managers need to stop sugarcoating their feedback

I hear from a lot of managers who are frustrated with an employee’s work or behavior, feel they’ve addressed the issue, and wonder why it’s still continuing. Over the years, I’ve learned to always ask these frustrated managers, “Exactly what have you said to the person about this?” … because more often than not, it turns out that the manager has only hinted at the problem, rather than being direct about it.

At Slate today, I wrote about how managers often think they’ve addressed a problem when in fact the language they used was so soft that their employee missed the message entirely or doesn’t realize it’s a serious issue. You can read it here.

{ 205 comments… read them below }

  1. Peter*

    I think every manager should read Radical Candors. It actually helps being clear and direct and in a way that make sure the message and the intent is well understood.

    1. Annette*

      Can’t agree more. Many people – managers and others – need to learn how to UTGDW (use their g-ddamn words)!

    2. thankful for AAM.*

      I wish the managers where I work would read AAM’s book or anything about being direct. The whole culture is soft. I have thought about applying for an opening as manager but if I followed AAM advice I would be so out of step with the whole culture here. Theyd think I was incredibly rude and it is a city position, no one gets fired.

  2. Robin Simons*

    Please tell people that this is also a gendered and caretaking issue on the part of mostly, female managers. Codependency and caretaking and befriending employees is a problem. If there’s not clear communication of what needs to change and clear documentation with a paper trail, then you are kind of hosed when it comes to substantive actions moving forward. Be clear about what will fix the problem or it will bite you in the butt later.

    1. Ann*

      Disagree 100%. I’ve seen this way more out of male managers who are trying to be “cool” and befriend their teams and be seen as the laid back guy. It is also common amongst managers male or female who originate from non confrontational cultures. This is in no way a female manager issue.

      1. +1*

        Absolutely. In fact, I am typically the person who is reviewing and coaching my [male] boss’ communications to ensure they are direct. He tends to talk in circles. It’s because he grew up in the “Midwestern Nice” culture, where people fear confrontation so much they don’t say what they mean and don’t speak up when they don’t understand what the other person is saying.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Came here to say that this is not a gender issue, this is a location issue. Specifically a Midwest issue. I live in a rust belt city where communication styles are a lot like the Midwestern Nice you speak of. The one time I was put on probation, it came utterly out of the blue; to the point where I requested a meeting with my manager and our HR rep to ask him why he’d never warned me before that he was unhappy with my performance. He swore up and down that he had. But the only things I could remember him saying to me that could have possibly passed for negative feedback was him calling me into his office a couple of times to ask me what I was working on. I’d give him a list of projects I was working on and he’d be, okay, thanks, you’re free to go. Now I know that being pulled into a manager’s office to tell him something he can easily learn from the project-tracking software is not normal, and probably should have been a cause for concern. But that was my first job at a large corporation and I honestly thought he just wanted a list of my projects.

          The person that taught me to speak up and to be assertive in ways you rarely see in the Midwest was my ex-SO who’d moved to my area from the South when he was a young adult. Have to add that our relationship ended quickly after I took his lessons to heart and started calling him out on his BS too. Even so, I will be forever thankful to him for teaching me. It’s a great skill that a lot of people living in my area do not have.

      2. Lobster Bisque*

        Yes, especially in the climate lately it is much more male managers than female managers. My husband was reprimanded from HR last year for being insensitive to another female manager, HR and his management told him his feedback must always be positive anything negative or reprimanding comes off as intimidating since he is 6’4 and about 280.

    2. AK*

      There’s definitely a gendered component to it, but it works both ways. Employees can see female managers as pushy and bossy when they don’t use softening language, where they would see a male manager as direct and assertive. Female managers wanting to befriend their employees definitely isn’t the only issue at play.

      1. Burned Out Supervisor*

        I experience this a lot. If I soften too much, people don’t understand what I need them to do (or not do). If I’m more direct, I’m hearing that I “yelled at them” for something relatively minor or that I’m a bitch for enforcing department standards. Can’t win for losing.

        1. Artemesia*

          So true. I remember hearing how I yelled at someone and was very upset about some error. Honest to God, it was no big deal, I just had someone redo a piece and correct some errors; I was not mad; I did not raise my voice; I said ‘this might not have been clear when I gave you the materials, but we need to yadda yadda’. No anger. Not upset. Stuff like this is entirely routine. But there are drama llamas in the workplace who love making a big deal out of everything. AND sometimes any sort of correction from someone higher up is viewed as ‘yelling’ or angry whether it is presented that way or not.

          1. ssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

            I believe you! I worked with a drama llama who exaggerated every interaction.

            OTOH…I have a friend who was accused of yelling…and I believe it because when she gets excited – no matter the reason – she gets loud and *must* finish her thought. She doesn’t see it as yelling at all and her memory of the event was completely different.

      2. MsChanandlerBong*

        Yep, I am seen as the “mean” administrator because I am clear and direct with people. I am never nasty or rude; I simply tell people what they need to improve. One of my male colleagues is extremely passive and will go so far as to do things himself rather than sending them back to the freelancers and telling them what they need to fix. This bites me in the butt because I am the one who suspends/terminates freelancers. I’ll go back through the project history and realize that no one ever told the writer in clear, uncertain terms what needs to be improved.

        As a result, I have had multiple writers try to go around me by emailing my colleague directly at his individual email account rather than directing their inquiries to our shared management email address.

      3. lizbethfrances*

        I wholeheartedly agree with you. I’ve been through it. I sugarcoat so much because it’s clear the men around me get to be far more direct, involved in staff work, etc. than I am. My recently promoted manager wrote that I was micromanaging and a bulldozer in my review. I’ll own some of the micromanaging as it’s a thing I’ve been working on for a while, but I’ve heard so much about it that I’m afraid to direct my staff at times. At the same time, that boss rewrites most things that people send him, brings staff together to ask their opinion and then ignores it, calls people’s work BS, etc. Another woman on staff called a meeting with three people plus him today that only needed him plus me, so we could hopefully get the point across with a group. When they promoted him, management just said that he’s got some growing to do.

        I’ve never experienced anything like this in my 15-year career, and I’m on my out. But, I’d really thought that this type of sexism had gone away. It hasn’t. So, I sugarcoat, befriend, and offer lots of explanation with each critique.

    3. Qwerty*

      I strongly disagree this is mostly an issue with female managers! Its a widespread issue with male managers too – almost every (male) manager I’ve had has the same problem. I’m in a mostly male industry and I’d estimate 70-80% of my male coworkers have this problem.

    4. Sara without an H*

      Hi, Robin Simons —
      I see you’re getting pushback on this. There are a lot of pieces going into communications preferences, but I agree with you that there is definitely a gendered element to it. Women are (generally) trained to value connection and relationship, which is why exclusion and “mean girl”-type behaviors are so devastating to us. And it’s also true that women who behave in ways that would be considered “assertive” in men are often stigmatized as “bitchy.” I work in a woman-dominated “helping” profession and I’ve seen a lot of women managers struggle with how to communicate expectations and consequences to employees while still protecting everybody’s feelings. (Full disclosure: I’ve struggled with this myself.)

      That said, I’ve also had several male managers who were just terrible at this, for a variety of reasons: culture, fear of conflict, whatever. But I still think that women managers, given their upbringing and cultural baggage, need to be much more intentional about learning to communicate their goals and expectations clearly.

    5. Tammy*

      I think there’s a gendered component to this, but the issue isn’t exclusively gendered, and the gendered component cuts a number of different ways. Female managers employing softening language to avoid being seen as “bitchy”, “strident”, “pushy”, “difficult to get along with”, etc. is one component, but it’s not the only way this shows up. Others have highlighted different other dynamics where this appears. In my experience, the common thread is managers who want to avoid conflict – either because of how they think they’ll be perceived, or because of concerns over how the team member will receive the feedback.

      Either way, you don’t do yourself, your team members, the company, or really anybody a favor by shielding them from honest and candid feedback about their job performance. The message I try to use when giving uncomfortable feedback is along the lines of “I care about you as a human being, and I want you to be successful, so I need to tell you about this thing that you’re doing/not doing that’s negatively impacting your success so that you can fix it, because here’s what will have to happen if you don’t.” Yeah, it’s uncomfortable, but much less so than having to fire someone for a performance problem they could have addressed if they’d known about it.

      1. JSPA*

        I notice that when women express mild displeasure, their reports will sometimes put it down to interpersonal factors or a mood, as opposed to being part of the feedback. Men expressing equivalent mild displeasure are assumed to be giving feedback on the project. Not having a mood or an interpersonal reaction.

        Even worse, if a man says something negative but with a smile, he’s “softening the criticism.” A woman is “sending mixed messages.”

        As a result, women have to use harder words, or state their displeasure explicitly. And both of those things get women categorized as meaner, more demanding, unkind, or bitchier. Alternatively, they keep it soft, and are “confusing” or “setting me up to fail by not giving feedback.”

