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The Etiquette of Feedback

Responsible uses of back channels.

October 5, 2022

Chelsea O’Brien had a great tweet on Tuesday that got me thinking. She asked, “If you are faculty and you have a concern about how an office is functioning, I would like to request you ask to speak to the director of that area privately.”

I don’t know the story that prompted that tweet, but it stands on its own as a general rule. There are better and worse ways to complain.

For purposes of this post, I’ll address performance or behavior that would be considered annoying or disappointing, as opposed to scandalous or dangerous. Yes, there are extreme cases in which the only appropriate choice is to object immediately and conspicuously. But those are (I hope) rare. Here, I’m referring to more garden-variety irritations. I also make an exception for public figures dealing with public issues, since in that case, the entire public is basically their manager. Go ahead and complain in public about your senator if you want. Elected positions come with unique ground rules.

Outside of extreme (or elected) cases, I’ve had good luck with the general rule that praise can be public, but criticism directed at a person should be private. Admittedly, the definition of “directed at a person” can be fuzzy on the margins, but if you’re angry at an office that only has two or three people in it, it’s safe to assume that criticism will be assumed to be directed at someone.

Before delivering the criticism, it’s useful to figure out what your goal is. If the goal is improved behavior or performance, then getting folks’ backs up and/or humiliating them in public is unlikely to work. The best likely case is that they shrug it off and call you names behind your back. Worse likely cases involve breaking down in tears and threatening to quit, storming out in a huff, yelling back or—the really scary one—settling into a routine of malicious compliance. That’s when someone makes a great show of working to the letter of the rules specifically to frustrate others, whether through delay, pedantry or both. A surprising amount of human effort goes into making the bureaucratic wheels turn; it doesn’t take much to slow them down.

Related: never, ever, ever, disrespect staff. They know how to make things work, or not. If you get known as an abusive jerk, your travel reimbursement forms may just start taking the long way to the budget office. It has been known to happen. I was lucky enough to learn that lesson early. In grad school, it quickly became obvious that one administrative assistant was the one really running the place. You crossed her at your peril. I was unfailingly polite to her. These things matter.

As a manager, sometimes it’s helpful to get specific feedback. Power dynamics being what they are, some employees act differently toward their boss than toward everyone else. The “kiss up, kick down” personality is toxic, but may be invisible from above unless someone says something. Hearing one complaint about someone could be nothing, but hearing the same complaint over and over again, from different people, is a red flag. A good manager will investigate. Sometimes complaints about a person are really about the process with which the person has to work; sometimes they’re racially motivated, even if unconsciously; sometimes they’re valid. The only way to find out is to investigate.

The more elegant use of back channels is for praise. When someone goes above and beyond, a word of praise to their manager is good manners. Let good work be as noticed as bad work. Helping someone terrific look good to their boss helps everyone. Yes, some bosses are threatened by that, but unless you specifically know that applies in a given case, it’s best to roll the dice on kindness. When the boss says, “I heard you knocked it out of the park last week,” everybody wins. It doesn’t cost anything to put in a good word. It doesn’t only have to be where you work, either; I’ve put in good words with managers at the grocery store when a cashier or stock clerk was particularly helpful. The same principle applies.

In that spirit, then, thank you, Chelsea O’Brien, for saying something that needed to be said. Basic decency doesn’t cost anything, but it pays off handsomely over time.

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Matt Reed

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