my boss gave me critical feedback without any specifics

A reader writes:

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

Her willingness to give me someone else’s feedback without any specifics really bothered me. I remembered having a conversation with a peer in another department about her boss doing the exact same thing. I’ve also had past managers use this on me in the past. I seem to fall for it every time, it puts me on the defensive, makes me question my relationships with my peers and is distracting from the topic at hand.

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

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 204 comments… read them below }

    1. EinJungerLudendorff*

      “CEO wants to forward the cause of corporate personhood by promoting hardware stores into management positions”

    2. Cat Meowmy Admin*

      I noticed that too! It’s like a look into my work-life right now – perfect timing. At least we’re not alone…

  1. What She Said*

    My boss does this and it’s annoying. I let it go. You can’t fix something if you don’t know the issue. If there was something they wanted me to change and/or fix they will need to get specific.

    My favorite convo with her:
    Her: We have a customer service problem. How do we fix it?
    Me: Well, what is the problem?
    Her: A customer service problem.
    Me: Is it about the phones, about in person clients, across departments?
    Her: Yes
    Me: Well, I’m gonna need some time to think about solutions and I’ll get back to you. (rolling my eyes in my mind)
    I still don’t know what the issue is but apparently it still hasn’t been fixed.

    1. Buttons*

      My manager does something similar with requests from various business units. They tell her “we need training on X”
      She calls me and tells me to have my team do it.
      Me: “who is the audience?”
      Her: “I don’t know”
      Me: “what problem is it to address?”
      Her: “I don’t know.”
      Me: “what is the desired outcome?”
      Her: “I don’t know.”

      And then I never hear of it again.

      1. Artemesia*

        I got that a lot doing training consulting gigs. ‘We need training on X’ I always probe with ‘how do you hope the trainees will behave differently as a result of the training? What do you want them to be able to do?’ after first finding out who the audience is etc. And then you arrive and there are 7 people who really need the advanced training on X but since it is expensive, they decide to reduce the cost by adding 20 people to the session who know nothing about X and need remedial X. so there you are — wanting to really advance the skill of the 7 who really needed your expertise, but you have to deal also with people who are at the introductory stage.

        1. Perse's Mom*

          This is the opposite of what happened to our team once – we had developed a decently sized list of very specific deep-dive questions around a piece of software we were using and sent this list along with a request for training to the software developer. The developer… sent someone who only did remedial training.

          The result was a full day of scheduled training for 15 people that ended two hours in because someone would explain that they do X in the software using the Y method and was there a more efficient way to do the same and the trainer would have no idea what we were talking about.

    2. Anonomoose*

      Have you tried forming an off-site fact finding committee in an establishment designed to promote networking and creative brainstorming? Ideally on a Friday afternoon, about 3 o’clock, and on the company credit card. Make it a nice pub, too, no weatherspoons’ (or american equivalent)

      1. juliebulie*

        I like the way you think, Anonomoose. That kind of offsite brainstorming session would be more productive than trying to play “find me a rock” with the boss.

    3. Tisiphone*

      Back when I worked tech support, I had conversations just like this.

      Customer: My computer doesn’t work.
      Me: Can you describe the problem?
      Customer: It doesn’t work.
      Me: OK. What is it doing that it shouldn’t or not doing that it should?
      Customer: …

      1. Zombeyonce*

        Oh man, this is the worst. I’ve had a hundred iterations of that exact conversation. My favorite was a recent ticket I got that just said “This program isn’t working.” Um, which program? There are literally hundreds you could be talking about. What’s it not doing? Who even are you? GIVE ME DETAILS!

        The “I can’t log in” tickets are just as frustrating. I’m not a mind reader, people.

        1. Pebbles*

          I get the “tool crashed” ticket. Then when I follow up for more details:

          Me: “What were you doing when the tool crashed?”
          Engineer: [details] “…and then I got this error message.”
          Me: “So it crashed after the error message? What did the error message say?”
          Engineer: “Well no, it didn’t crash. It went back to the main menu. I don’t know what the error message said.”
          Me: [bangs head on desk]

        2. RUKiddingMe*

          So far the IT folks I’ve dealt with seem to be weirdly happy that I send them the info I have. Is it really *this* bad?

          I always send the exact issue/wording/error code/etc. and a SS if I can. I want it fixed. How are you all supposed to do that if you don’t know what the issue actually is?

          1. Pebbles*

            For me it’s that they were busy and trying to multi-task, then either forgot what it said or didn’t think to take a screenshot before the tool went back to the beginning, and it takes too long for them to repeat what they did. So they just write up the ticket with what little they do (mis-)remember. But then I have to try to repeat what they did anyway. And if I’m getting slammed with tickets, I just put it back on them and say I won’t work on their ticket until there’s more information. It has gotten better, but I still have a few repeat offenders. Users like you who put all the info (and SS!!!) in the first time are rock stars.

          2. Tisiphone*

            This is one of the many reasons I burned out on tech support. People who called and told me exactly what happened and what they were doing when it happened and how often they were able to get it to happen again were treasures.

            Other people required me to develop an ability I call TCP – Telepathic Computer Professional.

          3. Nanani*

            The error code etc., looks like gibberish to them and in the moment of “OH SHIT IT CRASHED” they forget its not gibberish to everyone?

            1. EinJungerLudendorff*

              As well as a case of “I don’t know what went wrong, so clearly I can’t contribute anything meaningful to you, the expert.”

            2. Mongrel*

              Often they’ll just click through as well, no matter how many times you tell them you need it.
              And yes, they do it when you’re on the phone to them telling them to leave the error message alone…
              Extra points if it’s because of ‘habit’ as they’ve been getting the error for ages and it’s stopping them working properly, and this is the first time it’s ever been mentioned.

              Oh, if it’s allowed then try Problem Step Recorder in Windows (Start > PSR) it screenshots the desktop when the mouse is clicked or a modifier key is pressed.

        3. Mr. Tyzik*

          This reminds me of the Chronicles of George! it was a treasure trove of real tickets written by a barely literate help desk technician. I still peruse this when I feel nostalgic for the old days.

          www dot chroniclesofgeorge dot com

        4. Cheesy*

          I used to work in the satellite TV industry, going out and installing/servicing people’s houses. So so often people would just say “My TV doesn’t work!” and then get irritated when you tried to ask questions to narrow down what’s actually happening.

          My “favorite” calls were the ones for ‘no signal’ and you get there and they have the TV on the wrong input so it’s bouncing the generic message on the screen. Quick and easy, but the customer’s were usually unhappy about it when they realized how easy it was to fix. They were usually the ones that had the notes about “refused troubleshooting and demanded a tech” and then demand of me why they couldn’t tell them how to fix it over the phone.

        1. Devil Fish*

          My grandma does the same thing. I’ve tried to teach her, but.

          me: Did you google it?
          Grammers: No, I called you.
          me: Because you wanted me to google it?
          Grammers: No, I want you to fix it.
          me: The way I fix it is by googling it.
          Grammers: Oh! Okay! I’ll remember that next time! *long awkward pause* So can you google it?

          Every damn time. -_-

    4. AnonyFed*

      This is so frustrating. During my first review in my last job (good riddance) I got a great rating and then this conversation happened.

      Boss: There was a thing you did that I didn’t like.
      Me: Pause
      Boss: Silence
      Me: I’m sorry. Can you tell me what it was so that I can make sure I don’t do it again?
      Boss: I don’t really remember, but I know I didn’t like it.
      Me: Okay. Do you know which project it was related to?
      Boss: No. Just don’t do it again.

      I should have known then that it was never going to work out.

      1. ClashRunner*

        Ugh. Did you and I work for the same person? In my case this BS conversation was repeatedly used to deny me training, merit increases, professional development travel, and a promotion.

  2. Legal Beagle*

    This sounds potentially like an attempt to derail a “difficult conversation regarding career development.” If LW is seeking a promotion, raise, more opportunities, or similar, and Boss wanted to push back but didn’t know how, so they grabbed at the first thought that floated by. “Uh, well, you can’t have x because you need to focus on urgency instead!” I’d be very put off by this approach. Not only is it useless and undermining, it feels like bad faith management.

