my manager gave me critical feedback but refused to give specifics

A reader writes:

I work for a large retailer and have had several roles there. I was having a difficult conversation with my boss regarding career development when she interjected that someone on another team that I work with, she couldn’t say who, said that “I wasn’t working with enough urgency.” I asked for clarification or a specific example of a project I did not complete on time and she couldn’t provide me any.

This interjection did succeed in burning through the rest of our meeting about career development and got her out of having to finish her conversation. The whole thing really bothered me. I remembered having a conversation with a peer in another department about her boss doing the exact same thing. I’ve also had past managers use this on me in the past. I seem to fall for it every time, it puts me on the defensive, makes me question my relationships with my peers and is distracting from the topic at hand.

Is this some kind of technique that these managers were trained to use to redirect a conversation? What is an effective way to counter this behavior to bring your boss back to a difficult conversation?

No, it’s not a technique. It’s just managers being thoughtless about how they’re giving feedback. The reason you’ve heard about it more than once is because there are lots of managers out there who don’t know how to effectively handle secondhand information.

The most problematic part in this case is the total lack of specifics. “You weren’t working with enough urgency, but I’m not going to tell you whether it was on a single project or in general, or why I think this” is not useful or particularly actionable feedback, and of course it’s going to make you feel defensive and paranoid.

It’s almost as if managers who do this think that they’re obligated to pass all secondhand information along without first investigating it themselves or making their own determination of its accuracy or utility. It’s silly, and it’s bad management.

And to be clear, managers, if you get secondhand feedback, the first thing you do is to try to observe the behavior for yourself. If you can’t do that and it’s serious enough that you feel you need to address it, you ask about it; you don’t just assume it’s true.

As for what to say in response to your manager in this case, I’d say: “I’m always interested in getting feedback from you about how I can do better, but without a better understanding of what the concern is, I’m not sure what actions I can take in response. Do you have concerns about how quickly I work or my sense of urgency? If so, talking about specifically what you’d like me to do differently would be very helpful to me.” And if she again repeated that she was just passing on someone else’s impressions and couldn’t provide specifics, I’d say: “Without more specifics, it’s hard to know what to change. But I’ll give some thought to whether there’s something to this, and if you ever have specific feedback for me, I’d really welcome it.”

And of course, it’s also smart to be honest with yourself about whether there might be something to the report, regardless of how poorly it was presented to you. In this case, I’d think about my speed and sense of urgency compared to other people’s and be honest with myself about whether someone could legitimately see issues there. There could still be something to the feedback, and you don’t want to totally discount it just because it was presented in a crappy way.

{ 172 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    I really hate this too – and it’s definitely not something all managers do. But, it’s worth paying some mind to the things people say about you – even if you don’t agree with them. Because if that’s the reputation that you’re getting, you need to know. But I do agree you need more specifics.

    1. Hotstreak*

      +1 on addressing coworkers perceptions of you.

      LW, I assume if your work was not getting done timely you would have included that information (and your manager would be able to tell you that). If this is just a perception issue you need to look at the things you do day to day, body language, posture, office habits, etc., and see if anything may be signaling “lazy” or “casual” versus “working hard”.

  2. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I l like Gordon Ramsey. Yes, I know he’s a jerk for the cameras, but I like him because everything criticism that comes out of his mouth is actionable. Have you ever noticed that?

    That said, I agree with AAM that if you’re going to criticize someone, you need to be specific. There only thing I would add is that many times context is essential. The criticisms of my “frosty” personality sound bad on the surface, but what’s usually left out of that description is what the other person was doing on that scenario. The whole scene changes if I say, “the reason I was frustrated is because I asked Matt to do this task three times a day for the last month, and it’s still not done.” True story. That’s what your boss owes you.

    Yes, LW, you need to follow this advice not just for you but for your boss. She can’t give vague criticisms and expect workers to behave how she wants.

    Maybe it’s a real thing to take to heart, but if this person can’t back up anything or she gets defensive, it’s hard for me to take anything seriously because it feels more like a witch hunt.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      “The criticisms of my “frosty” personality sound bad on the surface, but what’s usually left out of that description is what the other person was doing on that scenario. ”

      Yes! And a lot of the time they’re critiques of your personality, not behavior (which studies have shown tend to dominate the feedback given to women). If my boss tells me he’s heard I’m difficult to work with, what exactly am I supposed to do with that?

      1. Kelly L.*

        I’ve vented here before about my “voice not sounding friendly” and some other feedback of that sort.

        1. Ethyl*

          I’ve gotten “you seem stern.” WTF, am I just supposed to walk around with a fake smile all the time? (The answer was, apparently, yes. And yes, of course I’m a woman.)

                1. Katieinthemountains*

                  I got “not only reserved, but resistant to friendship.” Bossman wouldn’t tell me the client, the project, what I had done or not done, or anything I could do differently going forward.

            1. Nashira*

              It really is! I once had a coworker who’d tried physical intimidation on me, and had it fail, then turn around and complain to our boss that I didn’t smile when we passed in the hall. My default expression is super blank, for sure, and smiling can be physically painful – but me not smiling was a bigger problem than her trying to threaten me. Bad management is just the best.

          1. Ineloquent*

            I had some one stop me and ask me why the heck i run around with an impish grin all the time. I had no idea I was smiling enough to cause comment, and now I’m a bit self concious about it. I guess I just really, really like my job.

          2. Wanderer*

            To be honest, i had the same feedback as a man, from two different managers. Both were americans also, wich is perhaps a clue since americans tend to have a false smile on their face all the time. (an exageration, i know).

            Both were surprised when i responded that no, i wont smile more, because here(the company was in Europe but owned by an american group) the only people who smile all the time are conmen or dumb…

            1. Sleepless if Chicago*

              Good for you. I had a similar situation. I had asked HR if they new the meaning of Diversity and that fact that not all nations smile ( I am originally from Russia and now live in the USA) like idiots all the time and look for ways to back stab you. They were stunned and had to admit that the issue was due to cultural ignorance.

          3. Drew*

            This isnt just a woman thing. As a no nonsense man working in a touchy feely world I get this complaint often.

        2. Not Here or There*

          I’ve gotten that I seem too nice or a pushover because I have a very soft voice. As in, I’ve actually had interview feedback mention that I have a soft voice and they’re concerned that I am too nice or won’t be able to assert myself. The weirdest part is it doesn’t matter what I say or how much I point to jobs and experience that say otherwise. I’ve even tried preempting it by pointing out that it’s easier for me to be nice but assertive (an important quality in an EA)

          1. Kelly L.*

            I actually got “your voice doesn’t sound authoritative” from the job right before the “your voice doesn’t sound friendly” job, by way of explaining why I didn’t get promoted. Best I can figure, job 1 wanted men as managers (all the people who did get promoted at that time were men) and job 2 wanted women to have high-pitched voices, and also was too cheap to fix their intercom so everybody shouted too much anyway.

            1. Not Here or There*

              Yeah, it all goes with the constructive feedback. I would honestly rather someone not give me any feedback than give me feedback that I can’t take action on. What good does it do anyone to criticize someone on something that they have no control over unless there is an actual reason it would keep them from being effective at their job? Like I could see it being a sticking point if I were trying to be a phone sex dominatrix, but it’s pretty unlikely that that would a be a part of the typical job duties for an EA.

            2. Artemesia*

              Voice doesn’t sound authoritative is a real thing. Yes they should help you figure out what that means, but I have had subordinates who uptalk, or sort of cringe to ask someone to do something and come across as hesitant, unsure of themselves etc. It is critical in a managerial position of any sort to have an authoritative demeanor. This means making it clear that the task is a directive, not weaseling and ‘if you get time, could you maybe’ or uptalking. It is not incompatible with being ‘friendly’ or polite.

              This has nothing to do with friendliness of tone.

      2. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Exactly!! Then I feel like a pedantic jerk who turned a performance review into moot court because the onus is on me to probe for more details. Then I get paranoid that I’m going to be labeled “difficult” or “argumentative” again because I asked “What do you mean by that?” (One time I got, “it’s your job to know that. Are you saying you don’t know what your job is?”)

        I totally sympathize with the LW that this tactic is very disarming, especially if you’re a woman, even if there are no bad intentions.

        1. Cordelia Naismith*

          One time I got, “it’s your job to know that. Are you saying you don’t know what your job is?”

          Wow. Defensive much?

          1. Snarkus Aurelius*

            Yeah that’s when I knew we weren’t going to have a constructive conversation. She was just mad at me. Looking back, she just didn’t like me or my personality, which on paper is irrelevant in the office, but she couldn’t come out and say that without looking biased or dumb. So she nitpicked or gave weird feedback. She hated my facial expressions when I was reading, for example and would always tell me.

            That’s why the LW should consider this feedback and press for details. My worry is that s/he has a boss or coworker who just doesn’t like him/her and is expressing those feelings in an inappropriate way.