        1. Karen from Finance*

          > I notice that when women express mild displeasure, their reports will sometimes put it down to interpersonal factors

          You reminded me of a story. A female friend of mine once had to give negative feedback to a male employee over a serious work oversight, and the next day the dude brought her chocolates as an apology. She was utterly bewildered. How personal did he think she had taken it? Why was he treating his manager like an angry girlfriend?

    6. BananaPants*

      I disagree that it’s a gendered thing. I’ve only ever had male managers and have seen this kind of sugarcoating many times.

  3. Foreign Octopus*

    I think this is a natural reaction to telling people negative things and it’s very hard to break out of, although it’s definitely essential that people do break the habit.

    When I started teaching (adults, not children), I would give feedback that I now refer to as a positive sandwich (positive – negative – positive) and was frustrated when my students kept making the same mistakes. Now, I know it takes a while for facts and figures to sink in but these were mistakes that were being repeated throughout the term and then the year. I eventually had to find a way to deliver the direct feedback whilst being encouraging but also telling them that if they didn’t fix the gap in their learning with what I was telling them, they wouldn’t pass the exam.

    Even now, two years later, I still find myself slipping with them.

    1. Mrs_helm*

      Positive-negative-positive is something I’ve seen recommended! But it seems like that (a) you’ve got to shoehorn positive stuff in and (b) this gives the recipient more chance to simply choose which feedback to listen to. So, yeah, maybe it’s better to stick to the message. “You need to change X, or you could lose your job here. ” Give a timeframe. Give training, if needed. If you want to be “nice” say “I believe in you” or provide assistance.

      1. Asenath*

        Yes, be direct and clear. I’ve had that sandwich approach often enough that when someone says something nice about my work, I brace myself for the complaint that’s sure to follow! And I’m probably not focusing on the actual content that much, just speculating on what’s coming next. Put me in the “express what you want me to change clearly” category – like many people, I hate being criticized, and like some at least, I’m not terribly good at reading between the lines and picking up the hints that mean “Perhaps you should do it this way” really means “You have to do it this way”. But I’d rather be a little upset and know what is expected of me than blindsided later when I lose my job or a promotion or something because of a mistake I didn’t understand I was making.

        And to me ““I’m not sure where you’ve disappeared to, but stop by when you’re back.” might mean that it’s quite OK for me to disappear for a half hour or so at random periods during the day, since anyone looking for me will let me know to check in with them. This was not what the manager was trying to communicate!

        1. Close Bracket*

          Yeah, the sandwich has fallen out of favor exactly bc people know a criticism is coming. The open faced sandwich is recommended–skip the opening compliment, give the criticism, say something positive. Give compliments separately.

    2. Sara without an H*

      What you describe is one of the problems I have with the so-called “compliment sandwich.” The other is that it backfires on conscientious employees, who, on hearing the first compliment, immediately start bracing for the bad news.

      1. Forrest*

        I think it’s so important to have a conversation about feedback styles. A few years ago, I did an MBTI exercise with my team, which was great for provoking conversations about people’s preferred communication styles. There is a bit specifically about feedback and I still remember my boss saying, “A & N do the same job, but I know that if I want to change something that A is doing, I need to start off by telling her what she’s doing right–really happy with X, Y is going really well, so impressed with your Z figures, there’s just one TIIIINY thing– If I tried that on N–” N broke in: “Oh just get to the sodding point!” I have actually told that story and asked reports whether they are A or N, and it’s really useful!

        1. N*

          I’m an N through and through. As one of my coworkers said “If you want me to do something, I’ll do it but you better tell me what it is you want done.”

          1. Decima Dewey*

            And don’t take so long telling me that I could have done it by the time you finish telling me to do it.

      2. Leela*

        In addition to bracing for the bad news, it leaves me wondering if the compliments were really so genuine as to prompt saying, or if they just had to scramble to find something to say because it was a necessary component of the sandwich. It definitely didn’t make me feel like I could trust any positive feedback from that manager, even if it came after and without a sandwich of its own.

        1. thankful for AAM.*

          I also assume the compliment was manufactured just to soften the blow of the correction and I lose trust as a result.

    3. Gloucesterina*

      In my experience, the sandwich format isn’t itself the problem, and that any problems with the format are largely contextual. These contextual factors might be: if there’s an ingrained practice of only giving positive feedback as a prelude to negative; not giving much feedback in general, so that worry and stress gets built up around feedback events; if the negative feedback is vague or non-constructive (does not offer a clear path forward); if the receiver of feedback hasn’t been encouraged to develop their process for identifying what needs to change or improve in their own work and so they always end up bracing for the impact of an unpleasant surprise as it were; if there isn’t basic trust between the giver and the recipient that their shared goal is to improve the work.

      But of course, I’m curious to hear if the sandwich format has caused problems apart from these types of scenarios in your experience!

  4. Windchime*

    Thank you for this article, Alison. This is one of my big pet peeves at work. I’m a very literal person and if something sounds like a suggestion, then I am probably not going to interpret it as a directive. One of the things I appreciate about my current boss is that she is very direct. Bosses, stop hinting and making “gentle”, round-about comments. Just TELL me what you want and I am more than happy to do it!

    1. LadyByTheLake*

      This happened to me once — a boss told me that I could do something if I wanted to, when what she meant was that she did not want me to do it at all. When I did it, her reaction to my doing the thing was so outraged and angry that I ended up having to leave the job because all that anyone could remember was that I had done something that incensed her — not that she knew I was going to do it and never told me not to. When challenged on this her response was that I needed to learn how to understand “Minnesota Nice.” Not that she needed to communicate clear expectations.

      1. ababao1o1*

        ExBoss: “You’re driving this project, come up with a deadline when you can complete task A”
        Me: “I’ll need about 4 weeks”
        ExBoss: “No, you only have one week”


      2. Beatrice*

        I had a peer once who did that! We were experts on a project, and our role was to advise people how to best accomplish what they needed through our subject area. He had the hardest time saying, “No, you can’t do that!” and instead would say something like, “Well, sure, you can do that, but the sky will fall if you do.” Except the people we were talking to had no idea what the sky was, or what falling meant, or what the outcome of the sky falling might be, so they literally interpreted it as “Bob said we can do it, there will just be some consequences we don’t quite understand yet, but if they weren’t manageable, he would have told us no, so we can probably figure something out.” Then we’d have to have ANOTHER meeting to pull them back and tell them no.

      3. Close Bracket*

        I might tell her that *she* needs to learn how to understand autism spectrum, but not everybody gets to use that. :)

        1. Jennifer Juniper*

          I can use that. Alison, would direct and literal communication be an accommodation I could request under the ADA?

      4. Jennifer Juniper*

        Ugh. That was passive-aggressive nonsense on her part. Not “Minnesota Nice.” My mom is the definition of Minnesota Nice, and she never pulls that shit with anybody.

      5. Just Tell Me What You Want*

        It’s true. It’s not like a marriage where the husband wants to do something and the wife says, “Go ahead,” and he knows she means, “You will NEVER do that if you know what’s good for you.” At a job, I have sometimes had to nip that stuff in the bud by saying, “What am I not doing that you want me to do? Or doing that you want me to stop doing?”

    2. Jacko*

      Agree! Ugh, I have a client who does this. Hints around at things, “maybe we should possibly think about sometime exploring x, y, or z” and then blows up out of nowhere saying “I asked you for this months ago and you haven’t done anything!” Tell me what you want and when, and I’ll make it happen!

    3. Michaela Westen*

      I’m a literal person too and when I was young I was always getting in trouble because I didn’t understand hints and roundabout communication.
      I’m still not great at it, but I manage. Now I work in a place where clarifying questions are allowed.
      When I was young I thought I was the problem. So good to know I wasn’t! :)

    4. Lusara*

      I had a job when I was in HS and one of the bosses would always tell me to do something by saying “Do you want to…” And being a literal person, I would respond “No, I don’t want to do that.”

      1. Michaela Westen*

        That reminds me I had bosses once or twice who said “I need you to…” and that made it perfectly clear. I wish I could have worked for them more!

  5. anon with no name because I can't think of one to stick with.....*

    This is the kind of thing I’m scared is going to happen one day. That there’s something I’ve been doing that’s wrong or someone doesn’t like and they’ve been “hinting” at it or sugar coating it but I won’t realize it because no one has actually said the words “You need to stop doing x right now” (and they have to say exactly what x is). I am not going to get hints or suggestions. I’m not going to pick up that something is actually serious if they sugar coat it without actually saying that x is a problem.

    1. anon with no name because I can't think of one to stick with.....*

      I’m also contently nervous that when I ask “hey is this bothering you?” about something like noise I’m making in my cubical or food that might smell they’re being polite and saying no of course not but maybe I’m missing some non-verbal cue that maybe they mean the opposite. Human interaction often feels like a minefield of “what do they REALLY mean?!”

