The Compliment Conundrum at Work

Most of us – men and women – like to get compliments on our appearance. Sure, it’s a little bit vain, but it’s nice to be acknowledged for a new, attractive haircut, a flattering dress or shirt, or recent weight loss. It’s nice when someone says, “You look great!” After all, the way we dress, style our hair, and accessorize our outfits is part of how we express ourselves in the world. It’s the first thing that people “see” about us.

That’s why it’s been so sad to watch my male colleagues struggle with giving compliments to women at work – or just stop doing it entirely. One guy, let’s call him Peter, whom I considered a good friend, told me that the company’s sexual harassment training had totally scared him. He felt that he had to stop saying anything about a woman’s appearance for fear of it being taken the wrong way.

And let’s face it. Sometimes, women do take men’s compliments the wrong way . . . and sometimes they don’t. It’s a fine line, reading their intent. Are they being genuinely nice, or is there some creepy intent behind the words?

Still, I felt very sorry for Peter – and sorry for myself and the other women he had always supported by kind words and his career advice. Because I always felt his compliments were sincere and his intentions were whole-hearted. I felt like we were all losing something by his withdrawal, that he was being asked to keep a really genuine part of himself bottled up. I also felt that we were losing a human element in our work relationships, the aspect of relationships that makes us more than just “co-workers”, more than just cogs in the corporate machine.

Studies have shown over and over again that we often stay at workplaces because of our relationships there – both with management and co-workers. Relationships that make us feel that we belong, that we are valued, supported, and liked.

Of course, psychological safety is important in the workplace, too, and inappropriate behavior from men to women (or vice versa) is not acceptable.

I’ve been the recipient of that kind of behavior, and it was uncomfortable. A man who was very senior to me stopped me and kissed my cheek in front of some team members. Ostensibly, it was to congratulate me on a recent promotion, but it felt creepy.

After I thought about it, I realized I had to say something.  So, I spoke up and privately addressed the behavior with him. Calmly, rationally, and confidently. I told him that his actions weren’t acceptable and asked him not to repeat them. He was taken aback, as I was a lot younger and several levels below him in the corporate hierarchy. But he did respect my request, and, I suspect, respected me a lot more for confronting him. It wasn’t easy to do. Yes, I felt uncomfortable. But afterward, I was proud of myself for handling the situation without blowing it out of proportion.  

On the other hand, I know a number of men who feel like Peter does. They’re afraid to give women compliments because they don’t know what kind of reaction they are going to get. I know one man who had a woman accuse him of being inappropriate when he said something that he felt was very nice. He felt attacked, and I’m sure she did, too. Perhaps she had had an unpleasant experience in the past and misinterpreted his words. But the end result was two angry people – he was angry and hurt by her reaction; she was angry and upset by his words.

At the end of the day, I told Peter that he could feel free to compliment me any time he felt like it, and I would do the same for him. He did, and I did, and we enjoyed a very appropriate workplace friendship.

Workplace relationships between men and women can be complicated, but they don’t have to be. There’s a difference between “rules” of behavior that dehumanize us, and appropriate boundaries that keeps us safe. Honest communication about boundaries and behavior is the key to strong and safe relationships, in all aspects of life.

What tough conversations about boundaries do you need or want to have? Or what rules are you following that promote safety over humanity?

I’d love to hear about them.

Oh… and who do you want to compliment today? Do it!

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