            1. Another Anon*

              My last “regular” job I left because my boss was just like that. He didn’t like me and had inherited me as his subordinate when he got the job. The only reason he didn’t get rid of me the second he got the job and replace me with someone else was because my old boss, who was promoted to Executive Director, LOVED me. So new boss spent a year trying to sabotage me so that he could justify firing me to the ED. It was hell, I stayed way too long because I had false hope that I could prove myself and win my new boss over, that and the job market was so awful that I wasn’t getting any bites. It was infuriating that I could do no right with this guy, and every time I tried approaching my old boss to get feedback or help, he would turn around and rat me out to my new boss. Finally I was so burned out and betrayed that I just gave my two weeks and took the summer off before getting back into the market. I desperately needed the vacation.

              My new job is only as a contractor, but my pay is better, they love my work and my hours are my own. I could seriously write the sequel to “The Devil Wears Prada” with the whole experience. Except there was no mutually earned respect in the end.

      3. Is It Performance Art*

        In grad school, I got an evaluation of my performance that did not mention my actual work, just that they didn’t think I was smart enough to succeed in the field an a bad writer (when I was interviewing at the program the professors in the program mentioned how rare it was to find a applicant who wrote as well as I do, so it was probably not a valid complaint). Later on I mentioned to the department head that this sort of feedback was basically useless. She accused me of being defensive and tried to convince me that my self esteem should should be heavily dependent on how faculty members perceived my abilities.
        One of the reasons these things bother me is that there have been times where I thought of someone as not very bright and when I tried to find concrete examples I couldn’t and realized I made the judgement because they somehow reminded me of someone (body language, taste in TV) I’d known who wasn’t smart. Here I was writing off someone because they liked the same TV shows as some knit wit I’d known.

      4. HM in Atlanta*

        This! My work is “unimpeachable” (I’m quoting the VPs I work with), however I wasn’t friendly enough. My male colleagues do not get this kind of feedback

    2. yup*

      Good comparison, Snarkus, to Ramsey. I can see how people who don’t handle criticism (at all) won’t like him, even though he’s constructively criticizing by providing a path to do better. “You’re not doing a good job because: a, b, c, d, here it is right in front of both of us to see, and here’s what you can do better on a, b, c, d.”

      Thanks for posting this, OP. I like AAMs advice in the 5th paragraph on soliciting your manager for specific feedback more often in order to counter his/her reliance on second hand information. Once you’ve “proven” yourself to this person who doesn’t appear to know much about your productivity, but feels obligated to judge you, they will probably write you off as a successful employee and ignore the secondhand backstabbing.

      Good luck!

      1. hildi*

        When I get critical (even specific) feedback I’m pretty pissed and I withdraw for a while. Mostly I’m really angry that someone had to tell me how to be better because I feel like I’m smart and I should have known better!

        That said, I think about someone like Ramsey and I know I’d probably hate his guts for a while. But then if I thought objectively about it, I’d realize that it’s probabaly a good thing that someone so specific and task driven is even giving me a chance to correct. I suppose that means they think it’s worth correcting; I’m capable of it, etc. I am just thinking back to our discussion last month about Task-Focused People and Relationship-Focused People and how the TFP respect someone more when they’re capable. Or that they’d just give up on someone if they weren’t capable?

        TFP: If you are taking the time to provide critical, specific feedback to someone is that actually a good thing in your mind?

        1. Shell*

          TFP here. For me, the answer is definitely yes. Mind you, I’m not in management or anything so I haven’t had much chance to exercise my approach to feedback, but on the flip side, it means I don’t have to give anyone feedback–so when I do give you (general you) feedback I would think you were worth helping.

          I’ve only really given feedback for junior coworkers I was training (but not supervising!) and generally they’ve been good folks, so I had no reservations about giving them specific feedback. But if someone (particularly a longer-standing coworker who I wasn’t under the obligation to train) was really rubbing me the wrong way I can easily see myself not bothering to give very specific feedback that might help them. Might be petty of me, but if we’re tense, then chances are the feedback won’t be well-received anyway.

          1. hildi*

            It’s a frustrating balance, isn’t it? Thanks for weighing in Shell! I am a gatherer of perspectives and I appreciate it. :)

        2. fposte*

          Yes, it is a good thing in my mind to provide feedback–I’m not only wanting the process to improve as a result of my comments, but I also assume that *they* want to improve.

          Nonetheless, I’m often with you in withdrawing when I get criticism–it’s mostly the impostor syndrome problem and criticism feels like I’m being found out. But I really have learned a lot from my staff on this, because they have tended to be *very* good at receiving feedback, much better than me; this is true of both student and not student staff, so it’s not simply that some are helped by being in educational mode.

          I don’t think this helps the OP much, unfortunately; this isn’t a situation where the problem is likely to be affected by reception. But it has been amazing to me how much somebody’s good reception of feedback can help me in the situation and in general.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            OH so much, this. There were certain people I supervised and their manner of receiving feedback was exemplary. In an extreme example, I had to tell one person something about a gesture that everyone saw. The gesture had much more implication than the person ever dreamed. I died a hundred deaths in my mind, thinking of this poor subordinate that had to listen to me. I knew she meant nothing by the gesture, but she had to make sure it never happened again. Her face went beet red. (I thought she did well- I probably would have been crying.) I just kept my voice low and kept talking and explaining what went wrong and why. I was not angry and I used a conversational tone.

            The redness in her face went down, she composed herself and the next thing that happened blew me away. She thanked me. Profusely.
            In that moment, I learned so much about where I need to be for myself.

            It is funny/odd how the tables can turn so fast. You think you are the boss. And then you realize that your people are teaching you something everyday.

        3. Future Analyst*

          YES. I don’t bother with people who I think a) will waste my time by not being invested in improving, or b) cannot improve to the degree I need them to. Both of those scenarios would lead me to let the issue run its course and make it clear that termination is coming. I’m not saying I wouldn’t put any effort into trying to get someone to improve, but if they show lack of interest/investment, I’m no longer going to waste time trying to force improvement.

      2. Artemesia*

        Good point. I learned over the years to pay a lot of attention to first impressions. e.g. I was transferred into a new department and wanted to be viewed as particularly effective at a particular type of client interaction (want to be vague here for privacy reasons). So I very deliberately scheduled many client meetings the first month and left the door to my office which was on a main corridor open so that anyone walking by could see me working intensively with clients. This kind of work was not sought after by many colleagues, and was one of my comparative values to the group. After a month of seeing me going above and beyond to deal with difficult client issues, that image was so firmly established that I probably could have napped off and on without notice.

        Once you are in their mental slot as ‘energetic’ or ‘client focused’ or ‘effective speaker’ or ‘super competent with presentation media’ or whatever might be useful to your image, then a lot of negative stuff is water off a duck’s back.

  3. Ama*

    I’ve had this happen to me. In my case it was that some nameless coworker had reported that I “didn’t seem like I wanted to help them,” but my boss refused to say who it was or give me enough specifics that I could even figure out *how* exactly I was giving that impression. It was the first time I’ve ever received any feedback like that before and the vagueness of it made me completely paranoid for weeks that any time I was distracted when someone came up to my desk (it was a pretty busy job with lots of interruptions), I might be doing something wrong. I’m actually still not entirely sure it wasn’t just my manager who had the problem with me and she didn’t want to admit it (she really wanted me to see her as a personal friend and mentor, and was kind of generally socially awkward as well).

    However ….. the feedback wasn’t entirely wrong. I was completely overwhelmed and fed up with that job and once I calmed down from being upset at how the feedback was delivered, I realized I had not been hiding my frustration as well as I thought. So I did make an effort to not take my feelings out on my coworkers while I was there and my manager was pleased with my efforts. As a bonus, it was also the push I needed to realize how bad a fit that job had become for me — I started looking for a new job almost immediately and was out of there less than six months later.

  4. Kelly L.*

    One thing I’ll add is, if you’re actually working in the retail stores (as opposed to working at corporate), I remember the “sense of urgency” thing being more a matter of optics than reality, if that makes any sense? Like…it didn’t matter how fast or slow you did something, it was all about looking like you were in a hurry in some intangible way. Drove me nuts.

    1. OriginalEmma*

      I think it goes along with the “time to lean? time to clean” mentality. The appearance of work rather than the needfulness or substance of it. I remember it well from my record store days.

    2. Judy*

      To be honest, that’s a thing in corporate settings at times too. It at least seems like the ones that get their things done calmly without fuss surely can’t be doing things that are as difficult as the people who have paper flying through the air.

      The other day there was a comment about “if you reward firefighting, you’ll get arsonists” which I believe happens at times.