      1. Katelyn*

        I’ve started really clarifying that. “Please let me know if there’s a problem.” “I’d rather know right now so that it can be addressed.” Usually for bigger things that cubicle issues, but I am awful at reading any type of non verbal communication.

        1. ChimericalOne*

          Yes, most people will answer “No, I’m fine” if you ask point-blank, “Hey, is this okay?” / “Is this bothering you?” (they’ll minimize their discomfort to avoid “making a complaint” in response to what sounds like a routine-but-maybe-not-sincere question), but if you frame it as a request or something for *your* benefit, you’re more likely to get what you’re looking for. E.g., “Please let me know if this gets too loud!” or “I’m happy to do X if Y bothers you — trust me, I’d rather know!”

          1. anon with no name because I can't think of one to stick with.....*

            I’m going to keep that in mind. That the phrasing is what can trigger the polite “it’s fine” reaction. I do try to say the please let me know part but sometimes I feel like I still might be missing something. Oh well.

  6. Rebecca*

    In my experience, another mistake managers make is calling the entire group together to address an issue, instead of addressing it individually with the one person who isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing! It always goes like this: entire group is called together to go over proper TPS report procedures, because one person isn’t following procedure. Manager doesn’t say, hey Fergus, you need to do X, Y, and Z instead of A and B. Nope. Just a rundown of proper procedure, Fergus doesn’t pay attention, the rest of the staff is miffed because once again, they have to sit through 15 minutes of blathering on about something they know how to do and are already doing. Fergus thinks, that’s not me, and stares off into space. Manager then complains that the TPS reports from Fergus aren’t right, so lather, rinse, repeat. So very frustrating.

    1. Catleesi*

      Yes. This was a huge issue in a former workplace, for both negative and positive feedback. One person would make an error, and suddenly it was an issue with everyone. It would spiral into things like making policies for the entire business.

      I think it can also be an issue with positive feedback. This place was also notorious for group praise when 1 or 2 people would go over and above. It made the people that deserved the praise feel like their individual contribution wasn’t being recognizes, and gave the false impression to the low performers that they were doing a better job than they were.

        1. Jennifer Juniper*

          Barf. Reminds me of third grade where the entire class had to spend recess with our heads down on our desks because one kid decided to act up.

    2. Zip Silver*

      I have two department supervisors (my direct reports) whose first instinct is to do the group retraining thing. Drives me nuts, but I usually manage to get them to reign it in and do direct coaching.

    3. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      This was a HUGE problem at my previous workplaces, but it was the requirement. We couldn’t discipline an individual employee for something unless we’d also announced the behavior to the whole team and started enforcing the rule uniformly, so we could be seen as not picking on or discriminating against another employee.

      In practice it’s sensible. In theory it’s 100% crazy. If I tell Lazypants who is turning up an hour late each day that she has to be on time or she’ll be written up, I also have to put Ms. Reliable on notice for turning up 5 minutes late the one time she arrived to work and found the only available parking space was a half mile away and had to walk.

    4. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I do both. If it’s an individual then yes, direct coaching. But I’ll do the group reminders if I start seeing a pattern, we’re coming into conditions that make the error or issue more likely to happen, or if it’s just been awhile since it’s been mentioned.

      My team knows that I’ll do general reminders on things from time to time just for the sake of doing them and not as way to target an individual.

    5. Anne (with an “e”)*

      This happens ALL the time in school settings. I have sat through so many faculty meetings when the principal “retrained” the staff on various policies. The people who were not following policy never seemed to listen or change their ways. Those of us who were following policy got to hear all about the policy we were already implementing. I grew to resent the fact that my principal apparently never addressed individual behavior.

      1. Hold My Cosmo*

        Saw this in the news today with a Tennessee state rep who is floating the idea of a dress code for parents on school property, because some nutbars are showing up in gang clothes, lingerie, or shirts emblazoned with profanity. The people who do this are going to go full-on BUT MAH RIGHTS and the people who would listen are not the problem.

        1. Jennifer Juniper*

          Would that mean the principal would forbid parents from wearing certain colors on campus because they’re considered gang colors? I’m not trolling. I’m not sure what you mean by “gang clothes.”

      2. New Bee*

        Ha, I was coming down here to comment on my orincipal too! This recently happened with requesting subs–instead of speaking directly to the 2 people who are calling out too last-minute, she passed out the same paper from the beginning of year and taped it in the staff lounge. Problem solved (not).

    6. CatCat*

      Or sending the group email. Ugh!

      I remember I was stressing about some correction/reprimand that had been in a group email and one of my managers then said, “That wasn’t about you. You’re a great performer.”

      And I’m thinking, “If it’s not directed at me then whhhhhhyyyyy send it to me!?” I found it hard to know what I was supposed to be taking to heart and what I could disregard from that manager.

      1. Leela*

        Yes!! I was a one-person department and told to download anything I needed, with approval from manager X. I needed something, got approval from manager X. Later we get this VERY angry group e-mail about people using software without permission and opening up the computer to viruses and such, and the person responsible needs to come forward right now, from manager Y.

        I e-mail manager Y and say “hey I’m really sorry but I downloaded ___ program after running it by manager X, is it causing problems? Should I delete it?”

        And I get back “No it’s a different thing and we know who did it, we’re just trying to get them to come forward.”

        UM WHAT. So ineffective, so frustrating and stressful for everyone else who might have had to get some software/update something. It turns out that one of the staff had used a bunch of our computers for bitcoin mining after hours and that’s what the problem is but if you know who it is why why WHY send such a vague message out to the entire team?

        This team was also notorious for pulling all of my team in for a meeting to chastise us for something and end with “you know who you are.” But the complaints were so vague and hard for us to quantify (some of you are spending way too much time on one thing, think about how you’re using your time, etc) that none of us did know if we were the people or person in question.

    7. Sara without an H*

      +1. The other maddening mistake is to solve a problem created by a single employee by revising the policy manual. Anything to avoid speaking to the problem employee directly.

      And that is why most library policy manuals are the length of the United States Code.

      1. Mockingdragon*

        This exact things was the beginning of the end as my old job got toxic. I expressed that I was having an easier time doing the task correctly in X way, but one coworker in a group of 8 was doing badly with it so the policy had been changed to Y way. No exceptions. “No matter how long you’ve been here,” directed pointedly at me as the most senior person. Pushing back against this is what got me labeled “insubordinate.”

  7. CatCat*

    So important! And not just with underperforming employees, but all employees. I had a former teammate I kept in touch with who had always been a top performer on the team. Excellent work ethic and work product. She was very interested in a promotion, let her managers know about that, and eventually put in for one. She didn’t get it and when one of the managers told her, the manager said, “It’s because you do X so you’re not ready.” My coworker was dumbstruck. She’d never heard there was any sort of issue. The first time she heard it was not when she was working toward a promotion, but when she was denied. X was also fairly vague and even when directly asking about it, she couldn’t get clarity from her manager on how to address it. It really soured her on working for that team.

    So then she put in for a promotion on another team and got it.

  8. AnonResearchManager*

    One of the most difficult things about delivering feedback very directly is when employees react badly to receiving it. I have an employee who has an emotional breakdown whenever given direct feedback on what they need to do differently. It may be a regional/culture thing; but it is exhausting to manage. They will literally react by yelling, crying, giving me the silent treatment, and then not doing any work at all for the rest of the day or more (this is a reaction to my stating that they need to be on time to work in the morning, and let me know if they’ll be more than 15 minutes late – so not the end of the world in any sense).

    Since it seems that sugar coating is a result of most managers wanting to avoid negative employee reactions; I wish there were more information on how to handle the employee reactions to direct feedback as well.

    1. stefanielaine*

      Honestly, receiving feedback this badly (giving your boss the silent treatment???) is a job performance issue and should be treated as such. Receiving feedback is a part of work life and unless you’re prevented from doing so by your organization, you should be dealing with the feedback reaction in the same way you would deal with other failures to meet any other expectation of the job.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh gosh, you need to address that directly and make it clear it’s not acceptable. More here:

      And I swore there was a letter recently about someone who would cry after getting feedback and not do any work the rest of the day but now I can’t find it. But the answer was: that’s not ok and you’ve got to make that clear.