    1. Emily K*

      I came here to say this – there seems to be another dimension to the question that wasn’t emphasized well in the question or addressed in the answer – not just that the boss is giving this unhelpful feedback, but that LW seems to have gotten the impression that the manager is lobbing the unhelpful feedback as a sort of hand grenade into some kind of conversation that LW wants to have and thinks manager is trying to get out of.

    2. Curmudgeon in California*

      I have gotten this type of thing so much:

      Boss: Someone had a problem with your tone
      Me: What tone, when?
      Boss: Someone, this last year, didn’t like your tone. I got this from management.
      Me: What was the problem with my tone, when? Was I wrong?
      Boss: No, but they didn’t like your tone.
      Me: What was wrong with it?
      Boss: Someone didn’t like it.
      Me: Who? Why?
      Boss: I don’t know. Management said someone complained.

      So some random person (most likely male) gets cheesed off by my “tone”, whines to a manager, who then tells my boss to “talk” to me about some amorphous incident. (I present as somewhat female).

      It makes me see red.

    3. Former Employee*

      Thank you. Alison seemed to think it was just a badly worded or not well thought out comment by a manager. I didn’t buy it,either. Especially as it seems to happen often enough when people are asking about a promotion, raise, etc.

      Magically, the manager suddenly remembers that “someone” in “some other department” had a “problem” with the person asking for a better opportunity.

      It reminds me of POTUS using the phrase “lots of people are saying”. Yeah. Name one.

      1. Devil Fish*

        It’s the corporate version of negging: keep the target off-balance by redirecting the conversation to the target’s “faults” so they’ll become defensive instead of staying on the original topic. LW’s reaction is the intended result.

        I wish all this PUA nonsense would stay confined to the skeevy MRA forums where it belongs instead of seeping out into real life where it gets deployed by people in all sorts of non-sexual bad faith interactions. (Go hunt a mammoth or something, incels, grown-ups are talking!)

  3. C Average*

    A former colleague and I used to call this kind of thing “check engine” feedback: it freaks you the hell out, it might be a huge deal or it might be nothing, and it doesn’t provide anything specific enough to be actionable for the average person.

    1. Bostonian*

      Bwahahaha this is brilliant. My first ever car sporadically had the “check engine” light come on for no reason AND I’ve had the kind of boss that OP describes, so I can say that the 2 experiences are very similar :-)

      1. Clisby*

        Mine too. The mechanic who I took my car to said, “Sometimes just changing the gas cap fixes it, so we could try that.” Sure enough, $25 later the problem went away. Maybe somebody can come up with a business version of “install a new gas cap?”

        1. pamela voorhees*

          In academia, it would be “let’s form a committee” but I don’t know how that would fly in most businesses!

          1. Mockingjay*

            We have a Process Improvement Committee. Motto: “where good ideas go to die.”

            (I submitted a request and it was not looked at for 5 full months. Every other request I have submitted has been killed, even though the suggested changes would save money, could be implemented today with existing tools, and simplified steps to be more user-friendly.)

              1. Mockingjay*

                Naw. If we used the tools properly, the “Smeagols” on the project would lose control of hoarded information.

                In a strange coincidence, all the Smeagols are on the committee.

                1. Adjuncts Anonymous*

                  I think the “tools” that Darkened Meadow meant were the ones Snark referred to at the top of the thread: the managerial tools.

        2. Perstephanie*

          “Let me get the ball rolling with a deep dive into critical cascading synergies outside the box.”

          1. One of the Spreadsheet Horde*

            We can then circle back to the working team to operationalize the synergies so we can close the loop on this.

        3. Pebbles*

          I had the “check engine” light come on and took it to a mechanic who quickly was able to tell me that the gas cap wasn’t completely closed. Yes, that seems like an intuitive thing for me to check. *eyeroll* Now I don’t take that light seriously unless I can hear or feel something off with my car.

          1. MsChanandlerBong*

            I was thrilled when our check engine light came on and all I had to do was buy a new gas cap. We checked to make sure it was tight, and it was, but the light was still on. Turns out there was a crack in it, or the seal was bad, or something like that.)

          2. Autumnheart*

            This exact issue is spelled out in the car manual, though.

            But the feeling you get when you tighten the gas cap and the light stays on…that’s when you really get nervous.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I love this way of describing it. Especially since I not so fondly remember the days when I broke down in hysterics when mine popped for the first time and it was just a sensor. “What do you mean it’s just a sensor? What do you mean that my car isn’t a total wreck and has to be crushed by a wrecking ball right in front of my face as we speak?”

      1. Minocho*

        I do this too. if my car does anything that I deem, in my nonexistent expertise, to be abnormal, it’s about to explode. We’re going to die.

        I’ve seen this same panic in people that are uncomfortable with computers. I just use the 1. Click buttons and/or inspect menus for buttons that might be relevant to the current issue. 2. If that doesn’t work, Google it. 3 Repeat or give up as desired. flowchart to do stuff I don’t know how to do. I figure it’s how my lack of knowledge about cars presents itself.

        I know many things about my car. For example, it is blue.

    3. Slartibartfast*

      I’m late to the party but a steady check engine light is an annoyance, but if you ever have a *blinking* check engine light, that’s a big effing deal and you should stop the car NOW because serious damage is occurring.

  4. Buttons*

    I want to know more about the “difficult conversation regarding career development.” Why is a career development conversation difficult? Was the manager using this vague reason as a development opportunity, or why the LW didn’t get successful meets on a performance review, or why they didn’t get a promotion or raise? The way I would handle each of those differently.

    1. workerbee2*

      I was wondering this too. I recently had this type of conversation with my boss (who thinks I’m amazing) and grandboss (ehhhhhh…) and even though my relationship with grandboss is not great at times I was nervous but it wasn’t a difficult conversation. There were no immediate outcomes (which I expected) but I felt heard and respected. Why was LW’s conversation so difficult?

    2. Wintermute*

      I believe what he means is that it’s a company that doesn’t offer growth, at all, has a bad case of “overvalue out, undervalue in” about people inside the company (some companies will gladly hire a new person for 65k a year but won’t give someone in-house with superior skills earning 50k a 3% raise because it’s “too expensive for the labor budget”, well when he quits and you can’t hire a replacement for less than 70, and they’re STILL not as good or experienced with your systems, we’ll see how your labor budget does!) or otherwise just doesn’t have what the OP is looking for. In which case the difficulty of the conversation is telling them that without making them realize they’ll never get ahead without getting out.

      In that case it’s easier to point to some nonspecific performance fault rather than explain that their promotion is in a different castle.

  5. Enough*

    What is a sense of urgency? Is it ‘I have to finish A before anything else’? A being the other team’s project even though the deadline is 2 weeks away and only requires 2 hours of work? Is it verbalizing how much work you have to do and don’t know how it will all get done (whether or not true)? If you are getting all the work done accurately and in the time frame allotted then urgency is in their head. the person who manages their time well and the one who waits till things are a crisis will always experience urgency differently.

    1. Buttons*

      The phrase is thrown around so much and many companies have added it as a competency for employees. I have described it as meaning it is at the forefront of our mind and that it requires immediate attention; it’s critical, mandates an action on our part and infers that if we don’t respond then something negative might occur. In the LW’s case without knowing what the specific complaint was from the coworker there is no way to really say. But usually, when I hear people complain about this, it usually is a communication issue. One person thinks emails should be answered the same business day, and the other person thinks in 24 hours is good enough. So person one thinks the other person doesn’t have a sense of urgency.

      1. Bostonian*

        I think you’re on to something. It seems like this kind of vague “I heard from somebody” feedback is usually the result of someone having personal, unspoken, strongly held FEELINGS about how other people should behave and gets upset/offended when other people don’t live up to those expectations. That email response assumption is the perfect example.

    2. A Poster Has No Name*

      I always interpret this to mean “OP failed to drop everything she was working on to do MY THING that I need RIGHT NOW but didn’t adequately plan ahead for and therefore need it URGENTLY”

      But I might just be cynical.