      1. Allison*

        Yup. The people who rush around, talking about how busy they are and how many meetings they have, are always hunched over the computer with a crazed look in their eyes, and always act stressed out tend to be the ones praised for working hard, whereas the people who work calmly and with a sense of composure are seen as slackers, when really they might just manage their time better. Or manage their stress better.

        1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

          Haha. I have a pretty calm demeanor and even tone, and I find that at times I have to actually articulate, “this is me expressing urgency. Maybe that is evident not from my tone, so I’m want to make sure I’m clearly telling you this is both urgent and important” or some people people don’t get what I’m trying to tell them.

        2. Dynamic Beige*

          In my industry, there are certain individuals who have regarded it as practically a badge of honour that they haven’t slept in 5 days (that is not an exaggeration). That being super-ultra-insanely busy somehow makes them “better” or more important than those who are not. Because some people are just stress puppies who love that kind of thing and don’t understand why others don’t want to live like that. Or maybe it’s all the “oh no! Really? How are you managing? Poor dear” commiseration and attention they get because of the crazy schedule they complain about. I don’t know. I hate it when I have busy times like that — not that I’ve gone without sleep for 5 days but there have been times when I’ve been busier than I’ve liked and just had to solider through it.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Some of those folks that have not slept in five days have no clue how much damage they are doing to their bodies. The big shock comes when they find out they have gone too far and cannot undo the damage.

    3. Allison*

      I think I read too much into the “sense of urgency” thing in my retail/food service days, and would sometimes become anxious while helping others. So instead of just, I dunno, working at a brisk pace (as opposed to a slow, lazy one), I would act like getting someone their popcorn and hotdogs was, I dunno, some crazy matter of life or death, which probably made people feel guilty or stressed out.

      Maybe employers should explain what a good “sense of urgency” actually looks like.

      1. Kelly L.*

        And then you’re supposed to look happy the whole time you’re also looking like you’re responding to a hair-on-fire emergency.

        I do not miss customer service much.

      2. RVA Cat*


        If they’re smart, most employers would strive for a “calm but brisk” demeanor as the standard – after all retail is not a Level 1 Trauma Center with mass casualties (and I’ll bet even that has a lot less running & screaming than it does on TV). Stressing out is all about fear rather than “urgency,” but then bad employers/managers are all about the fear….

        1. A Teacher*

          It does. My sister is a Level 1 trauma ER Nurse/Charge Nurse. Its protocol oriented so there’s urgency but not the run around, panic, and scream. Her job is actually kind of fascinating to observe.

    4. soitgoes*

      I’ve always hated how the people who create a spectacle of activity around menial tasks (and usually doing them wrong) are the standard, as opposed to people who just do the work.

    5. The Cosmic Avenger*

      I’m sorry, obviously this isn’t directed at any commenter, but this whole thread makes me want to scream at the people who want you to “look busy”:


      1. Cara*

        I have such a huge problem with this crap that I actually took a stand against it at a former job. I told my manager, “if you have more work for me to do, I would be happy to get started on it right away, but right now I can’t progress anything until I hear back from x, y, and z. Until then, I will be sitting here doing nothing.” I think I got away with it only because I was excellent at my job, and I genuinely had nothing to do – I wasn’t just putting something off or rushing through a task so that I’d get a chance to sit around.

    6. Artemesia*

      This always drives me nuts. People who fuss and flap and ‘work so hard’ are often the least productive people in the group. I remember one of my kids telling me about working on the college paper and being scolded for ‘leaving at 8 when poor Susie worked until 1 am to get the paper laid out.’ My kid pointed out to the editor that she had laid out 6 pages of the paper before leaving; Susie laid out two.

      So many workplaces seem to have no way to accurately gauge quality or productivity and reward really dysfunctional behavior.

      1. Adam*

        Makes me think of the old time business culture that if you wanted to be seen as a stellar employee then you couldn’t leave the office for the day before the big boss does. Since this was back in the day before email was a thing I was always confused by this. What point is there in “being seen” if the majority of the country has pressed pause on the white collar working world for the night? If I were a boss and saw an employee routinely staying well past the regular work time I’d start worrying about their health and how their work might be affected because of it.

        1. TootsNYC*

          Or about how efficiently they were working during the day.

          I had an employee once who was always working late. I kept trying to figure out what it was she was working on. (She was sort of a department head of a 1.5-person department, and I didn’t micromanage her.) I started asking her what she had worked on the night before, and it was always something not that urgent.

          So I called her in and said, “There’s no reason for these tasks to keep you late. what’s going on? Are you not being productive during the day? Are other people from other departments giving you special projects that interfere?” She never did have a good answer, and I told her I didn’t want to see her working late.
          If she wanted to stay late to use the computer for personal stuff, or if she was tackling a non-core project for someone else, for personal reasons, fine–but she was never to say she was working late. It made me look bad.

      2. Not Here or There*

        Ack, this reminds me of a real newspaper office I know of. The management was always praising “Lulu” for staying late and being there early in the morning (some nights she didn’t even go home). All they saw was the “incredible” hours Lulu put in and thought that meant dedication to the job, but in reality she was terrible at what she did. She would layout and re-layout the same page over and over. She would do absolutely mountains of background work for stories that didn’t actually require it (like a business opening or a similar grip and grin type news blurb) and then have to sift through it all. But then even after working for hours on one story, it wouldn’t be that good. Her writing tended to be rambling and confusing, alluding to information that she knew, but then didn’t put in the story. Despite the hours she put in her work was subpar and she was far less productive than the rest of the staff who got to absolutely despise her. Management never caught on that she was terrible even though her editors and coworker complained constantly.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Lack of rest, alone, could be a major player in this story. It is amazing how encumbered the thinking process becomes on no sleep.

  5. Boo*

    Oh my god, I hate this so much.

    My last manager once told me in an appraisal that another PA (who I did not work with or report to and rarely interacted with) had told her that I can sometimes be difficult. I asked her for examples. She had none. It was a completely pointless exchange that left me feeling paranoid that this other PA didn’t like me and was basically just stirring, and angry at my boss for not getting specifics so she could bring it to my attention properly, or just shutting it down. It did feel a bit like a witch hunt (it was a very toxic workplace and my previous manager there had been bullied out; I always felt that as he wasn’t liked, and I was his PA, and I didn’t join the other PAs in slagging him off, that my card was marked).

      1. Kas*

        When my manager did this to me (criticism without examples), I eventually decided to regard their comments as gossip. Without substantiation, I could do little else, and figuring out how else to respond was eating me alive.

      1. Boo*

        The other PA supported the Chief Exec, while I supported a Director who reported to him, so to be fair it was in my boss’s interests to keep the Chief Exec’s PA sweet.

        I asked her about it again later and what it boiled down to was the other PA didn’t like that sometimes when we passed in the hall or she came into our part of the office, I wouldn’t immediately stop what I was doing, smile and say hello. Because, you know, sometimes I was busy working.

        Mind you, that was something else which was brought up in my appraisal. Apparently, “people say you don’t smile enough” is an appropriate thing to bring up in a review. I pointed out that a) I was not a receptionist and sometimes I was just engrossed in my work, b) I had just lost my dad, was caring for my mum who had just had a cancer scare and was being made redundant so I wasn’t feeling especially smiley and c) with respect, if people care that much then they can always behave like humans and ask how I’m doing rather than reporting my poor smile performance to my boss.

        Wow, it felt good to get that off my chest! Such an awful, awful place *hugs current job*

        1. Postradamus*

          *Hugs current job.*. I love this expression. So sorry for all you and your family went through. I’m glad you’re in a better place now.

  6. LV*

    My boss reported something to me that her boss had said about me at my last review, which was otherwise great. So I told her the truth about the lack of information and follow through from her boss on the topic. Her boss had actually not given me clear and specific instruction to do what she had actually expected. Instead I had done what she had originally asked me to do, research on at least 50 different topics she had provided. I downloaded and saved every piece of documentation I could find over a two month period, during the busiest time of year for me. I also sifted through each document and placed the most important parts by topic into a PowerPoint file for each. I told my boss if her boss had actually asked me to do what she had envisioned I would have no problem and my boss knows that. It’s her fault for not expanding upon what she wanted and following up with me to tell me. It really is a great shame when you have to explain yourself due to lack of communication on the part of others. I even sent her weekly updates on my progress where she had every opportunity to further explain her expectations.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      So, you were doing as instructed, giving updates on how it was going, and after some time your boss’s boss complained to your boss that you were doing it all wrong? But never bothered mentioning that fact to you?

  7. NP*

    I once got critical feedback in my annual review that I was a “passive leader.” Since that phrase meant nothing to me, I asked my reviewer what that meant. Another manager had contributed that section of the review, but my reviewer didn’t bother to follow up with the other manager to get more clarity before compiling the review. I made it clear that I had no way to improve my performance if my review’s feedback isn’t actionable, or isn’t even clear enough to know what it is I’ve done wrong. I still have no idea what it means.