      1. Susan*

        Alison, I’m just super curious. For the letter in #2, the advice about the silent treatment is:
        “Bob, I’ve noticed that when I give you feedback on a project, you get quiet and avoid talking to me for the rest of the day. It makes it difficult for me to give you feedback, which I’m always going to need to do. Is there a different way you’d like me to handle these conversations?”
        Given that it was almost 7 years ago, would your advice today be the same? Apologies if you’ve addressed something similar recently that I may have misse.d

        1. Susan*

          Heh, the “It’s possible that you’ll hear something you didn’t realize — that he doesn’t mind the feedback itself but he thinks your tone is schoolmarmish” reminded me of the lively discussion regarding “Schoolmarmish” tone not too long ago

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          More or less the same. The explanation is in the next two paragraphs in the post: to give him an opening to talk more candidly than if you just told him to stop, and because you might hear something you didn’t realize, like that your tone is harsher than you realized or that you’re giving it to him publicly when you should be doing it privately, or who knows what. The point is to have a conversation. But assuming you don’t hear something that changes the context for you, then you go into explaining that the conversations are part of the job and he needs to handle them professionally. You just don’t want to start off assuming you know the situation right off the bat; you want to create an opening for him to share his perspective as well.

    3. Lance*

      The thing is, then you’re on firm grounds to give feedback about that behavior… up to and including consequences if it doesn’t change (which you would, of course, have to hold yourself to; and don’t let the employee skirt around it, either). You shouldn’t have to be afraid of negative reactions, because they shouldn’t be able to freely get away with them whenever they want.

    4. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      How do you react when she acts this way? It’s unacceptable and you should be explaining this to her. You shouldn’t be afraid of providing feedback because she acts like a toddler when you say anything negative. Yelling, giving you the silent treatment and refusing to work for the rest of the day is so not okay and you should be documenting these incidents and writing her up.

    5. WellRed*

      Holy crap. If you hesitate to manage this behavior, think about it this way: this employee’s coworkers all see this behavior, too and probably resent the employee and frankly, you. Tons if advice on this site for this scenario.

      1. Roy G. Biv*

        + This. At Old Job I viewed this as: Continued employment is the reward for bad behavior. The worst behaved member of the team was never reigned in, nor made to account for some pretty egregious things. And yes, the rest of us noticed.

      2. Tisiphone*

        True. Anything that affects co-workers definitely needs to be addressed. It’s a morale-killer if it isn’t. And if it’s performance issues, you need to lay the paper trail in case you need to let them go.

    6. Annette*

      Sounds like you’re making excuses for her mentally. What culture thinks it’s okay to react that way. Readjust your expectations!

    7. Burned Out Supervisor*

      I’ve had the same experience (although usually not as egregious). Normally it’s just passive-aggressive comments to their co-workers about how “no one can talk to each other” if I give feedback to someone that spends too much of her day chatting with co-workers, etc. The one time this type of passive-aggressive comment was actually directed to me, I challenged it stating, “That doesn’t seem correct to me, can you tell me more about why you feel that way?” The one time I was actually shouted down by an employee, I was really too stunned to address it in the moment. We did talk about it later, but it’s really difficult to give feedback to people sometimes.

    8. Managing an Established Team*

      This something I worry about going into a new job next month. I’ll be managing a team and I’ve been told that one person takes feedback very personally and really takes it to heart. My new manager has been working with them on that and has explained that feedback is necessary, and it’s business, not personal. I’ve had to deal with someone that is always second-guessing themselves, but this is one I haven’t dealt with before.

  9. Czhorat*

    I think that the softer version is fine for the first offense; if I took, for example, a late or long lunch and was told, “I don’t know where you are – see me in my office when you get back,” I’d take that as an implied message that my manager SHOULD have known where I was and would adjust accordingly.

    This only makes sense for a first attempt at adjustment; communication needs to become more direct if the gentle nudge doesn’t give the desired outcome. I don’t find anything wrong with a gentle approach for the first attempted redirect, so long as the offense wasn’t a terrible one (ie, if it’s the first sexist remark then yes, feel free to get straight to the point).

  10. InfoSec SemiPro*

    What I really enjoy about giving this kind of direct feedback is that I can also tell staff who are taking risks in the way I want that they are not endangering their employment. If you’re doing something that endangers your employment you will know, because I will tell you so, using those words.

    If I’m saying, “you might want to try X next time” I mean that, and I’m open to you trying Y instead or even trying W again, if you think it will work. If I’m saying “I need you to do X or it could lead to letting you go.” I mean that too. It means staff who are experimenting can make mistakes that are part of the program without being concerned it will cost them their job.

    1. Czhorat*

      That feels like a big escalation, unless it’s an egregious error. “You can get fired for this” is a huge threat, and would leave most employees shaken. Then if they *don’t* get fired for it you lose credibility. I’d think the first time, “I need you do do X” rather than “you might want to try X” is direct enough. Not every direction needs to be paired with a threat.

      1. Catleesi*

        There are errors in some jobs that will lead to getting fired immediately though – and it seems like here they are saying that is what they would make sure to address immediately. If you work in a job where it is essential that certain tasks are performed correctly, and a certain way – it would be unkind to the employee to indicate anything less.

        1. Czhorat*

          Which is why I said that this is too much unless the error is particularly egregious.

          Most mistakes in most jobs don’t lead immediately to dismissal; even refusing to correct them after the first discussion doesn’t usually go that far. To throw out the specter of dismissal in a first discussion feels – to me – like an overescalation. It also doesn’t leave anywhere to go for the second discussion.

          “If you do it a THIRD time you can get fired. This time I mean it!”

        2. That Girl From Quinn's House*

          Yes, and it also happens if there’s multiple supervisory hands in the kitchen, so to speak. I might intuitively understand that the Llama Lookout, while watching the llama paddock, also has to assist a rider whose saddle is buckled incorrectly and is about to fall off, but all the barn owner sees is a Llama Lookout chatting with a rider instead of watching all the llamas equally.

          If my boss wants to be a jerk, the lookout can be fired before I’m even told of the incident or allowed to explain the llama lookout’s role, and then I’m called on the carpet Monday morning to ask why my staff were allowed to behave so badly in the first place, obviously you must be managing them incorrectly. So I might have to warn my staff, “If someone from another department sees you helping a rider with their saddle, you could be fired for that. Instead, have them dismount from their llama and walk the llama back to the barn so the Barn Attendant can fix their saddle.”

      2. ket*

        I think you’re misreading the parent comment. The parent comment is saying that “you might want to try X” is part of a collaborative decision-making process in which the employee is trusted to say, “No, X isn’t the right thing for the following reasons” or “Sure, I’ll give it a try!”

        Maybe you mean that “I need you to do X” is all the manager needs to say the first time, and “I need you to do X or you’ll get fired” is an escalation for a second instance of the same problem — that could be. Depends on the issue. (If InfoSec SemiPro is really in infosec, I could see some things needing to be done right the first time.)

        1. Czhorat*

          Perhaps I am; I saw “I need you to X or you’ll get fired” and “I think you should consider X” as a false binary. On re-reading, I’m not sure it was meant that way.

          My apologies if I mischaracterized their position.

        2. MoopySwarpet*

          I also read it as 2 different scenarios, not an escalation. Although, I would agree that unless it is that urgent, it probably doesn’t need a threat attached to it.

      3. InfoSec SemiPro*

        Oh no, its for very different things. There’s directions where I really mean “You might want to try…” Where the work and outcomes are actually fine at the current level FOREVER. But that they’re a little shy of excellent and I think we can get there, so if you want to invest energy in that direction, maybe try X.

        There are seperate things where I need the change to be made and it does matter to meet the acceptable standard for performance. That’s when I use the need language and then will tie it to job loss.

        But I have staff in the first position who hear “You could experiment here, find something that works better.” as “RED ALERT! FIRING AHEAD!” and being able to tell them that firing comes with a process that directly outlines specific things they need to start doing/stop doing with clear consequences is very helpful. They’re usually high performing to where they will never hear the harder language, so knowing it exists is helpful for them.

    2. hbc*

      Yep, I’ve had to tell people “When I make a suggestion, that’s what it is. If I *need* you to do something, you’ll know it.”

      I’ll admit, though, that I’ve still managed to fire a couple of people without them having seen it coming. Those were the Death By One Thousand Cuts kinds of employees, where it’s a whole lot of minor issues that, to me at least, are hard to present as fireable offenses. I haven’t found a good way to tell them that they seem to fix whatever my issue of the day is but that I feel like I’m playing wackamole.

      1. TardyTardis*

        I wish one of my former bosses had been like that. She kept trying to get me to guess what was GAAP, instead of just telling me–since I had worked for other supervisors, I was well aware that GAAP can have many faces, but she never seemed to realize that even though I outright told her, ‘please, just tell me the way you want it’. And instead of training me thoroughly on something very important to her, she gave me some vague hints and then took it over rather than waste any further time on me. And since she went through several accountants till she finally did find someone who could read her mind, I don’t think it was just me.

  11. Clay on my apron*

    This is perfectly timed for me. I’ve just moved into a team lead role where I am no longer delivering work, but accountable for other people delivering their work (these people are embedded in 3 different teams). I am also supposed to coach and guide them to help them develop their skills and improve the quality of their work.