      1. Tabby*

        This part. Like… nope, I’m not really gonna run around like a chicken minus her head because person A didn’t do something.
        It was like that last animal clinic I worked that that complained I clocked in late. When I was actually there 15 minutes early, as desired for all employees, waiting on the woman with the key who showed up late – and this, after I texted the manager in charge of hours to let her know I couldn’t get in – /she/, at least, was like “Wait, no, Tabby was on time and here’s the text to prove it. It was Jane’s fault.”
        Let’s just say I wasn’t too upset about being fired at the end of the probationary period – place was a cluster of contradictory policies and way behind the times – PAPER FILING SYSTEM IN 2017. The training manager was gone more than present, and wouldn’t allow anyone else to train. AND I was expected to man the front desk alone. With no real training. And I wasn’t allowed to use my skills and previous experience. Annoying.

        They were nice people, but they just had no sense when it came to a cohesive working experience. They did have long-time employees, so I guess it kind of worked, but… honestly, they were the least effectively managed of clinics I ever worked at.

      2. Emily K*

        Ugh. Last week I had gotten a 4:30 pm email asking if I could complete a relatively simple task. I juggle a lot of incoming requests so prioritizing things according to their importance is a big part of my role and I don’t let incoming emails dictate my schedule – I schedule blocks of time to work on particular projects according to their importance and timelines, and I leave some wiggle room to be flexible in the event of a true emergency.

        So I replied back at 9:30 am the next morning saying sure, I’d be happy to complete their request, and penciled it in to my calendar for the end of the day – I prefer to focus on big projects for long periods of time in the morning and schedule meetings and quicker/one-off tasks for the afternoon when my attention span is already shot for the day.

        At 1 pm I got a follow-up email asking if I had completed the task yet, because someone was waiting on me to do this task before they could do something else they wanted to do ASAP. This information had not been communicated in the original request – it was just assumed, apparently, that I would have immediately started working on the request as soon as it came in, other responsibilities be damned?

        There are certain people who are repeat offenders – they make requests without communicating any particular urgency or deadline because they operate under the assumption that the world revolves around them, so obviously it goes without saying that every request they make should be immediately fulfilled as quickly as possible.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          That’s my yesterday. Last week I was sent a new set of (things for an overseas division) to create, which is usually at least several weeks leadtime. 4 days later I got a “so the agency is ready to review it now, when will it be ready?”
          Pure luck my other project has only a self-imposed deadline.

    3. That Would be a Good Band Name*

      Generally, I find it means that I was too calm when clearly someone was HAVING.A.CRISIS. Calm down, Jane. It’s on my list, I know when it’s due, and you’ll have it by deadline. I don’t have to run around like I’m on fire to prove I’m working. It actually accomplishes more to sit quietly and, well, work.

      1. Close Bracket*

        Yeah, it’s more or less about your attitude. And it’s not just running around like you are on fire, it’s cheerfully and enthusiastically running around like you are on fire.

      2. NW Mossy*

        Can you come work for me? I was just this morning heaping some praise on one of my staff for calming the waters with two notoriously hair-trigger individuals who were convinced that X was a crisis. Turns out that X was the entirely expected and correct result for this customer, with no further action required other than an explanation of why.

        I’ve taken to calling panicking ahead of the facts “Kermiting,” after the Frog’s classic arm-waving-and-head-shaking reaction when he gets very wound up. We’ve got more than a few here, and it’s wonderfully helpful to have staff who can see someone’s crisis without feeling the need to raise the temperature on it by Kermiting themselves.

    4. Tisiphone*

      PANIC!!!! Crap! Everything is urgent and due two days ago and dammit my DeLorean is in the shop and there aren’t any police boxes around now that everyone is using cell phones and I can’t find the cloaked Bird of Prey!

    5. designbot*

      Exactly. Also is a sense of urgency actually appropriate for the thing at hand? Some people treat everything as urgent, and some people treat nothing as urgent. When these types of people work together they’re not going to feel great about it, even if they in fact manage to achieve all of their goals.

    6. Sacred Ground*

      It is a bizarre criticism in the a sense of missed deadlines. It’s saying that you complete tasks and meet deadlines without undue drama or complaint, that you keep your cool when others are panicking, that you maintain a more professional demeanor than your coworkers when under pressure, and somehow this is a bad thing.

      1. Autumnheart*

        Like managers who complain that, although you’re getting as much or more done as everyone else, you’re not putting in overtime and others are. It’s like, “So you want to write me up for being too efficient?”

    7. Detective Right-All-The-Time*

      I have been the one who complains about a lack of “sense of urgency” from colleagues before. And for me, it usually boils down to lack of communication. If I ask for something with a “is it possible to get this by Thursday EOD?” then I expect a response along the lines of “EOD Thursday it is!” or “Can we make it Friday, I’ve got a lot on my plate Thursday.” Silence is interpreted as my email being ignored and the action item not getting done, because I have no idea if I’m going to get the thing back by EOD Thursday.

      I also use “lack of sense of urgency” when short daily tasks get ignored and pile up. There’s a vendor who requires confirmation of a specific piece of information for individual employees when they try to use their services. This confirmation takes minutes to complete, and we can get 1 or 2 in day, or none. A delay in confirmation means a delay in the employee getting their services. The coworker responsible for these confirmations lets them sit for days before responding, because she wants to do them “all at once.” This is a lack of urgency to me, because she doesn’t see the need to complete these in a timely manner for our employees’ sake.

      1. Washed Out Data Analyst*

        I think of it as sharing the boss’s sense of urgency. I just try to act like I care about whatever the boss cares about.

      2. ChachkisGalore*

        Totally with you on all of this. I do think it’s “fuzzy” or nebulous enough to sometimes (or maybe even a lot of time) be misused in the way others are saying (ie: not being as visibly frazzled as the asker wants to see), but I’ve definitely worked with people where it was a real thing/issue. I’ve really worked with people who work at the exact same (rather slow) pace at all times, regardless of the circumstances. Like I’m not talking about the optics – I mean I’ll (apologetically and politely) ask for something and explain it’s an emergency, x happened, can I get this asap – 72 hr turn around. Ask for the same thing, explain that there’s no rush, I just need it by end of month – 72 hr turn around.

        It’s like beyond not prioritizing appropriately or incorrectly. It’s more like not even understanding what prioritizing is.

        I think it can also describe the kind of situation where the person never gets anything done if there isn’t a hard due date – even if it’s clearly a “need to do” not one of those “eh, nice to have someday” tasks.

      3. Meagain*

        So you use sense of urgency, but do you follow-up with those specific examples you just cited? If so cool. If not, are you the OPs boss?

    8. Going Anon*

      I think it’s another word for “fast-paced”. This is highly valued in the corporate/private sector world. I can understand to some exxtent what people mean by it – you don’t spend more time to do something than needed. In other words, you use your time efficiently, and don’t sit on a task/project or procrastinate. I do generally appreciate this concept, especially whenever I deal with any sort of government agency or the DMV.

      Unfortunately, sometimes the issue with “sense of urgency” it can be based erroneously on biased perception. Some people think that quiet/introverted people are not “urgent”, even if they are in fact highly productive. Sometimes, people fail to realize that people have multiple deadlines and priorities, and complain when the person doesn’t prioritize theirs, even when it makes sense to stack tasks another way.

  6. Linzava*

    The problem with the term, “sense of urgency,” is that it can be taken two ways. One, the employee isn’t working fast enough for the level of importance, or two, the employee isn’t acting as if the project isn’t urgent.

    I’ve been accused of the latter, so it’s not far fetched. Generally, some people have a hard time seeing a person not in panic mode about a deadline. Personally, it took a lot of personal development to get to that point, so when someone accused me of not being serious about my job because I was “too calm,” I got a bit angry.

    1. Aquawoman*

      Yeah, this. The other person didn’t say she missed deadlines or did rushed, subpar work, so I can only assume that the other manager was simply criticizing her for just not seeming uptight or stressed enough while doing her work, or not beating deadlines by two days or something like that.

    2. EmKay*

      I got this too, but thankfully it wasn’t a negative, just more of an observation. Oldboss used to call me Miss Teflon (because nothing sticks). He said nothing seemed to faze me, everything he threw at me was met with me saying “ok” and getting it done.

    3. Turquoisecow*

      Possible. I worked with a guy who was very easy going and liked to joke around, but was also very good at his job. Someone else complained about him and said that “everything was a joke” to that guy. But the person making the complaint was pretty high strung and liked to freak out over projects (and has high blood pressure, possibly because of that), so he was clearly saying that since the guy was not obviously freaking out, he must not think the task was important.