    My reviewer still doesn’t go back to other managers to ask for clarity before including comments in my review, so every review becomes a discussion of trying to figure out what exactly my other managers are trying to say and what they want me to do about it. Often, the words used in the review are at least two degrees of separation from what the actual criticism is (e.g., “NP doesn’t take initiative to learn about issues” really means “I’m disappointed you didn’t read my mind to figure out what I want you to do” which really means “you have to ask this manager on a regular basis to explain his expectations of you, because if you don’t, he’s just going to sit there and stew that you didn’t independently come up with the same ideas that he did, because for some reason he’s unable to just tell you when he wants you to do something”).

  8. Jules*

    Context would have really helped you deal with this. As a team, we are struggling to deal with the amount of workload given however, were were told that it’s ok to say (phrased better obviously), ‘Your lack of planning doesn’t make it my priority.’ I wondered if this was one of those, where someone dropped the ball and then shove it to your lap expecting a quick turn around when you have other work lined up. If something like this happens, ask your manager what she wants you to do and how to manage it so it doesn’t happen again. Pure speculation on my part of course.

    I’ve also had really bad manager who used to pick on minor details so I don’t get too cocky about my great performance during the year. That was nuts and totally his issue.

    1. DJ*

      I have a coworker who has “lack of preparation on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part” on his office door. I smile every time I walk past.

  9. GA! (Lisa)*

    I recently had to give feedback about ‘not paying enough attention to details’ and I realized that I didn’t have examples. Just a general sense and intuition. I gave that feedback, but completely owned up to the fact that it *was* a sense, and therefore may have other contributing factors and it wasn’t the thing we were going to focus a lot of time on. I asked her to see if she could see a pattern herself, and told her I would be more aware of it and if I saw an genuine example I would bring it up immediately so that we could have the conversation in the moment.
    It wasn’t ideal, but I did want her to have that feedback. (And if it turns out to be a non-issue, I’ll say that [for documentation if nothing else] at her next review.)

    1. Us, Too*

      I have done this only one time and never again since thanks to a spectacular employee. :)

      I had a team member of mine call me out on this kind of feedback very early on in my first mgmt job in our 1:1. She told me it wasn’t fair to offer feedback that I couldn’t even cite an example of. What was she supposed to do with that information? Just stew over and get all paranoid that she was in trouble. It was like a light bulb went off in my head. SHE. WAS. RIGHT!!!! I told her exactly that on the spot. I apologized, thanked her for her candor and told her I vowed never to do it again. And I haven’t. I do NOT offer feedback that I can’t give an example of, preferably through personal observation. If I can’t think of an example, it’s not a big enough deal to offer feedback on.

      This type of non-feedback “feedback” is common in management, unfortunately. I consider myself very lucky to have learned this lesson early on. I’ve been on the receiving end of this, even from managers as high up as VP and above. And it’s just horrible, truly.

  10. OriginalEmma*

    I feel like the following I’m going to write was written exactly here yesterday…or perhaps on another forum I was reading. In any case, this isn’t my original epiphany:

    Telling someone how to be is the least useful piece of information ever. Tell them what to do. Like when Tom was directing Ann in a skit in the show Parks and Rec and just told her to “make her face better.”

    1. Us, Too*

      I think the best thing is to tell them the desired outcome With some exceptions, I don’t care what actions someone takes to accomplish a task, I just want it done. If they can find a better way to do it than I would, more power to them!

    2. fposte*

      Or, for my favorite bad example, Lou Grant to Ted Baxter: “You know how you are? Don’t be that way.”

        1. fposte*

          He’s not the only one–I’ve definitely thought about saying that to a few other people over the years.

      1. Buffay the Vampire Layer*

        Of all the idiots in all the idiot villages in all the idiot worlds, you stand alone, my friend.

  11. tango*

    I would wonder if there’s not some truth to the criticism. The OP states she’s heard lack of urgency is an issue also from other past bosses. Unknown if they were managers at the same company throughout the years or supervisors for prior jobs at different companies. I find it unlikely (though possible) of multiple supervisors getting together at her current job to decide that she can’t be promoted so a joint decision is made to use the urgency issue as a reason to derail the conversation every time it’s brought up. If hearing it at the same company from multiple supervisors, then it’s very much a possibility the company culture is to reward go-getters, always moving types, quick to respond, etc, types. If the OPs response is a bit more laid back and not as urgent, she might never get the career advancement since she’s not showing behavior THEY value. Maybe it’s time to seek a job elsewhere where the company culture is more laid back and is keeping with her personal traits and work preferences.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Though it’s also the kind of vague feedback bosses will sometimes give you when they don’t like you but can’t come up with a tangible reason. You can’t prove it’s true or not true, so it’s “safe.”

    2. MK*

      I am a bit confused as to whether the OP means several bosses told they they didn’t have a sense of urgency or just that several bosses diverted a conversation about her career prospects by repeating second-hand negative feedback.

      1. TootsNYC*

        This is what I thought she meant–that in conversations with bosses she AND OTHER PEOPLE have had a boss suddenly insert some vague criticism, which derails the other parts of the conversation.

    3. some1*

      I took it to mean the LW’s had past bosses had past along vague criticisms reported by other people and refused to provide specifics or reveal the source because managers doing this is pretty common.

    4. Mike C.*

      Yet even if it is true, the feedback is not actionable in any way. There’s a huge difference between “be more urgent” and “when you finish early, please report to X for further work” or “answer customer requests within N minutes”.

      See the difference?

  12. The Other Dawn*

    I hate when managers do that. It hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve seen other managers do it. How can the employee address the problem if they don’t know the context? When I get secondhand information I make sure to ask about the specifics and get examples. That’s the only way I can address it with the employee and it’s also the only way to know if the other person is just complaining about something trivial, or if there’s some meat to it.

    In terms of “I wasn’t working with enough urgency,” that depends on the task. If it’s a physical task, like stocking shelves, it probably means that the employee took three hours to do something that should take an hour. Or if it’s customer service, maybe the employee is taking too long to get back to a customer. If it’s something time-sensitive, it might mean that the employee isn’t taking it serious enough and is therefore not acting quickly enough to prevent a loss of money to either the customer or the company.

    I take “working without a sense of urgency” to mean someone who kind of just plods along in their job and it takes a lot to get them moving on something quickly. I had someone like that once and it was frustrating. I work in banking and we’re dealing with customers’ money. If something isn’t acted on quickly enough, it costs us money either because we have to reimburse the customer for our mistake, or pay a fine to the regulators, or both in some cases.

    1. Mallorie, the recruiter*

      I take “working without a sense of urgency” to mean someone who kind of just plods along in their job and it takes a lot to get them moving on something quickly.

      ^Yes. Plus, even walking at a brisker pace gives off that “sense of urgency”. I am the slowest walker with the shortest legs, but when I worked in restaurants I walked with a brisk pace to get things done. Can people stop moseying places? The mosey is so yesterday. I got places to be!

  13. MaryMary*

    I had a manager pass on vague feedback once. Some of my coworkers told their manager, who told mine, that I was unapproachable. Neither manager could get any specifics. When my manager passed on the feedback, she fully acknowledged that it was a unfair and that she couldn’t provide suggestions on anything to change. However, she did want me to be aware of my coworkers’ perception. I didn’t make any big changes in how I worked, since I didn’t have any concrete to go off of, but I did pay more attention how I interacted with people (more smiling, chit-chat, I brought in cookies). Six months later, those same coworkers had no problem working with me.

    For you, maybe it’s a matter of responding as promptly as possible and proactively communicating your progress on projects. It sucks that the feedback isn’t specific, but at least you know the perception is out there.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This makes me think that it could be as simple as coworkers ask for something and OP does not realize they need the information or help faster than what she is doing. Or she does not let them know “I’m working on it, but it will be x time before I have an answer.”

  14. Lily in NYC*

    This seems to be pretty common. At least it is where I work! Recent example: my friend is a VP here and recently had a very well-received speaking engagement. His boss (notorious jerk) told him that he did a great job, which is rare praise from her. Our general counsel, who is universally despised and doesn’t like my friend, told the boss that my friend’s Russian accent was distracting. My buddy’s boss then completely changed her tune, called him into her office, and told him that he did a terrible job on the speech and that she was so disappointed in him. He was confused, to say the least. Hilariously, same jerky boss then got an email from someone at City Hall saying how much he enjoyed the speech. Mean boss then says, “well I guess your speech really was good”. My friend finally had enough and asked her if she was capable of making up her own mind and boss gave him the silent treatment for a couple of days (which was great).

    1. MK*

      Also, I think commenting on someone’s answer is inappropriate. If the person’s English pronunciation is not good/clear enough, that should be addressed, if it affects the work or hinders communication. Basically saying you dislike someone’s accent is offensive.