    The teams consist of a mix of permanent staff and long term consultants/contractors, of which I am one. So I have no actual authority over these team members.

    The work needs to follow process, be of an acceptable standard, and be completed on time.

    I’m finding it quite difficult to give the necessary feedback to one specific team member who seems to make silly mistakes and be incredibly slow with small changes. It’s a bit difficult to say for definite because I am so new to the team, that I may not have visibility of all the work they are doing.

    Any suggestions for how to identify whether in fact this person is struggling to deliver, and if so how to address this with them?

    1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      “I’m finding it quite difficult to give the necessary feedback to one specific team member who seems to make silly mistakes and be incredibly slow with small changes. It’s a bit difficult to say for definite because I am so new to the team, that I may not have visibility of all the work they are doing.”

      This is when you need to ask questions.

      “Bob, I’ve noticed that you haven’t started doing Y even though we introduced it 2 weeks ago. What’s going on?”

      Usually based on the answer you can tell if it’s a legit reason or BS. If it’s legit then you can help them navigate the road blocks, either by giving them suggestions or by removing them yourself. If it’s BS, then you move into the direct stage. See below.

      Other times you need to just put it out there.

      “Bob, I’ve noticed you haven’t started doing Y even though we introduced it 2 weeks ago. This needs to begin now. “

    2. M from NY*

      Set up one on one to review the timeline. The problem may be that they are assigning different priority value to tasks. I’d say set these up with everyone not just the person you’ve identified as an issue for reason listed below.

      For your meeting: (You) This is my understanding of tasks needed from you by this date in order for rest of team to complete their tasks. Is there something I’m missing?

      Whatever the answer is you have opening to make goal clear – XX task has to be completed by date (on regular/weekly basis). Now employee may counter they’ve been doing FF task first because of another managers request. Then its up to you to figure out if there is an actual conflict or misunderstanding from employee. This is opportunity to get input from those responsible if there is an alternate timeline to get everything done that isn’t immediately clear to you as the manager so approach the meeting with willingness to make adjustments if appropriate.

    3. Qwerty*

      Do you have access to previous performance reviews or the previous manager? That would give you background on if this is something that’s been ongoing, unaddressed, or completely new. Not sure how long “just moved” means, but I’m assuming you’ve been there long to observe that this isn’t just someone have a bad week or two.

      The lack of authority could prove to be a problem, since I could easily see a scenario where multiple people are giving this employee tasks to do. An open ended conversation is probably the best way of getting more details filled in.

      1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        But you would also need to bear in mind that you and Previous Manager are 2 different people. If Previous Manager did a crappy job of evaluating/giving feedback, continuing down that path won’t earn you your staff’s respect and trust. There are lots of awful managers out there who contradict themselves, are not nearly as clear as they’d love to think they are, who play employees against each other, or are so shaky and insecure they bolster themselves by scaring employees with the threat that the ax is about to fall at any moment.

    4. nonymous*

      > It’s a bit difficult to say for definite because I am so new to the team, that I may not have visibility of all the work they are doing.

      In addition to the excellent scripts being offered, on your end work on gathering evidence to resolve this. It may be as simple as having a conversation with the team member regarding what her workload looks like. This convo can be as formal or casual as is appropriate for your working relationship.

  12. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    I’ve experienced this on both sides.

    When I first managed people, I was terrrrrrible at this. I had an underperforming employee that frustrated me to no end — I just could not crack how to get her on track. But of course I hadn’t done the obvious: tell her what wasn’t working, what she needed to be doing instead, and what the consequences would be if she didn’t.

    On the flip side, I was blindsided by a bad performance review in my last job. I’d had no idea that my manager thought that I was underperforming. The only critical feedback I’d gotten was on one exploratory project that we decided jointing wasn’t going anywhere. For her, that was an example of my failure in leadership. I’d experienced it as something we tried, that didn’t work, and do we changed trajectories. She had also apparently been underwhelmed by my leadership of a program that I’d taken on while its manager was on maternity leave — but I’d never heard a peep from her about it.

    1. ssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

      “tell her what wasn’t working, what she needed to be doing instead, and what the consequences would be if she didn’t.”

      I overheard my boss say (to other support staff) “This isn’t working” and while I felt bad for the employee, it was also so very true and I was happy to hear it said. Because the situation wasn’t working.

      Sadly, due to being a union shop, “the consequences” rarely happens because it’s too much work.

  13. Seven If You Count Bad John*

    I’ve had managers who don’t give feedback at all. They just went behind me every day and did my work over. For months. And never realized that the reason I wasn’t getting the “hint” was that I had no idea this task was something I was supposed to be taking care of, because they’d never mentioned it.

    1. Lance*

      Would you get the impression that they’re scared of any sort of confrontation? Because that sounds like the sort of thing I would do on some team projects back in school (I know now it’s bad, of course) because I didn’t want to deal with complaints, or arguments, or really anything that wasn’t merely ‘getting the work done’.

      1. Seven If You Count Bad John*

        The conversation finally went something like,
        Other Boss: “you know, it’s not his job to do that, you’re supposed to be doing it”
        Me: “Well why on earth hasn’t he said anything?”
        Other Boss: “He will never say anything because he is Too Nice”.
        Me: “But if he secretly goes behind me and does it for me how does he ever expect me to know I’m supposed to be doing it? I didn’t even know this task existed.”
        OB: “Well who did you think was taking care of it all this time?”
        ME :”I didn’t know there was anything to take care of, because no one has said anything.”
        OB: “Other-Other Boss remembers telling you this on your first day.”

        By this time I had been at the job for FOUR MONTHS.

        “Too Nice” my ass.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          Oh I have had this. A detail eluded me during a data-dump, and the instruction wasn’t repeated until it was an insurmountable problem.
          Give the instruction.
          If it’s not being followed, SAY “I need you to walk me through your procedures. You’re missing something, and I want to be sure that isn’t the only step that got overlooked in training.”
          Then give time to relearn, with immediate feedback & rework each time the step is missed.
          If too many repeats over a couple of weeks, then it’s not a manager/trainer problem anymore.

          Tl;dr Repeating instructions is often necessary when initial level of info is overwhelming.

    2. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I just heard about a manager in my company that led a team for 2 years and never spoke to the employees of that team! Now there’s some non-existent feedback. Literally 3/4’s of the team had never spoken to their manager during the time they reported to him.

      I can’t even fathom that, as an employee or a manager. How he still has a job I’m not exactly sure.

      1. Qwerty*

        Sadly, I can see this. I had a manager who didn’t even know when I got transferred off his team until I brought it up. It was probably my second conversation with that manager in the couple months that I worked for him. Another guy had no idea that an intern had been assigned to his team until I walked over to ask where the intern was sitting. So many managers have claimed that “no news is good news” when asked about giving feedback.

      2. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

        This doesn’t surprise me. I had a manager who went on vacation for a month and no one on her team noticed any difference other than no weekly one-on-ones (which got canceled half the time anyway). I honestly have no idea what that manager did all day long.

      3. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        My boss barely speaks to me. However, they love to chew me out. Even when they have a legitimate concern, there are professional ways to address it, and personal invective, venom, and bawling somebody out without hearing them out ain’t it. I gave up trying to please this person ages ago because I realized that taking me over the coals makes them feel important.

  14. Liberry Pie*

    If I got that email that said “Not sure where you disappeared to” I would assume it was ok to disappear sometimes. I’m not one of those people who thinks if nobody has told me not to do it then it’s ok. But if someone has specifically mentioned noticing a behavior and doesn’t indicate having an issue with it, that would make me more comfortable doing it!

    1. JayorNay*

      Yes, and I feel you’re raising another issue: Sugarcoating feedback actually makes it seem *worse* than it actually is. Saying, “Hey, I need you to let me know when you’re unreachable during the day” means you can say “Sure, sorry about that, will do in the future”. Matter resolved, providing you do work on changing that.
      We’re all human and it’s completely normal to make mistakes. Not saying so makes that simple fact seem so much worse than it actually is.

  15. Alex*

    I had this experience with a male supervisor at an internship in a prison during grad school. He took me aside one day early on to tell me that the sleek black office slacks I was wearing were ‘not quite’ what they preferred at this site and that I shouldn’t wear them again. I didn’t and switched to jeans as I saw most others wearing.
    But I was horrified at the end of 4 months during my exit interview to find he meant that the style and fit of the pants were the problem and every pair of pants I’d worn for the entire internship were frowned upon. He was surprised to find I had missed the point of what he hadn’t said. We both ended up embarrassed and apologizing.

    1. LaDeeDa*

      Ok- I have to ask,… what kind of jeans were you wearing and what was the “preferred” style of jean?

      1. ChimericalOne*

        Alex says style and “fit,” so I’m guessing the pants were slim-fit/form-fitting and the supervisor was trying to say, go for a more straight-line/boxy cut?