      After a few times of freaking out over urgent projects, I decided I was better off just sitting down and getting to work, and if it didn’t get done, then no amount of freaking out was going to change that, so there was no point getting my blood pressure up over work. No one ever said anything to me not having a sense of urgency, but I wouldn’t be surprised if others spoke that way.

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        I dont freak out over much, even with my own business. I am the epitome if Zen. Either it will or wont get done and I will deal with it (“it” always gets done).

        When I was very young…like 18-20 ish I worked at a place where everything was “urgent” or “crisis” all.the.time. It almost killed me even though I was young enough that it *should* have not affected me so hard. Never, ever again.

    4. Nanani*

      Some people perform urgency in different ways than others, if that makes sense.

      I completely understand the frustration in being told you’re “too calm” when you’re in fact working very hard to remain calm so you can actually deal with the thing.

      The sort of performance-over-substance mentality discussed in this thread is going to lead to a lot of wailing and very little accomplishment.

    5. MsMaryMary*

      Well, and it’s hard to tell if the other party’s sense of urgency is appropriate or reasonable. We had a minor dust up a few months ago when accounting sent an email out trying to determine if revenue had been allocated to the right account. They were very upset when a few hours went by and no one responded to their email. Accounting needed this information for a report for the CEO. People’s boss’s bosses were copied into an email, it got a little ugly. However, my team was in a half-day training session at the time. A few of us had our phones with us to keep an eye on email, but to answer accounting’s question we would have had to be at our desks and logged into a certain piece of software.

      It all worked out, but if accounting had told my manager some weeks or months later that my team didn’t show a sense of urgency, the feedback would have been useless.

    6. Goldfinch*

      I recall this coming up in comments a while ago…didn’t somebody share that a combat veteran took a manager to task for this issue? Something like “I’ve had people literally trying to blow me up, your memo is not that important” ?

    7. Emily K*

      Yep – I’m naturally “cool-headed in a crisis.” My body/biochemistry responds to adrenaline by becoming laser-focused and task-oriented. Within my own mind there’s an intensity to what I’m doing, but on the surface it’s not obvious – for instance, the intensity I feel leads me to speak more directly, in shorter sentences, and only when necessary, so that I don’t derail my focus on what’s most important – but me silently typing away at my computer with a look of concentration on my face doesn’t exactly convey “crisis in progress.”

      Meanwhile, I’m the kind of person who falls apart emotionally after the crisis is resolved. I will feel overly exhausted, spent, drained, and unable to concentrate on anything at all – like I worked out my concentration muscles to failure and now I need a recovery period. I usually need to talk a 5 or 10 minute walk to try to reset my brain, and I will try to do less taxing work for the remainder of the day.

      So I think of my ability to be cool during the crisis as a strength where my ability to perform at my best after a crisis is a weakness. I would definitely be ticked off to have my strength framed as a problem.

  7. workerbee2*

    If someone were to make that type of complaint about me at my job, it would be someone from another department who has no idea what my work queue looks like (because they’re not my boss!) complaining that I didn’t drop everything to work on their thing. As a general rule, I only drop everything without question for my boss, my boss’s boss, etc. Everything else goes into the “medium priority” bucket unless there’s some other reason why the work is truly urgent. If someone said I wasn’t working with enough urgency, I would have a conversation with my manager about the relative priority of requests from other departments – what’s “drop everything and work on this right now,” what’s “fit it in where you can,” etc. Though I doubt my current manager would just relay vague criticism like that without digging deeper.

    The only conversation I’ve ever had like this with a boss was one manager who encouraged me to DEprioritize certain requests – that he appreciated how helpful and accommodating I am, but if I gained a reputation for dropping everything people would come to expect that and he didn’t want to see that happen. I still work there 3 positions and several years later (oldboss has long since moved on) and I still recall that occasionally – it turned out to be very valuable advice for my org and role.

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      “but if I gained a reputation for dropping everything people would come to expect that…”

      Same reason not to give more than one single ride to someone (coworker or otherwise) because suddenly you are carpooling against your will.

  8. Jellyfish*

    I could see this being an issue of perception or personality too. Maybe the LW has a pretty even temperament even if she is rushing, stressed, etc.
    If the boss or the anonymous third party thinks she should appear more flustered or agitated in order to convey “urgency,” that would feel like silly feedback to give. No decent boss will say “I want to you to literally look busier.”

    Allison’s scripts are good for requesting clarity. I must admit, I’d probably be too irritated about the situation to respond sincerely in the moment though.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Yeah, I’ve definitely known managers for whom “sense of urgency” meant “performatively acting panicked.”

        1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

          I trained staff to be facility first responders (First Aid, CPR, within the building) and their job is to NOT performatively freak out when there’s an emergency. Because they are supposed to be evaluating the person and taking care of the victim. It’s part of their training to respond calmly and appropriately.

          And yet people will get annoyed they stayed calm. How could you be calm at a time like this, what is wrong with you? I dunno, proper training and professionalism?

          1. Tabby*

            THIS. I am pretty even tempered – and I’ve had an 80 lb angry German Shepherd attached to my hand with his teeth. While working alone in a vet clinic. My boss was impressed that I got this dog off my hand very quickly (I bit his nose and shoved him into his cage so fast the poor dog could not understand what happened. I’m not proud of that, but. ) and got myself to the hospital with no fuss. I actually was going to clean up and finish my shift first, because he only sliced my palm open as I pulled my hand free, but she was like WHAT NO GO TO THE HOSPITAL NOW!
            I was told I was fortunate that I hadn’t given the dog a chance to clamp down, or I might have lost the function of my hand, it was thst close.
            As the vet said, “Thank god you’re a calm one.”

            The dog was a rescue, and had been freaked out by thunder and the other barking dogs. Fortunately, he was transferred to her husband’s training facility so he could get needed rehab.

  9. It’sonlyme*

    I experienced something similar. I received a bad performance review, was denied a raise and (later) a bonus, by someone who hadn’t worked at my location in six months. She’d been helping my location through a big transition and was part of a team traveling to my city every week to help and train. She was named my supervisor when I came to the company, and the manager who took over had no idea she was still listed (nor did I). This woman worked with me for about two months, then stopped coming. The review gave zero specifics as to what I needed to improve.My new boss fought the review all the way up, but to no avail.

  10. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

    Ewwww, I worked for a guy like this. One time.

    He was my grandboss. One day, he called me into a meeting with my boss. Grandboss said, “I have some things I want you to change about you.” I said “Okay, what are they?” He stated he wasn’t going to tell me, I had to figure them out for myself. I asked him if he was serious and he responded he most certainly was and that my job depended on my making those changes, weren’t there some things about myself that I wanted to change?

    I told him yes, there are thousands of things about myself I want to change but suppose I make all those changes and I still haven’t changed what he wants changed? I told him I thought this was an exercise in futility and if he couldn’t give me specifics, there was no way I could take his request seriously.

    I lasted there another two weeks.

      1. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

        It was crazy maddening. I remember looking at hi thinking “You, sir, are not just a tool. You are the entire f’ing DeWalt catalog.”

      2. AnonEmu*

        I’ve gotten similar from a bad ex-boss (the job the folx here at AAM helped me leave!) She was terrible re suggestions – vague exhortations to “be more confident but less bossy” (with no examples of what that meant…I had been following what she was doing), to “step up” (again, no specific examples). If I knew what I was doing wrong, I’d have been actively working to fix it, but instead she gave vague pronouncements and expected me to read her mind. There were a few times when she asked me why I hadn’t been doing specific things and I had to remind her that she’d specifically told me to wait till she trained me, or not to do them, and then she’d tell me that I was supposed to do them anyways. Just…..vagueness makes people panic and it definitely doesn’t make them work better!

    1. Daniel*

      Did you leave or did you get pushed out? Did anyone ever get around to telling you what they were looking for?

      1. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

        I was never told. I was fired two weeks later because I didn’t take his request seriously.

    2. Pebbles*

      Was this before you earned the title “Empress of Awesome”? Because that would have made a great reply for a job you were just going to be leaving soon anyway.