      1. Anony Mouse*

        I had a professor tell me I should consider having my speech evaluated because I “have a problem with my accent”. She did also say I sometimes repeated myself, which I was fine with since it’s a specific behavior I could look out for and correct. But I was very offended by the first part (why was that part even necessary?) and avoided speaking around/to her more than I needed to not get docked for class participation. Funny, no one since has had a problem with my “problematic” accent (I even asked friends afterwards if my accent was really that heavy or hard to understand, and they said no).

  15. TotesMaGoats*

    My “favorite” bit of advice from a boss came not in a review but after an exchange with a colleague. Someone else had listened to that exchange and then reported it to my boss that I was being pushy/sharp. None of that happened. There was no issue between the other person and I. It was all hearsay reported up to my boss. So I got the “pay attention to what you say and how you say it because you never know who’s listening and how it will be interpreted”. That’s all good advice in general but not appropriate to that situation. It was made better when my boss called me a few days later to vent about the SAME EXACT THING happening to her.

    My response? “Yes, it does really suck when you have to defend yourself to you boss over something that didn’t happen reported by someone who is out to get you.”

    I’m surprised to this day that I was able to come up with that comeback in the moment.

    1. Kelly L.*

      In my brief public library stint, I once got called into the office of one of the librarians for a 30-minute speech about how her subordinates were doing really important tasks, even if it didn’t look like it, and everyone needed to understand just how important these tasks were, and so on, and so on…

      The longer it went on, the more confused I got, because I really didn’t care what her subordinates were doing or why; I barely interacted with them at all. Finally the light dawned. I asked her if someone had reported that I was complaining about these people. She said yes. I’m still not sure, and she wouldn’t tell me, whether the rumor was “Kelly L. bitched that these people weren’t working” or a more general “One of the shelvers complained that these people weren’t working” and she was covering all the bases. If the former, it was categorically false; if it was the latter, it might well have been true, I don’t know. There was a woman there who I could easily believe would either have told a false story about me or complained about this librarian’s people. She approached library work like it was the Iron Throne of Westeros.

  16. LJL*

    I got that kind of feedback at one particularly awful performance review. I approached it by asking for examples (there were none provided), and then I took a look at myself to see how any behaviors I saw could have contributed to that “sense.” That’s really all I could do. Fortunately, I found a job that was a better fit soon thereafter.

    Good luck, OP! I hope you can dig something valuable out of that vaguicism.

  17. Definitely anon for this!*

    I had a higher up manager do this to me once. I was up for routine review. Had several past reviews from several managers (couldn’t keep that position filled) that were all positive and saying I was on track and meeting or exceeding expectations. The next level up did this routine review, which was normal procedure. Pleased with my efforts on x, y, z, had a few concerns about other things, and wanted to give me a short contract renewal with an additional review in a year.

    Ok, fine, I was willing to do this. So what did he want to see in a year when I was back? What goals was I working toward? Couldn’t tell me. No specifics, just come back in a year. Uh, no. Odds were pretty good I’d end up a year from then showing achievements in the areas of concern, yet still not meeting his unarticulated and vague goals. I started my next job about 6 months later and loved it!

  18. Iro*

    My favorite exchange of this kind was when I was provided a very vague second hand information like the OP recieved during a “developement” discussion.

    I spent a couple of days thinking (and venting) about it and then scheduled a meeting with my manager. I said something like “I’ve been reflecting on what you said on Wednesday, and is it possible that when I do X in Y situation it comes across poorly? Should I instead try doing something like Z in that scenario?”

    To which my manager literally responded: “Wow! I didn’t think you would take that feedback so seriously. I just thought it was something you should be made aware of. Don’t be so sensitive to feedback and don’t spend so much time reflecting on it.”

    1. IT Kat*

      “Here, I wanted to provide useless feedback that you are actually supposed to forget the minute you walk out of here.”

      So what was the point of bothering to tell you about it? I don’t get the mindset of bosses like that….

      1. Iro*

        Me either.

        Actually in our next one-on-one he gave me some feedback and I asked “So is this more, for your information feedback, or is this actually something you would like me to address?” Despite attempting to keep the tone light (I said it with a smile) it didn’t go over very well…..

        1. IT Kat*

          Apparently you were/are expected to be a mind reader.

          Which my first thought is I would think that if you were a mind reader you wouldn’t need that type of feedback…..

    2. Kelly L.*

      I actually had that argument with my boyfriend. LOL!

      Once, when he was in a foul mood, he told me I interrupted too much when I drank. I spent like a week reading up on strategies to keep yourself from interrupting, and then sat him down to apologize again and explain what I’d been doing to work on it. He was like “…I was just in a terrible mood, this isn’t actually that big of a thing.”

    3. Cordelia Naismith*

      Whaaa? If you’re not supposed to reflect on feedback, why bother giving it?!? This sort of thing drives me nuts.

  19. Lisa*

    I worked for a guy where distancing himself from the question WAS a technique. He did it to everyone. You’d ask about your raise or promotion, and you would get him talking about the teams goal, or how he’d love to give the whole team a raise but that so and so isn’t up to par and the team has suffered and how everyone has to do better so that we all get raises including him – the owner. BS tactics to avoid the conversation while he basically talked to himself for 2 hours then say ‘let’s revisit’ on monday, which would always get cancelled, then a week later ‘i haven’t forgotten’ but nothing scheduled. Then another 2 weeks go by, finally scheduled, then again – last minute something popped up and cancelled. It was a cycle, and people would get discouraged and then leave.

    1. Postradamus*

      “…he basically talked to himself for two hours…” Yes!! I think you and I worked for the same boss. He was so vague and wordy that I’d go into his office with a question and come out 2 hours later feeling like Charlie Brown with the football. It got to the point where I would avoid going into his office at any cost, but he’d come into our office at the end of his day when he got bored, and B.S. and hold us hostage with one-sided conversation. He also got angry about something one of my peers did, and then spent an entire meeting ranting about unspecific offenses that had all of us looking at each other surreptitiously like, “What is he talking about?” and wondering if it was one of us. He also said over and over in that meeting things like, “If Postradamus can’t ‘get’ it, Postradamus can go look for another job” and “If Postradamus doesn’t understand, Postradamus will be looking for another place to work.” I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone – he’d never given me any specific feedback to my face about anything I was doing wrong, just vague hints hidden amongst his interminable stories about how knowledgable and important he was. Now suddenly I needed to look for another job? But he had no problem specifically outlining each of our shortcomings behind our backs, to the other members of the team, to the point that if I wanted reliable feedback about what he thought about something I’d done, I would just go ask one of my peers after I was out of the room for a safe amount of time to allow him to talk about me behind my back. The icing on the cake was when I resigned to go work somewhere else, he brought up all the ways I was a horrible employee (with 15 years of exemplary performance evaluations, including one he had written himself) and said, “your team of direct reports also agrees you are horrible because of THIS WAY YOU HANDLED THIS SITUATION” and I said, “Uh, you PRAISED me for how I handled that situation.” Go ahead and keep the football, Lucy.

      1. Vancouver Reader*

        With bosses like that, I’m surprised there aren’t more incidences of people going ballistic on their boss, or at the very least, leaving flaming bags of poo on their doorsteps.

        1. Postradamus*

          Yes, x 1000! Thank you for the much-needed belly laugh. Every time I think of him from now on I will probably see a flaming bag of poo.

  20. Anon Today*

    “Sense of urgency” makes me a little crazy. What does it mean? If it means “meet tight deadlines” then say that. What else it supposed to convey? Not everything can be urgent, or a top priority.

    A favorite quote I try to live by: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” – John Wooden.

    1. Mephyle*

      Possibly it is supposed to convey “look like you’re doing everything fast” – I can well imagine vague, un-pin-downable feedback like that coming more from perception than from outcomes.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Lack of sense of urgency has been a thing that’s concerned me about employees before. What I mean by it is that the person isn’t moving sufficiently quickly or adjusting their pace depending on how important/time-sensitive something might be; they’re just moving at a comfortable, sometimes leisurely pace, but the work requires really pushing to get things done faster.

  21. IT Kat*

    I had something like that once. “I can’t say who, but I was told that you seem short with people.” Couldn’t give me specifics, or context, or what to change, or anything. Gee, maybe one day I was “short” because I’m pretty no-nonsense and want to get down to business because I have 10 pans in the fire and I need to know what you need so I can fix it and get back to quietly putting out brushfires before they affect the systems and thus business as usual? (I’m in IT so sadly if we do our job, no one ever notices. It’s when stuff gets out of control that people notice because it affects them.)

    So after that I made sure to have smiles and modulate tone of voice to be cheery. I thought I did a horrible job because I am the sardonic type, not the ~*~*~sunshine and roses~*~*~ type, but my boss said a month later that he was told that there was improvement.

    (To this day I think it was one of the VPs that complained, and yes, I am a woman and thus supposed to be constantly cheery and upbeat.)

