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When compliments don’t work

Female and male colleagues

“Your ideas were good — for an intern.”

“You are good looking — for your size.”

“For a young woman, your speech was great.”

We’ve all heard backhanded comments like these. Many of us have received them. And some of us might have given them.

Ovul Sezer, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at UNC Kenan-Flagler, wondered what motivates people to use these kinds of compliments and what effects they had.

She worked with Alison Wood Brooks and Michael Norton at Harvard Business School to find answers, and share their findings in “Backhanded Compliments: How Negative Comparisons Undermine Flattery.”

The trio conducted seven studies to find out how common backhanded flattery is, what circumstances might cause people to engage in it, and how it affects the flatterers, recipients of the comments and observers of the behavior.

They discovered that backhanded compliments don’t do what flatterers typically intend them do – and they probably make the situation worse.

For anyone who gives feedback, from managers to organizations that depend on effective feedback as a way to improve individual performance – the findings have important implications. They also suggest that in many cases a flawed, perhaps unconscious, viewpoint about status still dominates our workplaces.

Pervasiveness of backhanded flattery

Backhanded compliments are comments that contain flattery, but also include a comparison with negative implications. And they are common.

Sezer and her colleagues surveyed 156 adults, recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, and asked them to recall if they had ever received a backhanded compliment. Some 84.6 percent did; 98.1 percent could recall a traditional compliment, which doesn’t include a comparative element.

The researchers also developed a taxonomy of types of backhanded compliments, based on the comparisons: past self, expectations, another group and stereotypical comparison.
They found all backhanded compliments were perceived as more offensive than traditional compliments. Stereotypical comparisons were the most offensive.

Their findings also suggested that backhanded compliments reduced positive emotions, and recipients felt insulted by them even when they knew the flatterer didn’t mean to be insulting and intended to give authentic praise.

Dual motivations

People say nice things about others for a number of reasons, so what motivates people to deliver backhanded compliments?

Sezer and her collaborators ran an experiment that asked participants to choose one of two options: Give a traditional compliment or deliver a backhanded compliment. They gave the participants some context, too. Some people were told they were trying to get others to like them. Others were told they were trying to convey their status. And some people were told they had both motives.

When people were told they intended both to elicit liking and convey status, they were more likely to choose a backhanded compliment over a traditional compliment.

In another study, participants were asked how they would behave in a situation where they were competing with a co-worker for a promotion. In that case, too, participants were more like to use a backhanded compliment — even when the co-worker was, in the study scenario, in the same room.

In other words, when people are concerned about their status compared to others, they are more likely to use backhanded compliments.

All of which raises the question — do backhanded compliments actually deliver the results flatterers are looking for?

Over three studies, participants rated a number of factors — from work performance to social attraction — about someone they observed giving a backhanded compliment. Third-party observers were less likely to promote someone giving a backhanded compliment and more likely to perceive the flatterer as calculating and inauthentic.

In other words, Sezer says, though individuals giving backhanded compliments might be seeking to improve the impression others have of them, they’re actually doing the opposite — hurting their own reputations.

Performance impact

In addition to the negatives for the person delivering backhanded compliments, those on the receiving end fared poorly, too.

Recipients who had received backhanded compliments were more likely to rank themselves unfavorably compared to others, had lower perceptions of their abilities, and felt less motivated — worrisome results for any manager seeking to engage and motivate someone.

For organizations that depend on feedback as a tool to guide careers, sharpen decision-making and otherwise improve productivity and performance, this suggests that backhanded compliments could be a problem.

The research demonstrates that the idea of status as a zero-sum game might be driving people to use backhanded compliments, even when they would view such behavior negatively when they observe it in others.

What does all this mean for executives and organizations?

First, don’t use backhanded compliments. They won’t increase your perceived status or provide positive feedback to recipients.

Second, organizations might want to consider ways to reduce backhanded compliments – and whether they can change their culture to reduce perceptions related to status as a zero-sum game.

1.7.2019