      Boss: “Aren’t there some things about yourself that you want to change?”
      DoW, EoA: “No, I’m pretty awesome as it is.”

      1. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

        LOL, this was well before I was awarded my title. That title was bestowed upon me last year, by the fine commentariat here at AAM.

        But I LOVELOVELOVE your response. Made me literally LOL. I LOVE IT! And that is going into my repertoire in case I ever need it again. I shall give you appropriate credit, of course!

    3. Close Bracket*

      Lots of things you want to change about yourself, starting with your job. Please tell me you told him that when you turned in your resignation.

      1. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

        I was fired a couple of weeks later because…..wait for it…..I didn’t take his request seriously. Who would?????? It’s like anonymous complaints. Tell me details or shut your piehole.

        1. Amethystmoon*

          Yeah, my company allows anonymous complaints too. However, when you sit next to your manager’s cube and literally just have to turn down your music when you hear your name mentioned, well it’s no longer anonymous. The person who made most of them would lose their stuff over minor things.

          1. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

            Seems like that’s the same story everywhere. There is always one, sometimes more but always at least one, who loses their mind over the stupidest of reasons.

            1. Curmudgeon in California*

              Yep. I hate anonymous complaints, and people who don’t have the guts to talk to me about petty issues personally, but have to go over my head. If you don’t like the way I looked (seeming ly at you because you were there) while I was mulling over a problem with the Teapot Quality Test, tell me, don’t whine to my boss three levels up, or HR.

    4. Curmudgeon in California*

      What the heck?

      It’s like someone calls you in to chew you out and expects you to automatically know what they are cheesed off about and be crawling to them begging forgiveness.

      How about you just tell me in plain language and then I can take it on board and see if I can change it.

      That would tick me off.

      1. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

        Oh I was PISSED. I actually stood up–my energy was such that if I remained in a seated position I could conceivably burst–and started pacing (which made my boss nervous). I had the same mindset as you. Don’t play games with me, just TELL me.

  11. Turquoisecow*

    My boss used to tell me about complaints other people had, assure me they weren’t his complaints and he wasn’t concerned, and then tell me I needed to worry about perception. (I guess the word today would be “optics.”)

    For example, a woman I sat near, but who was in another department and I didn’t interact with, told my boss that I talked too much. This woman was on the phone for mostly personal calls for about 75% of her day. I was not. I was mostly quiet, especially since I’d just started and didn’t really know anyone. Boss passed this info on to me, and I was flabbergasted that she would think this about me, and that she, who was on the phone all day, would complain that I was talkative! I started to wonder if I should have complained to her boss about how much she talked (which didn’t really bother me because I had headphones, but could be annoying sometimes), even though that seemed mean and unprofessional.

    Meanwhile, throughout all this, the complainer continued to act outwardly friendly to me, greeting me cheerfully and occasionally starting personal conversations with me. I didn’t confront her about the complaint, but also didn’t want to be friendly to her anymore. I was confused on how to act anymore, as people who say one thing but think another are a real source of anxiety for me. It just ended up making me miserable, and I wasn’t clear why boss felt it necessary to tell me something like this.

    1. Not All*

      In response to you last sentence… Your boss may have been trying to warn you not to trust her when he saw you were becoming friendly with her. Not necessarily the best way of doing it, but flat saying “this person acts super nice to people while actively stabbing them in the back” can come back to bite a manager too. Watching a new employee get burned by trusting a known backstabber isn’t something a good manager wants to see happen and I’d guess that there aren’t a lot of people who would prefer to get burned than know that someone was being nice to their face while undercutting them with management.

      1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

        Yes, this. I’ve had bosses give me offensive advice, usually asking me to hew more strongly to gender roles and expectations (be more maternal at work, icky stuff like that.) And I’d get mad at them at the time for suggesting it, only to discover down the line that it wasn’t meant “You aren’t maternal enough,” but that “Maternal women are recognized here while businesslike ones will fail.” It was matter-of-fact advice for a problem workplace, not an indictment of who I was as a person.

    2. cmcinnyc*

      I wonder if she did actually complain about you. You never asked her about it so all you had was the word of your boss. Once upon a time I would have believed it if someone told me, “X said Y about Z.” But I have learned…

      1. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

        Yes, my old manager at ToxicJob was very big on saying that “people” had issues with something but was vague on who the mysterious “people” were.

        1. UKCoffeeLover*

          A therapist once told me that if someone makes statements like ‘lots of people think xxx about…’ or ‘everyone says that you…’ then you can be sure those statements are not true!

    3. Daniel*

      Oof. Did you leave or dd you get pushed out? Did anyone ever get around to telling you what they were looking for?

    4. AJK*

      Yep, I had that happen once too. I was told I talked too much and didn’t get enough work done when the employee next to me spent most of the day on personal calls and having long personal conversations with her buddies using the office’s instant messaging. She would also disappear for long periods of time, leaving me to do the work. When I brought this up, I was told she would walk away because I talked too much. Her solution to me talking too much was spending hours in other offices complaining about her boyfriend while the inbox filled up back at our desk. Sure, that makes sense…
      Everything about that job still bugs me. All of the feedback I got boiled down to “you’re annoying,” no matter what I did. It’s hard not to take that personally, even though it’s the only job where anything like that has ever happened to me.

  12. rubyrose*

    Yeah, I had a manager try something like that on an annual performance review. As we were talking about the review, I asked him to give me specifics; he could not. So in that box at the bottom of the review, where you can put in comments…I stated that I asked for specifics and there were none given. Stated I could not take seriously negative feedback when there was nothing to back it up. And yes, please provide those details in the future so I can act on them. I never got that type of feedback again.

    1. Liz*

      I had that one year at my review, along with specific things that I apparently wasn’t doing correctly, or doing at all. But things that neither of my bosses ever bothered to clue me in on, and they weren’t anything I could have or should have picked up on and done! I managed not to blurt out “so how pray tell, was I supposed to improve on these things when I had no knowledge that they were even an issue?”

      That was the same year and review I was put on a PIP. for basically doing a sh*tty job I had no idea i was doing so poorly.

    2. Shadow Moon*

      Conversely, I provided specific examples to one of my employees in their review. In this case it was to support receiving a lower evaluation score than the previous year, and the employee complained to HR and my boss because “those things had already been resolved” (they hadn’t). I still provide specific examples because I think that’s the correct way to back up the evaluation. It was a WOW moment.

      1. hbc*

        Ha, I had a person complain once that I was using examples from the past. I think I actually said, “One of those is from last week, and I don’t know how to get examples from the future.”

        1. Hepzibah Pflurge*

          I HOPE you said that exact thing. It gives me hope to know that things like that are said in the world.

    3. MsMaryMary*

      Heh. Last year one of the pieces of feedback I got was that I need to work on improving my “second level thinking” skills. I asked for some examples of situations where I should have move my thoughts up a level. No one could give me an examples. I hope this year someone suggests I learn to think outside the box.

    4. Massive Dynamic*

      Oooo I had that happen once too and I wish I’d have done what you did! I was blindsided, and while I did press a few times for specific examples about the Issue (telling that I legit can’t remember what the issue even was a few years later), I got no specifics at all. Just the vague “there is an Issue with you.” Glad that’s an exjob.

    5. Cat Meowmy Admin*

      Good for you @rubyrose! I once experienced the same thing at old job and I responded the exact same way with my own ‘rebuttal-type’ of statement on my performance review. They underestimated my ability to see what was clearly bs. Especially because I was told that I was “like the bad piece of fruit that spoils all the other fruit in the bowl”. How does someone supposed to improve on that type of vague feedback?

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        I had that kind of garbage once. I got blamed for “bad morale” for an entire office. I was a bottom rung employee. They fired me for it. How the heck I, as a low level technician, was to blame for all these people having “bad morale”, many of whom I didn’t work directly with and all of whom ranked me in the organization, is still baffling. I had no idea I was so powerful!

    6. MtnLaurel*

      rubyrose, I had the exact same experience. I responded point by point calling out where the specificity was lacking. Fortunately I got a transfer to another department soon. Dodged a bullet on that one, i did.