    To the OP: This vague feedback is sadly not uncommon, but it isn’t a management tactic. It’s probably perception – try and act like you’re more urgent, since you’re in retail, have a bit quicker step when you do things, maybe respond to requests as “I’ll get right on that!” in an upbeat voice, etc. Like other commenters have said, you may be far more productive than your more-harried-appearing coworkers, but perception to a lot of people matters more than substance (sad, but true).

    1. Michele*

      I have noticed that I get feedback about being too direct, yet somehow not firm enough. I should also be nicer and less fact driven (I am a scientist), but need to work on people taking me seriously. None of my male coworkers have ever gotten that kind of feedback. They can be the crankiest, most difficult people in the world, but whatever they say is good.

      1. IT Kat*

        I think it’s a major problem of being female in traditionally male-driven industries (technology and science being two of the ones on that list). It really sucks because we can’t act like our male coworkers and get the same treatment and respect. My male coworkers joke, make sarcastic remarks to each other and leadership, and they’re joked with back. I get a frown when I do it.

        Sexism is still alive and well.

        (My favorite was showing up for an interview for a datacenter job and having the interviewer smile, greet me, and say “So you’re here for the admin assistant position! Here, let me get you in touch with the person you’d be supporting….” He apologized profusely when I corrected him, but needless to say, I didn’t get the job.)

        1. AW*

          Or when you’re constantly interrupted in meetings and you get criticized for not speaking more. I HATE that. I’m certain that the people who interrupt are never criticized for doing so; they aren’t during the meeting. Don’t tell me to talk more, tell them to actually let me!

        2. Is It Performance Art*

          A friend of mine found that some senior colleagues were more receptive to her ideas if she preceded them with “this probably sounds stupid, but…”. Otherwise they thought she was being arrogant. (Some of the men in the department even commented on the double standard.) I could never bring myself to try that or fake a self-confidence problem.

          1. fposte*

            And she can’t win for losing, because I’d ding her for that–it’s a known submissive preface, and it gets overtly discouraged in a lot of classrooms.

    2. long time reader first time poster*

      Been there. I’ve been on the receiving end of the “you should be NICER!!!1!!!” feedback in a review more than once. At one job, I asked for a specific example, and the manager came back with “you left a post it note on a report for a colleague, with instructions to come see you. You really should have added a smiley face.”

      I was like, please tell me you’re giving that feedback to male managers as well.


  22. Michele*

    “And to be clear, managers, if you get secondhand feedback, the first thing you do is to try to observe the behavior for yourself. If you can’t do that and it’s serious enough that you feel you need to address it, you ask about it; you don’t just assume it’s true.” This a billion times! It is so demoralizing to be assumed guilty. Get the entire story and have a discussion, don’t just presume guilt and go on the attack.

    1. Kathlynn*

      yes, this x100. My manager likes to pick sides, and since I don’t come to her with everything my coworkers do wrong (to a level I consider unreasonable), she rarely picks my side. This lead to her favoring a lazy (taking 3 hours to do something that should take less then an hour), rude, and abrasive coworker over me. With a few completely unfair write ups (me being upset, and not wanting to create a scene was harassment, because I “shut down the communication line” by trying to contain my frustration.). And once I was called into the office and greeted with “what did you do to upset coworker Acb?” (I asked her to put the garbage out (She was outside) and recount an item. Which are both totally reasonable.) Her behavior was identical (but without cause) to mine, but she didn’t get written up for it.
      My boss has actually told me that (when there was conflict between me and another coworker) because I wasn’t complaining about how coworker Yab was treating me, and Yab was complaining to her about how I was treating her, I would be received as the one at fault. (this coworker was completely ignoring me, but since I was no longer working the same shift as her, I just let it slide, and tried to treat her like I did everyone else.) Of course no specifics were given on how I was treating her. Or on how I should be treating her. (this was in a you two better start getting along better meeting)

  23. AW*

    This interjection did succeed in burning through the rest of our meeting about career development…
    …bring your boss back to a difficult conversation…

    This might not be a managerial technique but I think the OP might be right that this is deliberate behavior. As Archer would say it’s “classic misdirection”.

    The OP should follow up Allison’s script with, “Now about (original topic)” or, if they still somehow succeed in burning through the meeting say, “It looks like we ran out of time to discuss (original topic). Can we meet at (later time) to go over it?” They should at least know that you intend to follow up on the original discussion. If it really was accidental they’ll be apologetic and schedule a new time. If it’s deliberate they’ll either put off scheduling a new meeting or do the same thing in the next one. Then you at least know for sure that this isn’t a conversation they’re willing to have.

  24. CAinUK*

    OP, Alison’s advice is spot-on if you think the feedback was poorly executed but not necessarily a deflection tactic.

    However, if you think this WAS a crappy avoidance tactic (“I can’t give you a raise/promotion/specific development plan because…um…someone somewhere said you don’t ‘have a sense of urgency’…”) then I think you have to be a bit more aggressive to get the discussion back to your career development. Politely questioning is often a good tactic:

    “Just to clarify, you are saying this feedback is an obstacle to my career development?”
    “Yes.” (Maybe they say no, and then you can keep discussing your development and not get side-tracked – win!)
    “Okay, I’ll be more aware of this. I also need specifics on how to improve. Can you provide those?”
    “Not really.” (Maybe they say yes – problem solved!)
    “But you are saying this feedback is from you, not just a co-worker, and you agree with it?”
    “Yes.” (Although hopefully this gives the manager an out, and they can acknowledge it was third party feedback and they’ll ask for an example from your co-worker or observe you).
    “But if you can’t tell me an example or way to improve, how can I progress in my career here?”

    And don’t fill the awkward silence at the end of your last question – that’s the info you really want from your manager! So long as your tone is not accusatory and polite, and you seem to genuinely want to know the answer and understand, I think this type of questioning works pretty well.

    1. Jeanne*

      It should work but doesn’t always. I had a boss who after this sort of exchange told me it wasn’t her job to tell me what I needed to do to meet her expectations.

  25. some1*

    I’ve also experienced this and my reaction was exactly like the LW’s — I became defensive instead of trying to focus on the problem.

    Sub-question for Alison and the gallery: why do you think this is so common? Do managers think people who complain are owed confidentiality?

    1. IT Kat*

      I think that sometimes managers keep it confidential because it’s from someone above them; they don’t remember who said it; they don’t want to seem like they are ‘throwing someone under the bus’ by sharing who complained; they’re the ones who have the feedback but don’t say so because they don’t want to look like ‘the bad guy’; or in some cases it might just be them using it for a distraction tactic.

      I’m not saying that any of these are REASONABLE excuses, but it might be some possible reasons why.

    2. esra*

      Sometimes it’s a cover. I had an (awful) manager who would claim others made the complaint and it must be kept confidential. Just so he wouldn’t have to own/defend his own opinions and feedback.

      It would come out in the most awkward ways, we had more than one meeting where I’d be presenting a design to senior managers and say “Given your feedback on X, I’ve adjusted it to be more Y.” And they’d say “What? We loved X!” and then my manager would awkwardly bluster about crossed wires.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it’s managers not being thoughtful about feedback in general — feeling like if they heard something, well, they must need to pass it along … without thinking critically about whether or not it might be true, how to find out if it is, how to relay it in a way that will actually be actionable, etc.

  26. ManderPants*

    Hmm, if by “large retailer” the OP means Walmart, then I think I can shed a little light.

    I, unfortunately, worked for them for over three years as a regular associate. My department had a sweet woman who always did what was asked of her. when it came time for her annual review and raise (pennies) they did not give her a raise because she “failed to work with a sense of urgency.” From what I gather, she wasn’t given specifics and was left confused because she knew she was a hard worker.

    While a great worker, she often took her time with things. Folded clothes slowly, walked slowly. And I think this is what management meant, but maybe something prevents them from actually saying so.

    They want to squeeze every minute of work out of the workers. You need to walk fast, not stop and talk or you’ll be written up, if a manager walks by you better have something in your hands, etc. I’m in an office job now and the transition from the anxiety inducing management breathing down your neck in retail to being treated like an adult in an office took a long time to get used to.

    1. Kelly L.*

      I think one of the biggest culture shocks to me, when I moved to white-collar work, was that I didn’t have to ask for permission to use the restroom anymore. It comes up in a book I read a while back, Hand to Mouth, too. At one point she asks the reader, “How badly do you have to pee right now? And do you need permission?” It really resonated with me (not to get into a debate about the book as a whole, hopefully).

      1. Restroom break, boss?*

        It comes up in _The Shawshank Redemption_, too.

        I don’t think it is a strict white collar / blue collar thing, though. My sister used to work for an insurance company in a white collar capacity – but they had very strict rules about when you could leave your desk, and that included restroom breaks – which were only allowed during ‘official’ break-times. I thought it was a barbaric practice.