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        I was thinking rise (waistline), due to a particular female factory worker whose low-riders used to show underwear (at least) when she got down to refill her machine.
        (I was carpooling with the HR rep who had to figure out how to redefine the dress code to cover that one generically…I think it was something like “completely covers all undergarments during all normal work responsibilities.)

        1. TardyTardis*

          This reminds me of the time that all personnel at our base (USAF) were told to wear proper underwear at all times despite desperately hot weather–apparently one young lady had forgone her bra and someone had walked off the wing of an aircraft being maintained Because Distracted.

    2. I'm A Little Teapot*

      You had no need to apologize – you’d done your best to comply, and he didn’t provide clear feedback. Granted, that conversation would have included an “I’m sorry”, but still, he was at fault, not you.

    3. Close Bracket*

      Wait–your jeans weren’t ok even though other people wore jeans? Was this like a “skinny jeans” vs 501 kind of thing?

  16. gbca*

    What would the direct feedback be for the person who was disappearing for 10-30 minutes? I would find this annoying as well, but generally speaking I’m big on autonomy and not being tracked all the time if you’re getting your work done. I’m trying to think how I would explain the nuance to this junior employee without making him think he couldn’t take a bathroom break without his absence being noted.

    1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I’m with you… and this one is a little hard, because you don’t want to come off as the bathroom monitor. I’d go with something like this. IIRC the guy was newer to the team.

      Absent Arnie, I’ve noticed the past few times that I’ve gone to find you to discuss work, you’ve not been at your desk and can be gone for up to 30 minutes at a time. (or whatever I’d observed) I need you to spend less time away from your work. You are professional who can manage your time, and I’m not saying that you can’t get up and go to the bathroom/get a cup of coffee/chat about the game last night in the break room for a few minutes. I am saying you’ve crossed into excessive territory and it’s cutting into the time that you should be learning and training. You need to be more aware of the time that you spend away from your desk, and how that could be affecting the people who need you for work activities.

  17. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

    This comment may sound bad, and I swear I don’t equate employees to children! The job that most prepared me for management and giving feedback was working with school aged kids.

    You learned real quick that subtle hints and softening language was not going to get a group of kids to all follow directions and/or stop the undesired behavior. I learned how to be clear in what I needed done and when. I also learned very quickly how to get to the bottom of situation with questions and observations.

    It’s also where I learned that direct feedback is not a bad thing and most thrive when they know what the expectations are.

    Ironically my boss in that job also taught me a really good lesson. She explained when I first started that people sometimes thought she went overboard with directions and feedback to staff. She explained that she would rather over explain because she didn’t want to assume that everyone had the same understanding and frame of reference as her. She would rather over communicate expectations than under communicate them. (I was really glad she gave me this explanation because I really did think she went overboard). I then observed how some of the staff needed that extra information.

    Giving effective feedback is hard… but it’s part of the job. Every manager takes some time to get it right when they first start and can get thrown for a loop every now and again even as a veteran.

    1. Indie*

      At my school we joke that each and every one of us acts just like the kids the minute we have a staff training day. We can hold out the illusion of adulthood for half a day, but after lunch? People sit with their friends, make a beeline for the back of the room, zone out after 20 minutes of having to passively listen and unless the trainer has spelled out immediate relevancy, the air is thick with “When am I actually going to need this training in real life, huh?”
      Little people have the same style of brains as bigger people, and respond in really similar ways to the same treatment and stimulus.

    2. PlainJane*

      “Most thrive when they know what the expectations are” – THIS. If you have expectations around certain tasks/behaviors, make those clear to employees up front rather than waiting for them to do something wrong. And of course give clear feedback after the fact when needed. The Gallup Employee Engagement Survey features a pyramid, like a Maslow’s Hierarchy for the workplace, and, “I know what is expected of me at work,” is the bottom row of the pyramid, the foundation on which employee engagement rests. It’s also the foundation of employee performance. How can someone be successful when they don’t know what’s expected of them.

    3. New Bee*

      We’ve had conversations among our leadership team about adults being allowed to slide on things we’d never expect “good” teachers to let kids get away with, which led to good conversations about power dynamics and identity markers. I think it helped unpack a layer of additional frustration experienced by us staff members of color (for context: urban school, all black and brown kids, largely white and female teaching staff).

    4. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I should have added that I’m not a teacher and haven’t been since that job in HS and college. The principles I learned there have translated very well though into my business career.

  18. Ada*

    So from the employee side of things, how can you get your managers to give clearer feedback? At my 2018 midyear review I was told I have issues with my tone being cold/harsh in emails. This was news to me (never brought up before), but they cited an example from the previous year (2017), so okay. After that, I looked up a book on writing in business and really studied the scripts on this blog and made a real effort to be conscious of how I phrased every email. Fast forward to my end of year review, and I get the same feedback, plus being new feedback of being “pervasively negative” (e.g. – pointing out issues without talking about what CAN be done), and quite frankly, I have no idea what they’re talking about (even after reviewing emails from the last two months). I asked for specific examples and the only one they could come up with on the spot was the same example from 2017 and “I thought I saw one recently”. What am I supposed to do with that? How do I fix a problem they won’t tell me about in the moment or give me specific examples of later?

    1. Myrin*

      This honestly sounds like either your manager has a problem with you(r work) in general or she has some kind of pet peeve around business correspondence and you keep triggering it with your writing style (which often comes through even when following specific rules about writing). Does that sound possible?

      1. Ada*

        Maybe this is a blind spot for me, but no, not really. I often hear they want me to be the one to do or check something because they want it “done right” (their words), and the vast majority of the writing I do is something like “Hi, please find attached. Let me know if you have any questions or need anything else!” Or “Hi, Could you please confirm X? We need to know by Y to be able to Z” or “We’ll look into this request and get back to you as soon as possible” (typically followed by either fulfilling said request our my manager jumping in the thread to give costs).

        1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

          I think sometimes things get stuck in people’s heads and it’s hard to get them to let go of it. (either that or 2017 was a bad email year :) ) I like the suggestion about asking for them to point it out if/when they see it again as it happens.

          The other thing that could be going on… She’s one of those managers that feels like she needs to add something for you to work on in your performance reviews. She doesn’t have anything else so she’s going back to the dreaded email of 2017. How was you performance review otherwise?

          1. Ada*

            Uh, confusing, actually. They want me to push back more on the work they are assigning me to get more experience with the work they’re not assigning me. They also want me to be more vocal in meetings with tptb so I can better position myself for a raise/promotion in the future. Problem is, there was only one such meeting in 2018.

            1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

              Well that sounds like a shit show…

              Sorry, I’m not sure where to even begin with that :( So I’ll offer good luck instead.

              1. Ada*

                Thanks! :) I’m actually already working on applying to another job that looks much better than where I am now. I’ll be an out-of-state candidate, though, so I’ll really need that luck!

            2. Ada*

              And to be clear, they seemed happy with how I was doing on the work they assigned me. I mostly lost points for not having experience with work that wasn’t assigned to me. I guess it’s my responsibility to push for that exposure/experience. I don’t know how to do that at my current job, as we’ve been badly understaffed the last two years, so there’s no one to delegate the work I’m doing. (Right now my plan is to get that exposure/experience at a new job, hopefully in the next year.)

    2. CatCat*

      “How do I fix a problem they won’t tell me about in the moment or give me specific examples of later?”

      You can’t. I’ve seen this type of managerial behavior as a prelude to firing. Tell employee at review that X is a problem, be really unclear on X, bring up X again and continue to be unclear about it, fire employee and note X as one of the reasons.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        This is rarely an intentional plan. It’s just that it works out that way — when a manager won’t/can’t be clear, it can end in the person getting fired because the issue never gets fixed. But that doesn’t mean that was the intent all along.

        1. CatCat*

          From an employee perspective, if the outcome is the same, who cares if a managerial pattern like this originates in intent vs incompetence. If you’re being told a problem and being given no specifics on the problem or how to fix it (even when you ask!), it’s time to get a job search going.

          It’s irrelevant whether your boss is intentionally or negligently setting you up for failure if the outcome is failure either way.

          1. ChimericalOne*

            Intent is relevant because it affects your range of possible responses. If it’s just a matter of incompetently-given feedback, you may be able to (for example) get the necessary feedback from someone else you work with, or a third party outside of work. If it’s a deliberate set-up, there’s no point in going alternate routes to pinpoint the problem because the problem is illusory; it’s been ginned up to set you up for a firing.

            1. Fergus*

              I went to a new job in ’16. From almost day one he was very dismissive. Then he went from dismissive to insulting. I lasted a month. I didn’t know why he hired me. I definitely think it was deliberate. He was an ass.

        2. Close Bracket*

          Rarely, but not never. It’s fair to bring it up as a possibility. If, like Ada, you are not able to get better feedback, you should consider that maybe they are trying to manage you out.