    7. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      That’s awesome. I regret refusing to sign a review after my manager put in there that I missed deadlines. When I questioned it, it was 1 time and not fully my responsibility.

    8. Zirqoyi*

      I’m borrowing this the next time my boss tries to pull this one on me. I’m about tired of it.

  13. GreyHighlighter*

    At a previous job, I’d only ever gotten positive feedback from my supervisor and teammates. Then, at an annual review, my supervisor said I had issues with skill A and trait B. I was shocked because skill A and trait B were things I’d gotten praise for and took pride in. I asked for specific examples of why I was lacking in these areas, and they said the feedback came from my teammates. So I went to my teammates and said, “Supervisor said you said I’m having issues with A and B. Could you give me specific examples so I can figure out what I need to do differently in the future?” My teammates said I was doing a great job, they had no issues with me, and they hadn’t given that feedback.

    So now I would just assume any criticism that can’t be backed up by examples is a lie. :/

    1. Nanani*

      Wanna bet your teammates did, in fact, praise A and B but manager wasn’t listening? So it came out as criticism because they only remembered the connection to A and B without its polarity.

      Kinda like that scene in Iron Man 2 where Tony gets strawberries as an apology gift … for someone allergic to strawberries. He remembered that there was a strawberry connection but not what it was.

    2. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

      This is not direct experience because I’d left ToxicJob by that time, but apparently when it was 360 review time, some managers went to their reports’ peers and asked the peers to say negative things. “It can’t all be positive. You have to say something negative about this person.”

      1. Anon here yep*

        I know this occurs. I was asked to give feedback for someone’s promotion, but I was told that if I didn’t say anything negative, everything else would be disregarded. I should have refused to participate, but I thought they would benefit from the promotion if it got through.

  14. Daniel*

    The stock photo that Inc. used for this article was just about perfect. Perfectly captures the “if you want me to change but don’t tell me what the change, what the heck do you expect me to do to change?” motif.

    1. Bostonian*

      I laughed out loud when I saw that photo. It’s the human embodiment of the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoji.

  15. The Original Stellaaaaa*

    I really hate when managers do this. It’s important enough to call a meeting over it, but they won’t tell you what you’ve actually done.

  16. Earthwalker*

    I got “you’re too democratic” on my evaluation. So I asked what that meant. The boss didn’t know; it’s just that someone complained to him and told him that. But the phrase was odd enough that I had a pretty good idea who it was, so I told him, “That was Fergus, wasn’t it? He objected to working with Wakeen and told me never to invite Wakeen to a team meeting. But Wakeen had information that the project team needed. I’m running a project, not coddling Fergus. But I do confess that had I done a better job of calming Fergus down, you wouldn’t have heard from him, so that’s where I’ll take an action item for improvement.” The boss changed my evaluation as a result. So you can fight back if you can guess who complained and why.

  17. LOLWHAT*

    This reminds me of a time my supervisor told me that a staff complained that I gave her advice regarding a child (This was a daycare). Could not tell me the staff, the child or the situation in which I gave her this unwanted advice. Here’s the real kicker, I was the Case Manager, so the person who is supposed to give staff advice on how to work with certain kids. *sigh* I didn’t stay there long.

      1. LOLWHAT*

        Thank you! I would never talk to staff willy nilly (I wasn’t a supervisor so I had no authority), if I had to talk to them about working with a child then they were probably pretty out in left field.

  18. a good mouse*

    I’m having this issue at work right now. On my last performance review I was told even though everything I did was good (people praised the quality of my work, documentation in on time, worked well with teammates), there was a “perception that [I’m] not pro-active enough that we’ll need to fight before [a good mouse] can have a juicy lead role.” This was after I was the lead for my discipline on the previous project.

    Then the same boss (thanks to some politics and scheming from an unfortunate teammate) pulled me off a project because “some people found me difficult to work with.” While also acknowledging a lot of that was do to me being inflexible about scope creep by his direction. I tried to get specific examples, and wasn’t given any. It rose to HR because of related issues, and I again asked for specifics under the guise of asking for coaching to address said issues. I made clear I didn’t care about who said them, but I wanted actual answers instead of yet again being stuck in the nebulous “well you’re doing something wrong so we’re shuffling you to another project but also perpetually punishing you for it without giving you tools to work on it.”

    Luckily I don’t report to the same boss anymore, and my new boss has been pushing me and pushing HR to get concrete feedback. I don’t know what else I can do short of emailing our HR rep and my old boss weekly to ask for progress. It’s been four months now since I was pulled from the project.

    tl;dr – Beyond asking for specifics directly, or for coaching, how else can you frame a push for actual feedback instead of this vague and unhelpful handwaving?

    1. pamela voorhees*

      Maybe come up on your own with what you think the vague feedback might mean, and check back in with them? “So I’ve given it some thought, and when you say you want me to be proactive, do you mean you want me to ask more ideas in meetings?”

  19. Britt*

    I had a manager who would do this. We were having a conversation about a time that she felt I stepped out of my bounds and I was desperately trying to understand her. She said, “and this isn’t the first time you’ve done this.” To which I of course replied, “when have I done this before? I’m just trying to get an understanding of what’s going on.”
    “Well, I can’t think of it right now.” That’s really helpful. So, I just opted to keep my mouth shut in meetings instead of contributing, because it seemed more safe for me to just be quiet since I couldn’t understand exactly what I did and when I had supposedly done it in the past.

  20. juliebulie*

    I had a boss who, several times, “helpfully” passed on “feedback” about me that “multiple” of my colleagues had supposedly provided. All of these feedback items were ludicrous, and unsupported by my observations and discussions with coworkers. Combining this with her generally manipulative nature, I took the “feedback” to be another manipulation; somehow she thought her remarks would be more effective if she ascribed them to “multiple” other people.

    I’d like to think that she was a one-of-a-kind jerk, but deep in my heart I know that’s not true. So, that’s another possibility to consider when you get vague and unsupported feedback.

    1. QueryingtheMassesforHelp*

      Ha. I experienced the opposite of this. In a review my boss collected feedback from everyone that I work closely with and did not provide any of their own feedback. When asked for specific examples they of course couldn’t give any because they didn’t provide the feedback, other people did. In asking if they followed-up with anyone to clarify things and they said they did not. It was nice knowing what other people thought of me, but it just made it look like my boss didn’t know what they were doing to provide feedback of their own. Though I realized later on, that this turned out to be another example of how they did not want to help accountable for anything and threw anyone under the bus to ensure they looked good.

  21. MsMaryMary*

    If the vague feedback is coming from another team, I have had luck going to the manager of that team and asking for context. Even if the manager doesn’t know who gave the feedback or the specifics, sometimes they can give you some insight. For example, I moved into a team lead role where I interacted a lot with leads from other related teams. One of the teams gave me anonymous feedback that I was unapproachable. I went to the lead’s manager and asked if he could help me understand the feedback. Turns out, the person I replaced had grown up with that team’s lead. They met in Sunday school as toddlers. It was less that I wasn’t approachable, and more that I wasn’t a lifelong friend. I still made more of an effort to be friendly and sociable, but it was useful to know the background.

  22. Jan*

    Yes, one year I got “there’s a narrative that you are difficult.” No examples could be given.

  23. College Career Counselor*

    My version of this negative feedback was often relayed to me by my boss, from the grandboss (division head):

    Boss: “Grandboss says he wants you to think more strategically for your department.”
    Me: “Did he have anything specific in mind? He’s shot down the last three strategic initiatives I sent to him.”
    Boss: “No, why don’t you ask him?”
    Me: (Asks Grandboss for feedback)
    Grandboss: “I don’t know. You’re the expert–that’s why we hired you!”
    Me: “Okay, let’s do XYZ.”
    Grandboss: “No.”

    (Repeat until the heat death of the universe)

    I had this behavior explained to me in a different context at another institution recently as, “If you have no vision, it’s easy to shoot down everyone else’s ideas while they desperately try to guess what you want.”

    Grandboss also used to relay 2nd and 3rd hand “criticisms” from various audiences (students, trustees, faculty) about your ideas, performance, statements with juuuuuust enough plausibility to them to advance whatever agenda he was peddling (which usually turned out to be some form of “keep everyone off-balance as much as possible to preserve his own importance/power in their career”). Specifics were rarely mentioned, and actual names were NEVER revealed, so you couldn’t address either the particulars or discuss the issue with the allegedly affronted party. This would go on until someone got fed up and left or he manufactured a way to get them out, whereupon money would magically be found to implement (under his aegis) all the things they’d been trying to do for the last however many years.