        But when I think back to when I was in high school and earlier: I couldn’t just get up in the middle of a class and walk to the restroom. But arguably there are some good reasons for restricting bathroom breaks in a school. I think sometimes you find them restricted not for any good reason, but purely as an authoritarian control intended to remind the peons of their “place”.

  27. Bun*

    As a manager, I’m extremely frustrated by the amount of “feedback” I get from others about members of my team that is completely lacking in actionable specifics. “I think X has a bad attitude” or “I’m concerned that Y won’t get the job done” are verbatim examples! When I ask for specifics or try to glean the source of these concerns, the “feedback”-givers backpedal or tell me that’s just how they feel. I don’t know how these co-workers expect me to coach my team into better performance based on their feelings.

    My team takes feedback very gracefully and positively, but if I passed along everything I heard, I’d end up just like the OP’s boss mentioning vague “people” and their vague “feelings.” Ugh.

    1. Bun*

      P.S. In my examples, “X” no longer works here and “Y” has been moved to projects with very rigorous structures around completing tasks (<3 Agile), so sometimes you can find ways to mitigate concerns without passing on the vague feedback directly!

    2. jillociraptor*

      That’s the role of a good manager: filtering out the nonsense!

      I also run into the problem very often of other people expecting that I will relay run of the mill feedback. I definitely want to be kept in the loop on any feedback. But if you have specific, discrete feedback for someone? You don’t need to tell me to give it! Just share directly what you need.

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      Good for you! I had a boss who passed along everything, including, “Why doesn’t she smile when she walks by me?” and it was just awful. He would even turn, “I saw AvonLady walking down the hall looking upset– is everything ok?” into, “Make sure you don’t look upset when you walk down the hall.” We were constantly on our guard about all kinds of insignificant little things.

      1. Maxwell Edison*

        This is all hauntingly familiar. Last year when I was at OldJob, I was put on a PIP for reasons that included the fact that apparently when I walk to the bathroom or the printer, I look up at the ceiling, which is quite a terrible thing to do it seems. My manager refused to believe that I did not do this deliberately or with intention to be disrespectful. Very strange. So from then until resignation time, every time I ventured from my desk I pretended I was balancing a book on my head. It’s difficult to focus on your job when you’re worrying about such irrelevant things.

        1. Iro*

          This. I don’t think these managers realize how much lost productivity there is in providing unclear feedback.

    4. Iro*

      In this situation I would actually coach the complainer because this is a classic potstirrer strategy and can easily kill the mora of your team if acted on or allowed to perpetuate.

      I would say something like, “While I’m glad you are comfortable talking to me about these sorts of things, it’s not productive for either or us to discuss such vague concerns. By all means if *Wakeen trash talks the CEO on facebook or is constantly complaining about his salary at the water cooler than those are items I can coach on and improve and I want to know. Otherwise bumping up these petty concerns end up reflecting more poorly on you than Wakeen.

  28. AvonLady Barksdale*

    This happened to me and it was pretty damaging. I was taken to lunch and told by a manager that a certain SVP said I didn’t give her enough help with a project. I asked for specifics and was given none, but was told that since the whole project exploded and went haywire, the SVP was looking for someone to blame and she decided to blame me. I was devastated; I had worked for years to establish a good relationship with that SVP and I was so upset that our relationship had turned in that way.

    Then our boss told me not to worry, he had no specifics, he and my manager were just repeating something that was a throw-away line in a meeting. Um, OK. I’ll put it out of my head, then. Nope. My boss used that as fuel against me for the next couple of months. He and my manager wanted me out (there were various reasons, some my fault, some far from my fault), so every time something didn’t go well, my boss would blow up and scream at me about how the SVP hated me and I hadn’t done good work for her, etc. etc. I asked repeatedly for him to give me examples of where my work had been subpar, he gave me none. “That’s what was SAID,” was all I got. So I upped my job search and left.

    Right before I left, I found out that the SVP who had initially given the “feedback” didn’t hate or even disrespect me at all; in fact, she wished me well and told me how much she would miss me and then friended me on Facebook! I would bet a ton of money that my boss’s “feedback” was either blown out of proportion or completely made up in an attempt to put me on a back burner and get me out.

    In short, while the OP should pay attention to the feedback in a broad sense, take that kind of comment with a grain of salt, just like Alison says. :)

  29. HR Manager*

    I can understand not answering the who question, but as a manager who really wants peers to open up to them about feedback on coworkers, giving them the safety of anonymity will elicit more feedback. But you then must give specific examples, even if they have to be slightly out of context to protect that identity.

    This manager may just be very poor at handling feedback in general, as specificity is always a key to feedback. Even so called “personality” related feedback. Rarely do people care about your personality per se – it’s what you do that leads people to make assumptions about your personality. Always give actionable feedback on behaviors, not the supposed driver of that behavior (i.e., she’s cold, she’s introverted, etc.). If someone told me that I lacked urgency, I would ask “can you give me examples of how you think I might be able to demonstrate more urgency?”

    By the way, with that feedback around urgency, I wouldn’t necessarily interpret that as missed project deadlines. I read into that a sense of general quickness in response. So when someone emails you — do you get back to them right away or hours later? Do you at the very least reply with a ‘working on it’ vs waiting for you to come back only with a full answer? That can help establish a sense of urgency — general responsiveness to requests, in addition to meeting actual major deadlines.

  30. JayemGriffin*

    Oh god, this happened to me once and I’m still upset about it. I was working on stage crew for college credit, and one of the designers told me that someone had complained that I was exercising undue authority. Asked for details; there were none, someone had just “said something.” Asked my crew lead if she knew what was going on; she had no clue. Asked our SM; he didn’t know either. Nobody could tell me who had said anything or what the actual problem was, but it ended up having a significant impact on my grade. I’ve been out of school for years now, and it still ticks me off.

  31. Anonymous for this*

    Just last week, my supervisor told me that one of my colleagues mentioned that I was “out a lot” and that there’s “no one here to supervise me” (my boss works in another location). She told me that she told my coworker that everything is run past and okayed by her and that she has no worries about the way my time is being scheduled.

    I asked if my coworker had brought up concerns about my performance (i.e., if there were things I wasn’t getting to or overlooking as a result). My supervisor said no and that she hadn’t thought to ask him directly about it. At that point, her facial expression and body language changed and we just moved on to other things.

    In this case, I think the colleague was just complaining to complain and I was the target of the week and asking about specific concerns rather than getting defensive helped the situation a lot.

  32. hnl123*

    I had something similar, so I feel your frustration!
    I was training to be in a supervisory role, and someone who was ‘training’ me – (she mostly kind of took that on for herself) gave me feedback that I “had a weak presence.”
    What the heck does that even mean, and how would I even begin to remedy that….??? So vague, right? I mean, I’m already tall, I was checking in on my team on the regular, so what?
    What I did was, I tracked her down, and I said “I can’t put “I have a weak presence” into action. There’s not much I can think of to increase my “presence”. But I understand you notice it. What exactly do you mean? I’ve been checking in on my team regularly, my team seems to like my supervisory style, so I don’t know what you mean.”
    She couldn’t immediately put her finger on it so I had to drill down. “Do you mean I need to check in more often? Do you want me to walk around more? Do you want me to spend more time with my team each time I do check in?” etc.
    Finally, I got it out of her that she couldn’t really hear me.
    Sheesh! Well OK, now there’s something I can work on! My softer voice, for her, she experienced it as “lack of presence”.

    TL/DR: You might have to ask her 1) does SHE notice your lack of urgency, and 2) Give her some examples yourself because 3) she might not actually have the words to clearly explain what she means.

    Good luck!

  33. Kathlynn*

    I’ve gotten a lot of performance write-ups at my job, even though no one else has. With my current management, the issue is I’m not doing enough, and I’m always doing the same things (which need to be done every shift…). She also ignores the fact that I am usually out preforming the lowest performer. And the only reason my performance has dropped is because she never addresses anyone else’s performance issues. And after being told she doesn’t care if one person is doing all the work, and the other is not doing their share (I complained about a coworker not doing enough, with a list of jobs she completed, with a list of jobs I’d completed. To show she wasn’t pulling her weight) I really don’t try to work my butt of anymore. Keep busy yes, running my butt off no.
    With former management, they wanted me gone. I mean I got written up for not completing a list in 4 hours, that I was doing more on then any other coworker. And it’s not possible to complete the list in 4 hours. This was not specified in the write up, so I doubt the higher ups were aware of it.
    And neither sets of management ever provided any specific examples of what I could/should be doing faster, nor any help to do so. Or examining if it is/was actually a side-effect of who I’m working with. (like if I have a coworker who ignores the tills but doesn’t do the other work, I can’t do both. And tills/customers are more important then whether or not the windows get washed). Or who else does the job I’m taking too long on (there was a time consuming job, where (once a week) you had to look over every product in this one section. The other person who did the job never did this, so it would take me even longer to do it then otherwise, because there was more items to remove from the shelf.).

