The Backhanded Compliment
Throughout my career I have noticed that very few people are capable of giving feedback - or maybe they have not yet learned the art of feedback giving. I'll be honest, I get it wrong, too. Do you make a compliment sandwich, where you give a piece of good feedback, then constructive criticism, then more good feedback? Do you give both positive and negative feedback separately? Do you just blatantly tell them what they are doing wrong? Do you wait until the mid-year review and lay everything out on the table? How often do you bring a single piece of criticism up to the individual in question? While there are many factors to take into consideration and many arguments for each perspective, I would like to focus today's message on Managers giving compliments to their employees.
I had a woman reach out to me recently who is in a client-facing role. Her boss called to tell her that he noticed how well she has been doing with one of their clients. He told her that he is impressed with how she has grown into this role, coming a long way from where she started. Unfortunately, he did not just leave it at that. He continued his compliment with, "I mean, let's be honest, you've had some career setbacks with the loss of xyz client and then you had a baby." Appalled, baffled, you name it, she started to say, "Uhhh..." and he interjected to correct himself, "I mean, no, a baby is a great thing. But you are off work. It's a joyous occasion, that's not what I'm saying. I'm just saying you should feel good."
I can tell you that she did not leave that conversation feeling "good". There are many things I could say about this call. As an outsider, I have the ability to take a cautious step back and say that the man had good intentions of giving this woman positive feedback. I was curious about the lost client and what specifically happened (or what she had potentially done). Being in a similar role myself, I know how critical this topic can be. Unfortunately, when I found out that the client in question was "lost" while this woman was on maternity leave, I have to wonder why the blame got placed on her. I leave those questions for another day.
I do not know the man myself and would like to give him the benefit of the doubt that he isn't some asshole boss, just slightly misguided. You might think I'm crazy, especially after reading the end of their conversation; however, I find that people of all levels within an organization struggle to understand how to approach a situation, even something as wonderful as giving someone a compliment. I would hazard to guess that he simply did not know how to approach the situation and did not prepare thoroughly enough to deliver his message with slightly more tact. This, in itself, is a problem when a Manager is trying to deliver a piece of positive feedback to his/her employee.
Whenever I have a really nice thing to say to one of my colleagues or employees, I work to make sure that the delivery is on point. This means that I have to prepare what I am going to say in advance. Identifying key points allows you to stay on topic and not panic when there is a moment of silence (watch any negotiation and you will know what I am talking about!). I'm not telling you to spend thirty minutes to prep the delivery for one nice compliment. I am telling you to lay out the main points and have an idea of what you are going to say. When you don't, sensitive topics such as women's maternity leave creep into the discussion leaving the employee worse off than before.