    Good times!

    1. MissDisplaced*

      Oh gosh, I had that boss.

      Me: “Did you have any feedback about A, B or C?”
      “I don’t know. You’re the expert–that’s why we hired you!”
      Me: “Ok, I think we should test A, Run with B and hold on C.
      “We’re going with C.”

      Always exactly the opposite of whatever I suggested as the best course of action. Yes they were a man.
      And it REALLY makes me wonder how people like that rise to high level positions.

  24. Foreign Octopus*

    I’ve come up against this vague, unhelpful, slightly offensive feedback in writing. I’m trying to get short stories published and working on my novel so I post some things on line where most of the feedback is genuinely very helpful, but there are a few pieces that slip through from absolute idiots like “this is rubbish” or “I don’t think this works” or my favourite “I’m banging my head against the wall because you got everything wrong” and just leave it at that. The first dozen or so times I received this feedback, it really bothered. I lost sleep because of it and I was second guessing everything, but then I realised that if they can’t be bothered to give proper, genuine feedback that is actionable then they don’t deserve my time or consideration.

    Now, I realise that things are different in a professional environment but I argue that the point still stands. If your manager only gives you critical feedback without any specifics and they won’t elaborate when asked about it, push it out of your mind. You can’t change anything, so try not to waste your time with worry.

  25. Phyllis*

    I have issues with terms like enough. Enough is not quantifiable. In a previous life I did quality control for a state social services agency, and invariably at every county office, the supervisor would say “I don’t have enough staff.” When I’d ask them to define ‘enough’, I’d get, “I need more staff.” Ok, 1 more, 2 more? “Oh, as many as you can give me.”

    1. hbc*

      Ugh, yeah. I can sympathize with not knowing exactly how to quantify a problem, but at least put some error bars around it. “It’s hard to tell how much we’re letting go because we’re so underwater, but I could keep at least two people busy.”

  26. Close Bracket*

    Yep. Just had one of these conversations. One thing that drives the lack of specifics is they don’t want you going back to whoever complained and aggressively confronting them. This the opposite of the approach we saw earlier this week where you are supposed to talk directly to the offender without involving HR. To be clear, both approaches have reasons for use, but both approaches are equally nonconstructive when deployed inappropriately.

  27. LGC*

    I want to introduce the boss from that letter to the boss from the post just before this one. You know, for science.

  28. hbc*

    All the times I’ve seen the vague feedback from others passed on, it’s lined up with the speaker’s feelings too.* So I would always mentally turn “Random person thinks you do X” into “I think you do X.” Sometimes this comes from timidity, where your boss (or friend or whatever) wants to keep being nice but also wants you to change. Sometimes it’s from someone who wouldn’t be afraid to tell you except they don’t really have a good case, so being able to say, “Well, I can’t tell you about it without violating their privacy, but rest assured, there is iron-clad proof that you do X.”

    So while it’s reasonable to say, “When exactly did I do X?”, it’s going to get you nowhere with these types. You basically need to make it very comfortable for them to get more specific. (Which really sucks when it’s your manager, but there you are.) In this case, “I feel like I complete all my projects on time. Do you think they’re expecting things sooner than the stated deadline, or is it more that I send some cues that I don’t really care about the timeline?” Which will probably have her say that it’s not one of those but not confirm the other, which you can then follow up with something like, “Okay, do you think it would help to aim for 1 day before the deadlines? And is that something you’d want me to try with you too?” Beyond irritating, but you’ll probably become your passive/passive-aggressive manager’s new favorite this way.

    *If it’s not their feelings, they’ll make it perfectly clear. “I got a complaint that you’re too slow, just wanted to make you aware in case you get feedback from that group. But I think you’re doing fine and told them that.”

  29. Cat Meowmy Admin*

    Oh LW, I really feel for you and for everyone here who shared their similar experiences. I can totally relate, been through this at different levels over the years. Sadly, too many to recount here. It can drive you crazy if you let it. I try to remain objective and self-assess where I think(?) I need to change. But also try not to internalize the vague critique which I have found quite often to be nothing more than a manipulative power play. I’m like the woman in the picture of the article … shrugs.

  30. WKRP*

    ehhhhyep. In the process of not getting a promotion, my boss told me that in her conversations with other departments, someone had mentioned I didn’t go “above and beyond.” I asked for clarification, she refused to give any. She literally told me she didn’t want to betray a confidence. But it was ok to use that information to stymie my career. I left 6 months later.

    1. Going Anon*

      Did we share a boss? I just got a similar criticism, but in the context of why I wasn’t working fast enough. To be clear, we have clear deadlines, and each individual report has to be written within 3 days. I meet 100% of my deadlines and get really good client feedback on my reports. I asked my manager what she meant by “fast enough” when I’m finishing all my reports within the alloted timeframes while meeting standards. She said, “just go above and beyond”, but couldn’t give me specific examples of what that looked like. I’m choosing to ignore her.

  31. Garland Not Andrews*

    Allison, I gotta hand it to you. You always manage to couch your recommended response in diplomatic terms. I would have totally responded “So what the H*** am I supposed to do with this? If you refuse to tell me what the real problem is, I totally cannot fix it!”

  32. Camille McKenzie*

    I dealt with this same nonsense from someone who was “helping” me write an essay.
    “This is horrible, it needs to be fixed ”
    “Okay, what is it that needs to be fixed?”
    “I’m not going to tell you. You need to figure it out.”
    This conversation repeated multiple times a day over the next several days with her getting crueler and nastier with each exchange, to the point of outright calling me stupid because I couldn’t figure out what she wanted me to do and telling me that I wrote like a 5 year old. That was the last straw.

  33. Beedzer*

    Great story about this. Totally unethical Old Boss told me that co-worker “Andy” had “been offended” by my sense of humor. (He apologized to me for forgetting something and I joked that it was no problem – just come over to help me with my housework as a punishment.) Here’s what happens when you lie and you never bother to get to know your employees: 1) we were personal friends outside of work and 2) he’s an amateur stand-comedian. So….not too likely he’s “offended” by most humor. Best part was that I told him and he was furious and wanted to tell Big Boss what a liar Old Boss was. I asked him no to as I was about to leave for a job with an amazing boss!

  34. GreenDoor*

    My former boss did this all the time and for her it WAS a strategy. She was a gaslighter and used information retention as a way wield power and information sharing as a way to show favoritism. I lost track of the number of times I’d ask for specific examples and the answer was “If you reviewed your work, you’d see what I”m talking about…”

    Ask for specifics! But if you see a pattern of vague criticism with no examples and no clue who the commetns are coming from, ignore them!

  35. Narvo Flieboppen*

    Yup, I had a manager drop a complaint on me with no specific examples. I had been promoted to a supervisory role overseeing exactly one person. The claim is that I was ‘power-mad’ and issuing orders to the entire team rather than just my direct report and ‘everyone’ on the team was complaining about it.

    I couldn’t think of a time I issued orders to anyone except my direct report. And even then, it wasn’t often because she had the job well in hand. I typically would ask for help, follow up, ‘can you please do X’ (because it’s your job), etc. from the team, but I did the exact same before I was supervising anyone, too.

    I did push back after the manager said there were no specific examples. After investigating the claims, which should have come first IMO, it turns out the only person who actually complained about me was the busybody control freak who both disliked me and lost her supervisory position at the same time I moved up. She claimed to be speaking for the group, but that was complete bollocks.

    Never did get an apology from that manager for calling me to task about the non-issue, though…

  36. Princess Shrek*

    I once had a boss note in an annual review that someone had made a complaint to HR about me. It was my first time learning of it, and when I questioned them about it they became flustered and wouldn’t tell me who (fair), when during the past year (?), or the nature of the complaint (???).

    This was in an office culture where if you were speaking too loudly, coworkers would go to HR rather than asking you to be quiet down, please (also happened to me, but I was informed about that, rather apologetically).

