horrified at feedback from boss

A reader writes:

I was recently passed over for a promotion in favor of a lesser qualified coworker. I thought I was doing the right thing by soliciting feedback from my manager but her feedback was confusing and vague. She told me that I am “insensitive” and when I asked for examples she cited examples from last year, such as an email that I wrote that she felt was blunt, and she said that “it will take 10 years for you to live it down.” I have addressed the email issue already and would like it dropped. She also told me that I do not have a realistic idea of the workplace. I have over 20 years of experience with some of it being in Fortune 500 companies. I am upset about the promotion stuff but I am horrified at the feedback. I feel like I was blindsided as this came from nowhere. The feedback was solicited by me, so if I didn’t ask, the manager would not tell me any of this. Any suggestions? Right now I feel like quitting but I need to get a new job first. Do you think this is an attempt to get me fired or is she the one that has to worry, as I am reporting these comments to her manager and HR?

Okay, first, there’s a good chance that your manager sucks. I don’t know what was in this email you wrote, but unless you sexually propositioned the CEO in it and cc’d the whole company, it’s not going to take 10 years for you to live down. More importantly, that’s just a crappy comment for her to make, since it doesn’t have redeeming constructive value. Also, the fact that she didn’t give you any feedback until you asked for it is a terminal mistake for a manager. Managers are there to give feedback.

That said, it’s entirely possible that despite her shortcomings as a manager, she’s right that you’re too blunt and insensitive. I’m not saying that you are, just that it’s possible. It’s worth listening with an open mind when people give you feedback, even when they’re inept in some ways. Don’t allow yourself to dismiss her input out of defensiveness or the fact that you have 20 years of experience; after all, we all know people with plenty of experience who still have blind spots and major issues. Possibly most people.

So consider that she may be right, or partially right. At a minimum, you have learned that you are considered too blunt for this particular workplace. Maybe you’d be too blunt for most. Maybe not. But we know now that she thinks you are for this one.

You have a couple of choices about what to do with that. You can decide it’s a bad fit and look elsewhere. You can decide she might be on to something and try to soften things. If you have past or present colleagues who you trust to be candid with you, you can ask them for honest input on whether you’re too blunt.

You asked if this sounds like an attempt to get you fired, and I don’t so. If your manager was thinking about firing you, she’d be giving you feedback, believe me. Of course, it’s possible that she’s so passive and the company is so poorly managed that she could one day fire you out of the blue without any feedback first, but in general competently run companies explicitly tell people if there are things they need to do differently in order to keep their jobs.

Last, you mentioned that you’re going to report her comments to her manager and HR. I wouldn’t. You will significantly harm your relationship with your manager, and what she has done — while inept — is not the sort of thing you should go over her head on. Instead, I’d talk to her directly. Say something like: “I appreciate you being candid with me when I asked for feedback last week. I hadn’t realized that I had created that perception, and I’d like to know that you’ll tell me when there are things you’d like me to be doing differently. Could I hear from you more regularly about how I’m doing, especially if there’s something I need to change?”

Now, some people will say that you’re just opening the door to more criticism from her by doing this. My response to that is that she thinks what she thinks regardless of whether or not she tells you — and you’re much better off actually knowing about it, since it’s essential to you being able to make good decisions … whether those involve modifying the way you approach your job, looking for a new one, or whatever.

{ 4 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Wench*

    Repeat after me: Boss, I would like some *constructive* feedback, please.

    Good gravy!

  2. The Engineer*

    You got what you asked for. Yes, it wasn’t directly very helpful, but the subtext is useful. I think it unlikely that this boss will ever promote you even if you do “improve.”
    Do complete a self-review. Ask some others in your life (who you can trust to be honest) if some or all aspects of her comments are accurate. Move forward from there.

  3. Anonymous*

    I’m guessing you and your boss have a personality conflict. It might be worth picking up a book on Myers-Briggs to help you figure out why you rub her the wrong way. I doubt it’s worth your effort to stay working for a boss who personally doesn’t like you unless you love your job otherwise. There are certainly bosses out there who appreciate people who communicate in a direct way and will be similarly direct with you if they have a problem.

  4. Totally Consumed*

    To “Reader”,
    You’ve got two choices:
    1) suddenly become very humble, helpful and fully focused on positive interactions at work or
    2) get the heck out of dodge.

    You can’t change your boss, you can only change yourself (IE. your own attitude, perspective and communication style).

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