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That’s Not A Compliment

January 7, 2015


The new comic was beyond nervous. After weeks of practice and months of “thinking about it” he was finally going up on stage at an Open Mic. Three minutes to be funny or die trying.

Admittedly he rushed through a couple of the jokes. He forgot, or didn’t know not to stomp on the audience laughter. And when the light came on at two and a half minutes he wrapped up with his closer and left the stage to solid applause.

He’d done it. . . and it felt GREAT! The adrenaline rush was still with him after the show when one of the senior comics, a guy who’d been performing for years came over to offer a word of congratulations.

That’s was pretty good for your first time.

Thanks. . .wait. What?

How often have you attempted to offer a word of encouragement and ended up doing the opposite? When you phrase a complement like the senior comic did, it’s actually no complement at all.

By tying your feedback, even positive feedback to a qualifier like “for your first time” you are already limiting the scope of anything you say. We expect that people are not going to be good at something the first time they try it. So, those doing something for the first time are as a group not going to be as accomplished as those who’ve been doing it longer.

I’ve launched dozens, probably hundreds of projects over my career. I still remember the first one. It was a training course for Microsoft. I named it “Microsoft Exchange Advanced Topics” because I wasn’t experienced enough to know what a terrible name that was. It should have been named, “Microsoft Exchange Client/Server Network Analysis.” The course looked at the network traffic between a Microsoft Exchange server and an email client.

The content was good and the topic was something that our support teams were clamoring for. However, my rollout was less than stellar. There were numerous details in the labs and the manual that I hadn’t completely nailed down by the time we launched. Still, it was reasonably successful and it went on to become the most popular Microsoft Exchange course that we ever created.

As my manager and I reviewed the launch I asked her for some very direct feedback.

So, how would you rate the course launch, Staci?

It wasn’t too bad for your first time. Of course, if the next launch has the same issues, I won’t be as understanding.

Not bad for your first time. That was accurate feedback, but it wasn’t a compliment. She was both acknowledging that I was new at this and acknowledging that there were issues with the launch. And she was doing it in an affirming way that I could build on rather than a negative way.

Last year we launched three new call centers at my current company. I was the IT Project Manager. The president of the company sent me an email after we launched.

Nice job. A very smooth launch. It’s great to have you on the team.

She didn’t include “For your first time” and if she had, I would have felt disappointed.

If you are going to complement someone for a good job, don’t weaken it by tacking on qualifiers. In my first example with the two comedians, I think the senior comic really did mean that the new guy had done a good job. Not that he was simply better than most first timers. If that’s what he meant, it would have been better to simply say,

That was a good job. You killed it.

THAT would be a complement that any comedian would like to receive.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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