framing it as a compliment. Instead, they keep those messages completely separate. Effective leaders learn, sometimes the hard way, that the path to avoid unintentionally insulting people is to refuse to disguise feedback inside a compliment. Either offer praise, or give others candid feedback. Try never to achieve both goals at the same time. The best leaders go to the forehand and avoid the backhand. That’s a better way to play.