          1. Ada*

            IF the feedback is not legitimate (reserving judgement on that for now), I actually think it would be more likely they either feel obligated to give me ANY feedback they can, no matter how minute, or they’re trying to keep me from fighting too hard on the salary issue. I doubt they’re trying to get rid of me at this point – not only do they appear to be very happy with the quality of my work (as I’m pretty much the go-to quality control person for my team), but they’re getting me for a steal at about 2/3 the salary of another employee in my position. (And believe me, with our workload, they will NEED to get another employee if I leave.)

      1. Ada*

        Not new at all. I’ve been working with them for 8 years now, but it’s only become an issue this past year, though I don’t think my writing style in emails has really changed much. I HAVE been more vocal about my desire for equal pay though (according to Glassdoor, other employees with my title at my company make about $20k more than me – we were brought in under a merger a few years back and my pay was never brought up to match the other employees. So that could be related.

          1. Ada*

            I have been trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. Besides, anything I can improve on now can only benefit me in my next job. Let it never be said I didn’t try, at least.

            1. Close Bracket*

              Yep. Also, once you are a “problem” in some people’s minds, they see you that way forever, and nothing you do can get you back into their good graces. I don’t know whether your manager is like this, but it’s a dynamic to keep in mind.

        1. Marthooh*

          Well, if you’re being paid less than others, you must be doing something wrong. This is the only thing your boss can think of. So this must be why you deserve to be paid less. QED.

          1. Ada*

            Thinking about it, I actually do believe my managers are in a tough spot. Not only is everyone in my office in the same boat, but they’ve been trying for two years to get approval to hire another person because we’re all overworked, so I can see where they would need an excuse to justify why my salary should get a lower priority. After all, why fix it if I’ve stayed this long with this salary?

            What they don’t know is that my barriers to leaving have recently been lifted. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to make myself as strong an employee as possible (if only for my own sake) by systematically striking down every issue they’ve come to me with (despite their consistent lack of clear, actionable feedback). This is the only one I not only haven’t been able headway with, but have even slid backward on despite my best efforts, and I’m trying to figure out if it’s a genuine blind spot or if it’s really just an excuse at this point. I feel like it could go either way, as I have been feeling the financial burden of not bringing in market value for my salary a lot more lately, and can’t discount that it’s possible that’s coming across somehow without me seeing it.

      1. Ada*

        I’ll give this a shot, though I thought I made a similar request at the midyear review and got nothing before being blindsided at the EOY review with the same feedback. Should I also preemptively check in throughout the year? I get the feeling my managers forget about giving me feedback until it’s review time, so maybe this is something I need to periodically check in on myself (maybe once every month or two)?

        1. hbc*

          Definitely bring it up in regular meetings, and follow up with an email summarizing your discussion and their lack of issues. I would suggest at least monthly, now that it’s apparently a two year long issue. Not that it will prevent them from including it in a third review, but at least they’ll make their ridiculousness clear in that case.

          BTW, I feel your pain. My managers (from a supposedly direct culture) were trying to rework my job and kept “suggesting” a focus on change control. I finally told them that it seemed like there was nothing for me to do with change control and asked them what they had in mind. They had an example of how change control was not handled right. From 5 years ago. Under another person’s watch. The source of which was outside our department. I was pretty much done by then, so I told them that I’d look into it if they had an example less than a half decade old.

        2. Close Bracket*

          I made a similar request at the midyear review and got nothing before being blindsided at the EOY review with the same feedback

          This has happened to me. Try to get regular meetings with your manager, if you don’t already have them. Once a month or on an ad hoc basis is fine. Re-iterate this request, and ask whether anything has come up recently. If you still can’t get anything concrete out of her, assume bad intentions.

        3. Kiwi*

          Ugh, that lack of real feedback sucks. I can think of two things you can do.

          One is to make sure you say “Hi Name” instead of just “Hi”, and start or end each email with something short and personal, even if it’s just “Have a great day”. Just doing those will up the friendliness level of your emails to a surprising degree. I’ve taken to doing this deliberately and been surprised how well it’s worked.

          Another possibility is to send your boss a few emails for review before you send them, preferably higher-stakes emails of the kind you think could lead to people complaining if your tone was off. Her review comments should let you know what she means by your tone being cold/harsh. Or she should see that actually there isn’t a problem (or isn’t any more).

          Good luck!

          1. Ada*

            I appreciate the suggestions, but I actually do both of these things already. :-P I omitted the first from my examples for brevity, and as for the second, I’ve made it a point to do this and rarely get changes back. And the changes I do get back seem to be more about clarity on a tricky topic as opposed to tone. That’s part of what makes this so crazy-making.

            1. Kiwi*

              Yeah, that’s crazy-making. Sorry you’re having to deal with this! Have you got a co-worker you’d trust to check some of your emails and see if there’s a problem? If not, ignoring it and job-hunting sounds totally reasonable to me.

            2. Jasnah*

              I would say, “I’m having a hard time understanding what changes to make, could you please bring this up in the moment or shortly thereafter so I can have a concrete example to start from? I want to make sure I fix this.”

              And then disregard until someone tells you otherwise.

    3. Kelly L.*

      Ugh. I had a job once where they literally carried forward a complaint they’d had, year after year, on every review; the thing happened in like 2008 but they were still bringing it up in 2011 even though it hadn’t happened since. Sometimes your boss is just a PITA.

    4. OH so anonymous*

      In a similar boat, Ada! Not with emails or being negative, but with my actual work. I can not for anything get them to tell me what they want me to change, but they *were* clear that my job is on the line if I don’t do better.

    5. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I wonder if they’re nitpicking because they feel like they need to have something negative in your review and this is the only thing they could think of? I had a manager at my last job (she was the worst) who in my first review, put that I missed deadlines. When I questioned her, she gave me one example. She had asked me to do something, and the directions were unclear so I went to Team Lead who never got back to me. And then I forgot about it. Yes I missed a deadline on ONE thing, and I missed following up with Team Lead, but considering I wasn’t in the habit of missing deadlines, it was not something that should have been put on my review. Looking back I wished I had pushed back harder, but I was caught off guard and often think about how to handle a situation after it happens.

      Maybe ask what steps you can follow to fix what they perceive to be a problem. Ask them to be direct and don’t let it go until they give you an actual answer.

    6. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      A big red flag for me is that they keep dredging up the same incident. Sounds like they’re fishing for gripes, and/or that even when you’ve gone over something and supposedly cleared it up, they keep bringing it back to bite you.

  19. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

    At my last job interview, one of the questions was what management style I preferred working with. One of the first things I said was that I preferred clear, straightforward direction with as little sugarcoating or dancing around as possible. I am a very direct person myself and almost impossible to offend when it comes to feedback, so any attempt by a manager or supervisor to hold my had or baby me drives me insane.

    1. [No user name today]*

      Did you end up getting the job? I am just like you and have been stuck with the “dance around” managers who think directness is considered “harsh.”

      However, if your potential job has a manager like my old one, you may have dodged a bullet there.

  20. Bookworm*

    Agree. Years ago I had an internship where literally the only feedback I received was that my work was fine. Nothing else. No constructive criticism, no additional training if there was something amiss, etc. Fast forward 6 months and I walk into a meeting expecting to be offered a full-time position only to find out that they team thought I was too slow and too sloppy with my work.

    I pointed out I had asked for feedback and no one had ever given it me, not to mention the training had been very haphazard. In retrospect what they wanted was a temp for the moment, but it really stung because they hired someone else full time and he also had no experience when he started. They acknowledged they were not good at giving feedback but that was it, thanks for my work.

    Managers: don’t do this.

    1. [No user name today]*

      You wouldn’t have wanted to work with people who can’t give feedback directly, even when you asked for it. Be glad they didn’t give you an offer.

  21. pentamom*

    So what you’re really saying is, “If you could just go ahead and….that would be great” is not an effective management style?

    {notes down furiously for future reference}

  22. The elephant in the room*

    Oh man, it drives me nuts when managers aren’t direct. I once had a manager who didn’t seem to realize I could hear him when he was in his office. One day I overheard him complain about the fact that I was letting all calls go through without screening them (in my defense, I was never trained on HOW to answer calls. It was my first job out of college and they literally just plopped me down, showed me how to transfer, and that was it). Later that day, he walked by my desk and I asked him point blank if he thought I needed to improve anything about my job performance. He smiled, said, “Oh, no, you’re doing fine!” And walked away.

    Out of spite, I continued to pretend I never overheard him. (I quit that job shortly after…right before the company went under.)

  23. Jennifer Juniper*

    Thank you, Alison! When I sense someone is sugarcoating something, my first reaction is to panic. In my experience, the sugarcoater is furious with me, but is not telling me what I did wrong.