  34. Ann Furthermore*

    Ugh, OP, you have my sympathies. One of the most upsetting things, career-wise, that ever happened to me was something just like this. My manager said that people said I was rude and “ridiculed” them for asking questions. When I asked who’d said that, he said he couldn’t tell me because the person(s) had come to him in confidence. OK, I can respect that. So I asked for specific examples, which he also refused to provide because he said if I had too many details then I’d be able to figure out who had complained to him about me. So I asked why, in the 6 months that he’d been my manager, he’d never once thought to have even a 5 minute conversation about this with me if I was such a horrible, wretched harridan of an employee. He said that I should have known I was being rude to people and she shouldn’t have had to tell me. OMG. So frustrating and upsetting.

    I would, as suggested, ask your manager for some specifics, and if she doesn’t have any, then ask her that if she does see you doing or not doing something that is contributing to the perception of working with a lack of urgency to point it out to you right away. That way you’re at least showing that you do take the feedback seriously, and want to address it.

    And this:

    It’s almost as if managers who do this think that they’re obligated to pass all secondhand information along without first investigating it themselves or making their own determination of its accuracy or utility. It’s silly, and it’s bad management.

    is such an accurate summation of why this happens. Alison has pinpointed the issue, as usual.

  35. Iro*

    What’s even more frustrating is when they write the feeback down and make it “Official”

    I once worked for a company where all managers could read your performance reviews, and some of the sentances in there made me sound horrible, even though the managers verbalized it a different way.

    “Iro can come across as abrasive, she needs to work on that.”
    – this one specifically because I asked a question in front of their direct reports and they didn’t know the answer.
    “Iro’s thirs for knowledge can come across as aggressive”
    – this one because I was asking to many detailed questions in a monthly reporting meeting, where it would have been better to have some follow-ups offline.

    What was written, and what I actually needed to work on were so different.

  36. LiteralGirl*

    I just had my 2014 review. My boss sent out surveys to get feedback from people of his choice and mine; it is done by survey monkey and is anonymous. It’s interesting how the positive feedback is mostly specific, but the negative feedback is generally vague (the one specific one had been causing me frustration and I had fixed it already). I actually had one comment say, “Need to close the loop.” The point of these is to provide something actionable; if it isn’t, nothing changes. Yes, I can ponder what it means and attempt to change that, but I may not be getting it right. Perhaps there need to be clearer instructions on the survey.

  37. Xarcady*

    At my last job, I was a manager. The manager of a different department started coming to me with comments about one of my new hires–he had made a serious mistake here, misunderstood directions there, was using the wrong software to do a specific project.

    Because I was new at managing and she was not, for the first few weeks, I checked up on everything. Each and every time, my employee was doing the right thing, had made no mistakes (but someone else had), was using the correct software, etc. I just started to ignore the other manager. I mean, I listened to her, told her I would take care of things, and then did nothing. Why should I? The new guy was doing a really great job.

    When it came time for his performance review, I gave him a really good review. My boss, the owner of the company, reviewed all the reviews. She cam to me very concerned about my high ratings, as she had been hearing for a whole year, from the other manager, just how often this guy screwed up. I had my first confrontation with a boss then, because there was no way I was marking him down to “does not meet expectations” when he was one of the best people on my team. But that took a week of explaining and arguing and standing firm. (And looking back, was probably the beginning of the end of my time there–the owner started micromanaging me after that and things got worse and worse until I left a year later. She really didn’t like it when I disagreed with her that strongly.)

    Managers shouldn’t reject comments on their team out of hand, but they should research for themselves if something is really a problem.

    1. My self-esteem, a dollar at a time*

      That’s an awesome – if sad – story. If it helps, the takeaway I get from the tale is: you were too good for them!

      +10,000 karma points.

  38. Preston*

    Lots of good comments, relieved to see others have some of the same frustrations (not that is a good thing however!).

  39. Rebecca*

    I had a manager who always had to have one constructive piece of of feedback to have in our conversations. He actually told me he was taught at a manager course to never only give positive feedback. So, he always seemed to struggle to give me something “constructive”. It always ended up being something really vague like “I’m sensing your balancing too many priorities” or “maybe you could improve your sphere of influence”. It really drove me bonkers that he would give me great praise on how successful my projects were going and then end on this random negative note that I couldn’t do anything about. One trick I have found useful when being given vague feedback is to throw out how I interpret it and present one action I am going to take to work on it. Sometimes it’s really a stretch, but I find if you start out the conversation with one idea of a go-forward, it helps the other person articulate the change they want to see more.

  40. KF*

    My favorite was the time my boss told me I think too fast. He had nothing to say when asked for clarification.

  41. GOG11*

    I know I’m a bit late, so I don’t know if anyone will see this, but I was wondering how a manager should respond to the person making the vague comment. When I was first starting to manage other employees, two employees raised their concerns about another employee (well, one employee said something and the other agreed and joined in the conversation).

    At the time, I just heard them out…but what do you say? “Thank you for sharing your concerns”? “Hmm.”? If it were a situation among peers, I’d stick up for the other person (“Huh, I’ve always found Fergus to be pleasant over the phone.”), but I’m not sure that’s the right course when you’re the manager.

    1. Boo*

      I think they should ask for a specific example of how it impacted on the job, and ask what they want to change and how.

  42. Chocolate Teapot*

    I have had the “Chocolate Teapot isn’t being friendly to people in the office” comment, but no specifics as to who said this. However, my view is that when you are up to your eyeballs in work, and your boss is pushing for deadlines, having to talk drivel to your annoying co-worker is not the best use of your time. There have been posts on here before about shutting down interrupting/annoying people you work with so I follow the advice suggested about acknowledging then getting back to what you were doing.

  43. Robyn*

    I once got feedback along the lines of ‘Six weeks ago when we held X event, some person, I can’t remember who, but they were very important, said you were rude.’

    My reply, ‘Well, that’s very vague. Without more details I can’t speak to it or improve on it.’

    He looked bewildered at my response, shrugged his shoulders and walked away. So at least I accomplished that! :D

    There are many many reasons why I no longer work there.

  44. Just Tea For Me Thanks*

    This kind of feedbackcan be very confusing. I had a boss who would omplain about my personality: what can you do? I felt so bad knowing I couldn’t fix it. Needless to say, my contract wasn’t renewed. I was glad about that. She never d never give any examples. The only thing she commented on that I could do something about was bet complaint that I was too punctual. Could I please show up late? When I did, I was called out on being late. When I spoke to my manager about the conflicting comments shetold me this situation was different, and I should have been punctual. Same when she told me to be more chatty and then telling me off for chatting with a coworker. There was no pleasing her. It took me a while to get over the insecurity it caused me. So, dear OP, you are not alone: giving feedback without examples says more about your manager than about you. Please don’t make let this make you feel bad or insecure!

  45. Kas*

    Thank you so much for posting this. My manager has done this to me in the past, and the sheer unfairness of it has always left me so stunned in the moment that I’ve been unable to form a constructive response. These scripts will help a lot :)

  46. Not telling*

    SOooooo many managers do this! I think it’s a side effect of “360-review” methods. Managers ask for feedback from other people who may have a different perspective on your work. They seem to think that merely collecting the 360 feedback is sufficient, and they don’t bother reading through it or considering it before they present it to you.

    Like so many things, if it keeps happening then eventually you have to consider if you want to work for a company or a manager who works like this.

  47. TootsNYC*

    “a difficult conversation with my boss regarding career development when she interjected. . .
    This interjection did succeed in burning through the rest of our meeting about career development and got her out of having to finish her conversation.”

    It sounded in the OP as though the manager was wishing to get out of a conversation with the employee (perhaps about “How can I get a promotion to a better job”), and seized on this amorphous criticism to change the subject.

    That’s a definite tactic that -many- people use (not just managers!) when they’re feeling pressured. And perhaps defensive. They attack. So, if the employee says, “I want to change my hours,” or something, a manager who is a wuss might say, “Well, you come in late a lot,” because they remember one time they noticed her coming from her car at 10 minutes past starting time.
    And bingo! Now they don’t have to talk about changing the schedule when they don’t want to or can’t.

    It may not be a “deliberate” tactic in that they probably don’t consciously say, “Hmm, I don’t know how to tell her she’s not going to get a promotion or raise, so I’ll criticize her and then I won’t have to talk about it anymore.”
    But it is a subconscious tactic. They’re doing it on purpose; they just are doing it instinctively.

    So it’s a real thing–and it’s worth recognizing it and being able to brush it aside and insist on sticking to the original topic. “Hmm, that’s interesting, I’d like to explore it, because of course I want to be a good employee, but could we stick with the career development, please?”

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