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“I work in a department with 35 women and two men. Can I compliment my colleagues these days without it being taken the wrong way?” asks one of the participants during a workshop when we talk about giving and receiving compliments. “Can I say to a female colleague that she has a nice dress on?” To increase job happiness and create a positive work culture, receiving and giving appreciation is important. But what is and isn’t appropriate these days? Since transgressive behavior is a hot topic, we get a lot of questions about it. With all the commotion around this topic, there’s a chance that giving compliments in the workplace is disappearing, and that’s a shame.

Right intentions

Let’s be clear about one thing: photos of genitals, ambiguous, sexist and/or discriminatory comments are always transgressive and therefore unwanted. And without proper intentions, you don’t really give real compliments either. But what if you do have good intentions and you are afraid of being misinterpreted? Our first and most important advice is: look for what can be done instead of stopping to express appreciation for fear of saying something wrong. Plus 5 more tips (and a free feedback card to put on a colleague’s desk).

1. Express appreciation about something someone is doing

Of course, most people enjoy receiving a compliment about their appearance, but it can indeed come across as wrong. Moreover, it is even more fun to receive appreciation at work for something you have done. Did your colleague make a special achievement, run a meeting well, offer unsolicited help, do something nice or get something done with effort? Complimenting someone for that is likely to have much more impact.

2. Check how your comment comes across

If you really doubt whether someone understands your good intentions, you can always check whether your comment is perceived as appropriate or inappropriate. This can be done both before you make the comment, for example by starting with: “May I compliment you on…” as well as afterwards. For example, a friend recently told me that during a brainstorming session she had said to a colleague, who came up with all kinds of funny ideas, “Well that’s very creative, sweet thing. It startled her and she immediately said, “Oh sorry, I didn’t mean anything funny. Fortunately, he didn’t take it that way either and they were able to laugh hard about it together.

3. Be aware of the relationship you have

Being aware of the relationship you as the sender have with the receiver is important. The real problem with transgressive behavior is not only in the comment an sich but also in the relationship between sender and receiver. It is precisely where there are power relationships in any form that things can go wrong. By making these relationships discussable as a team or department, you can prevent hassles.

4. Make clear agreements as a group and put them in a manifesto

By making clear agreements within a group of colleagues (for example, in a team or department) about what behavior should and should not be allowed, you can also prevent a lot of problems. Especially if you make a manifesto of this together and hang it on the wall. This way it is clear to everyone what is and what is not allowed when it comes to giving compliments and other behavior.

5. Set a good example and create a safe culture

It is now clear that transgressive behavior is related one to one to the organizational culture. In other words, with the way the group thinks, talks and acts. When people do not or insufficiently address each other about inappropriate behavior, room is created for it to continue. Everyone has a role in this, but leaders and executives in particular must set a good example. That responsibility is part of your role. Do not let things run their course, know and/or find out what is going on and speak to people if you think something is not right. This is how you create a safe work environment.

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