    1. Curmudgeon in California*

      Oh, I hate that.

      I’ve worked in places where the first stop for any complaint was HR, even if it was “Curmudgeon wore blue jeans to work instead of a skirt, that’s sooooooo unprofessional” (I don’t wear skirts). Every jot and tittle that someone didn’t like was suddenly “unprofessional”:
      * Work different hours with the boss’s approval? unproffesional.
      * Eat lunch at your desk? unprofessional.
      * Eat lunch in the lunchroom while reading a book? unprofessional.
      * Take a smelly poop in the restroom? unprofessional.
      * Not participate in the office football pool? antisocial, unprofessional.
      * Left a coffee mug out on my desk? unprofessional.
      * Stifled a snicker in a meeting? unprofessional.
      * Laugh at your desk with no one talking to you? unprofessional.

      The list goes on and on. Always bounced straight to HR at these places, always petty nonsense.

      To me, HR is for serious complaints: harassment, bullying, boundary violations, etc. Not just because they have a petty gripe.

  37. Going Anon*

    I just recently had to push back on a performance review my manager gave me because they were a bunch of vague claims such as the one in the letter, where they either had no factual backing, or were generalizations based on one minor incident. (For example, I was told I “did not participate enough in meetings” despite the fact that while I led several meetings, I recently sat back during one to let the actual project lead talk. My manager eventually ended up giving into to my requests to edit the review, because she admitted she did not have specific examples to back up some of the claims.

  38. Washed Out Data Analyst*

    My managers give vague, unhelpful criticisms all the time. Something I’ve done in the past to deal with this, is next time I’m meeting with a coworker or project director, sometimes will proactively ask them for feedback at the end of the meeting. Like, “Hey Mike, I just wanted to ask you how you feel our communication has been going so far. Do you want me to send you more updates or are you satisfied with getting one at the end of every day?”

    I have actually found this to be useful, because it gives your coworker a safe opening to actually voice any concerns they may have had thus far but were afraid to bring up on their own. It also gives you a chance to unearth whether what your manager is saying actually has any solid backing. Even if the feedback has nothing to do with what your manager said, you get a chance to get more direct feedback, and actually bettering relations with your colleagues. I’ve found that my project directors really appreciated me asking this, and were more likely to give me good feedback afterwards because they felt we had a good working relationship.

  39. MissDisplaced*

    Urgh! Got one of those the other week, via email. It went something like this.

    — Someone mentioned to me that they noticed Iced Teapots aren’t similar enough in specifications to the regular Teapots, and the Iced Teapots need to have a process put in place before they go out so that the’ll be more in alignment with the regular Teapots. —

    That was it. No examples to what they meant. And of course there IS a process for the Iced Teapots, which I oversee. I replied asking for more specific examples, reiterating what process was currently followed for the Iced Teapots and asked for any clarification as to what they meant by more alignment given that Iced Teapots do look and function somewhat differently from regular Teapots, or how they thought the process should change if it wasn’t sufficient.

    What I got: Crickets. Nada. Nothing. ¯\_㋡_/¯

  40. Cows go moo*

    “[O]f course it’s going to make you feel defensive and paranoid.”

    Thank you for this reassurance! I was on the receiving end of vague feedback like this: “People in the company say you are too X. You should think about it.” When I asked my boss what I should do his response was even vaguer: “If you don’t know, how do I know?”

    It made me feel really bad because I didn’t know who these “people” were or what made them say that. Then when I found myself feeling defensive and paranoid I even felt guilty. But when Alison’s post made me realise it wasn’t a Me Problem. It was my boss’s problem for just throwing a personal comment and not providing any coaching about what or how to improve.

  41. Oh No She Di'int*

    I need help from other AAM readers on this one!

    I admit to having done something similar to this–not identical but close enough: My employees, Jane and Dave, had an openly hostile argument during a meeting that I was not in. I didn’t hear about the incident until after the fact.

    Within the next couple of days 2 different people who had been in the meeting came to me (completely at their own volition) to say Jane had been out of control, overreacted and had essentially bullied Dave in front of everyone.

    That same day Jane came to me complaining that Dave had been out of line in the meeting and wanted something to be done about his outrageous behavior. I felt at that point that I owed it to her to let her know that I had received 2 independent reports that *she* was the one who had been out of line, not Dave. I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t taking anyone’s word as gospel truth. I wasn’t there. But that meant I could not start scolding Dave on her word alone given all the reports in the situation.

    The rub is that I kept the details vague in order to protect the people who had reported. I felt that relaying the details of their complaint essentially would have pointed to who they were. She found this distressing.

    My point was not that Jane needed to change anything per se, but that the situation was clearly too complex for me to simply go on a crusade against Dave. She had come into my office expecting to be supported in condemning Dave and instead got told that *her* behavior may have been problematic. She felt ambushed and defensive.

    How could I have handled this better? Any ideas?

    1. Oh No She Di'int*

      Also, if it’s not appropriate to ask a question in the comments thread like this, I sincerely apologize and it’s fine to ignore/remove as appropriate!

      1. Buttons*

        Just a note– on Fridays AAM has an open thread where we can post questions and help each other! I hope you will repost there, I bet lots of people will have some great ideas. :)

    2. Close Bracket*

      Was that pretty much the meeting? She complained, you told her you had conflicting reports and couldn’t jump to doing anything about Dave? Did you ask her to tell you what happened during the meeting and get specifics out of her about Dave’s behavior and her responses from her point of view? I wonder if she left feeling unheard and unvalidated, and that contributed to feeling defensive and ambushed. You can validate that she is feeling something without validating the actual feelings. That is, “I’m hearing that when Dave said X, you felt Y,” is a statement you can make that doesn’t mean, “Dave is outrageous and I will do something about it.” Bc the thing is, Jane can be out of control, and Dave can also be outrageous.

      I just watched a harassment training video where Majority Ethnicity Dude made a racially based joke to Minority Ethnicity Dudes 1& 2 about what they did the night before. MiED1 was like, eh, no big deal, and MiED2 replied, “No, I wasn’t doing that, I was too busy with your sister.” The video went on to describe how MaED was out of line bc even though MiED1 was ok with the joke, MiED2 was not, so MaED needed to stop. I was like, um, are we not going to address the comment about the sister? In this example, Dave might be MaED, and Jane might be MiED2. So once you got Jane’s side of the story, you would start by telling Jane that you understand why she had a problem with the joke and that jokes like that are not acceptable and you will talk to Dave, and then you would move on telling Jane that it’s not ok to sexualize people’s relatives in an attempt to get back at them for inappropriate jokes (or for any other reason). Then you go talk to Dave and also to the bystanders.

      1. Oh No She Di'int*

        This is great stuff and very helpful! Thank you.

        I think your example does come very close to the true dynamic because Jane is–to put it bluntly–kind of a nitpicking control freak. But Dave is also kind of a bratty man-child.

  42. Coalea*

    This is so timely! I recently had a performance review that was positive overall, with one negative piece of feedback being that I needed to improve Behavior X. I asked for examples of when I had failed to demonstrate the behavior so that I could make the necessary improvements. My manager’s response? “I don’t have any examples of my own, and I can’t tell you the example I do have because then you will know who provided the feedback.” Ummm, okay, so how am I supposed to fix a problem if I’m not told what the problem is? He had zero helpful suggestions, which pretty much sums up his performance as my manager!

  43. AL30*

    These conversations feel to me like the boss is trying to use ‘anonymous’ feedback instead of saying what they feel about your work. I had a boss that liked to use ‘people are noticing’ when they’re things no one outside the team would/should know about (specifically ‘people are noticing that [I] work up to the line of a deadline’ but unless the boss told a client how would they know precisely when I finished a project?). I would much rather hear ‘I’ve noticed this behavior and would like to address it like this’.

  44. Violet*

    Ah, I have a current boss like this has it’s so infuriating to deal with. Except in my case, swap “urgency” for “being brusque and coworkers are afraid to approach me.” And yet she can’t seem to tell me a specific example or tie it to how it affects my quality of work. I now some into work constantly being cautious about how I come off as because now I’m worried if I even have one bad thing going on with me, that has nothing to do with anyone at work, they think it’s automatically about them. I’m honestly at my wit’s end with this.

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