    1. Tinker*

      I was just about to comment the same thing — it’s not even actually merciful on an emotional level to be so indirect, because then you end up in situations like that or the one of now having to angst over every seemingly general or casual observation of a manager as to whether it’s actually important feedback directed at you.

      One of my managers, as far as I can guess, is extremely conflict-averse and seems to default to this sort of pseudo-Socratic dialogue thing where if they think that the source of the problem is you failing to wax the llama’s mustache when shaving it, they will pull you off into into a private meeting and start asking you general questions about the llama-shaving process and to recount step-by-step how you shaved a particular llama that came in a couple weeks ago.

      It seems like the idea there is that, in the process of wandering through the entire llama-shaving process with the person who writes one’s performance reviews frowning at you, that you’ll eventually figure out “Oh! I should be waxing the mustache, and in fact I did not wax the mustache of two-weeks-ago llama” and that then the manager will not have to go through the pain of actually mentioning the problem first.

      What actually ends up happening is an exceedingly awkward and also terrifying conversation of playing “guess what the problem is” and mostly only ever partially winning; there’s now something of a pattern of my going into meetings with this manager thinking “well, after all, I am a llama-shaving professional with a lot of llama-shaving experience and a lot of thoughts on the practice of llama-shaving; if I organize the llama shaving tools and write up a llama checklist, I bet it’ll solve a bunch of problems that we’ve been having” and coming out of it thinking “I just spent half an hour explaining how I plug the llama trimmer into the wall, and I think that might have had to do with the issue we had last week that was actually about a space heater; maybe my plan to stay on this team wasn’t a good one and the thing I need to be writing up is my resume”.

  24. Nervous Accountant*

    I used to think my manager was sugarcoating feedback until I started working more closely with him. And I realize now that when he provides feedback, it’s actually really direct. It felt so “sugary” to me b/c he has a very calm and non-threatening tone and in fact the things he says, I see that in a lot of scripts here. I think it’s also b/c I just had a very different idea of what “direct” is.

    1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      Yes. “Brutal” and “honest” are not mutually inclusive and it bothers me that so many talk about “brutally honest” as a virtue. You don’t have to be harsh to be honest or straightforward.

      1. Nervous Accountant*

        A lot of people I’ve noticed tend to say “brutal & honest” as code for being rude/mean/telling it like it is.

        He’s the first real life example I’ve seen of being direct but in a nice way.

        I also wonder if just tone/voice has something to do wiht it. Some people (male or female) just have naturally “nicer” voices …. me, I have the voice equivalent of RBF

        1. The Other Dawn*

          A friend of a friend says she’s a “realist,” which is code for “brutal & honest, rude/mean/telling it like it is.”

  25. Checkert*

    This isn’t just applicable to vertical business relationships. At my old job I cant’ even tell you how many times I spoke to a member from my department on their dissatisfaction of another departments’ performance/products, but NOT ONE PERSON had ever actually approached them and spoke to them about it. I went to the other department and asked three total questions, and mentioned that if they’re department did X then my department could do Y and this would all be solved with little added effort from either. Five minutes and some open and honest communication was all it took to solve an issue they had been having for years before I got there.

    1. hbc*

      I have been on a tear lately advocating for non-rhetorically asking questions in the second person that are often asked rhetorically in the third. “Why do they wire it that way?!” becomes “Why do you wire it that way?” It’s amazing how much more you can get done with a fraction of the emotions.

  26. Forrest*

    Alison usually talks about environments where “… or I will have to let you go” is a meaningful threat, which is very much NOT my context. For those of you in jurisdictions, sectors or organisations where there’s a lot of job security, how have you handled these conversations?

    (I am assuming most people don’t want to take the piss and will respond to feedback, but in situations where they don’t immediately react for whatever reason, what’s been your next step?

  27. AMT*

    I generally hate, hate, hate business books, but I’ve been reading a good book on this subject: “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.” It was recommended to me because I’m in the process of applying for a competitive federal job that requires the kinds of communication skills found in the book (and the ability to articulate why these skills are important). It’s helped me clarify the struggles I’ve been having between being too indirect and sounding too blunt.

  28. ab275*

    I totally agree with this! As an employee, I find it extremely frustrating when I’m unknowingly doing something wrong and my boss avoids correcting me directly, since that usually leads to a bunch of other (avoidable) problems. One of my coworkers was unknowingly making mistakes and not being corrected directly, and when other coworkers noticed, it ended up being very embarrassing for him (realizing that his coworkers had been watching him naively mess up all along).
    I know not everyone feels this way, but I always prefer to be given direct feedback so I can fix any issue and move forward.

    1. Delta Delta*

      Right? And to give meaningful feedback when it’s fresh. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it creates an environment where employees feel valued for their work.

  29. Delta Delta*

    I worked for someone for many years who gave me ZERO feedback. I assumed things were fine until I got passed over for a promotion I didn’t know even existed. When I spoke to my manager he basically said I didn’t do X Y and Z which I should have done to be considered. I told him if he was unhappy with my performance I would have appreciated a discussion and feedback, rather than to find out I was a major disappointment. His response was that he was the boss; his job as do run the business, not to manage.

  30. nacho*

    I had a manager who, every one on one we had, would tell me she was getting feedback about me, but wouldn’t bother going into it because people just didn’t understand me or my direct nature. No need for me to make any changes, I was doing just fine. Then I swapped shifts and got a different manager, who told me in no uncertain terms that he was alarmed at all the feedback he was getting about me, and that it was bad enough that I might be fired if it continued.

  31. Former Employee*

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of the comments and did not see that anyone brought up the possibility that this employee has a medical problem. The fact that he isn’t just away from his desk chatting with co-workers, but that he actually disappears, makes me wonder if he has Crohn’s or some other medical condition that necessitates his being gone for 10 to 30 minutes at a time.

    While hinting is not normally an effective way to manage, you wouldn’t want to put yourself in the position of telling someone they can’t be gone for that long at a stretch only to find out that they are protected under the ADA and, yes, they most certainly can be away from their desk for any amount of time they require due to their medical condition.

    Given that the employee has only been there a short time, it is possible that this manager has not been informed of the employee’s medical condition and it would be unfortunate if they reprimanded an employee for something of this nature at the beginning of the working relationship.

    1. LJay*

      You can’t just avoid giving any feedback ever because someone might have a medical problem or other issue.

      In the situation described, all that happens is that the employee goes, “Actually I have medical needs which mean that I need to be away from my desk periodically at irregular intervals on short notice.”

      And then the manager goes, “Oh, okay, I didn’t realize. Carry on.” Or, “Before you leave your desk, would it be possible to send your status in Lynx to ‘away’?” Or, “Actually, for this job, being away from your desk for 30 minutes at a time is a problem. However, since this sounds like a medical need we can go to HR to start the process of finding a reasonable accommodation.”

      None of these are bad outcomes. And no conversation about expectations should be avoided because of the chance that this conversation might need to occur.

  32. A. Schuyler*

    My previous manager and I used a Must/Should/Could rhythm for feedback, which was more because of my catastrophising than her sugarcoating but works for all sorts of calibration issues. We worked in an environment with a lot of grey areas, so Must meant “that was wrong and needs fixing”, Should meant “do it differently next time” and Could meant “let’s see if this is a better way”. In a different context, you might say “You must let me know if you won’t be in for the day” or “You should be here around 9am” or “You could ask Jane for her thoughts”.

  33. Doctor Schmoctor*

    One time I walked past the HR manager’s office, and she called me into the office. She told me she has been hearing complaints from my manager about my productivity. When I asked her what exactly the problem was, she said “I don’t know.” OK then. What am I supposed to do with that?

    I have never had a boss who gave meaningful feedback.

  34. n*

    Another unfortunate thing about indirect, hinty feedback… it can make conscientious employees drive themselves mad looking for meaning in offhand comments. I’m from the Midwest, so I’m very attuned to the culture of being indirect and have gotten used to that communication style, especially managers. So I often find myself overanalyzing things managers tell me, so that I’m sure not to be missing any hints about my work. This has often caused me to put in more effort into my projects than was necessary, as in, I turn in a deliverable and the response is, “Oh wow, this is way more than I was expecting.”

  35. Statler von Waldorf*

    There’s no one answer to this, as it depends on the authority that you DO have. If you have zero authority, then all you can do is update your resume and go somewhere else that doesn’t expect you to nail two boards together with your forehead instead of giving you a hammer.

    For my current gig, I can’t unilaterally fire someone, and I know for a fact that the owner isn’t going to give me permission to fire his family members. However, I do have complete and absolute authority to assign job duties. So when Mr. “You can’t touch me, I’m family ” gives me grief, he spends the next week in subzero temperatures pressure washing frozen **** from the inside of septic tanks. Normally I rotate that job, because it is actually even less pleasant than it sounds, but if someone wants to see what happens when push comes to shove, I’ve found a solid week cleaning septic tanks does get results.

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