On the Clock

How to Compliment a Colleague Correctly

Too many times, praise comes off as disingenuous.

The interaction left Heather confused. She thought her boss was complimenting her recent work on a new initiative, but at the end of their chat, he slipped in a thinly veiled “I would’ve done it this way” comment.

While we often don’t think about it, giving praise at work can be as tricky to get right as dishing out negative feedback. Be overly gratuitous and you come off as disingenuous. Be too lackluster and someone could completely miss out on hearing your appreciation. But compliments are a crucial part of building morale and key alliances, particularly at a time when the largest generation in the workplace—millennials—grew up on a steady diet of praise and recognition. Indeed, 69% of employees say they would work harder if their efforts were better recognized.

Many times, compliments fall flat because the giver doesn’t really know why he or she is offering it up.

“Giving compliments is a good way to build positive relationships with your colleagues,” says Jennice Vilhauer, a manager for Korn Ferry’s Search Assessment practice. If you genuinely want to show gratitude, here’s how to get a compliment right.

Know your motive.

It may sound odd, but many times, compliments fall flat because the giver doesn’t really know why he or she is offering it up. “Do I want to give a compliment because I feel like I should, because it’ll make me feel better, or because I genuinely want to show gratitude?” says Casey Field, executive coach and managing director of Sacramento-based Trident Coaching Group. You could find that you actually want to critique some work and therefore deploy the compliment sandwich—putting advice between two compliments—or that you’re sensing low team morale and want to give it a boost. Knowing your motivation will allow you to tailor your compliment.

Consider the audience.

Along with your motive, the kind of compliment you’ll give depends on your relationship with the person or group. “If it’s your boss, share what you’re learning from them or thank them for the time they’re taking to mentor you,” Vilhauer suggests. With peers, you may want to tell them what you admire about how they do their work, or how they make your work better. You should also try to read your audience; some people like to be the center of attention, so a compliment delivered in front of a group can go a really long way. Others, meanwhile, may abhor being in the spotlight and would prefer to hear praise in a one-on-one meeting.

Mention specifics.

It’s best to stay away from general and overly enthusiastic statements such as “You’re so awesome!” because they can come across as inauthentic and vague, says Jennifer Davis, a leadership coach in New Jersey. Instead, tell the person specifically what he or she did that you appreciate and the impact it had. “People love to learn how their work has made a difference,” Field says.

Don’t wait until the end to show appreciation.

While it may seem logical to save a compliment until a job is well done, career experts say highlighting little milestones, or even just the hard work that’s being done, can help increase motivation. More important than a compliment is making someone feel valued and appreciated. “Saying thank you might seem obvious, but they’re often overlooked in work settings and can go a long way,” Vilhauer says.

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