Direct VS indirect critique in a workplace

I received the first critique of my work performance in the interviewer job recently. My Supervisor politely made me aware that my admin hours are too high, which means that I spend too much time checking and correcting interview forms. So I asked how much time admin is expected to take per workload on average, and she told me:

  • How much time they expect me to spend on average per assignment
  • How much time she spends (having years of experience)

A clear guideline. I didn’t know before she told me since I never see anyone else’s hour sheets, so I had no benchmark. Therefore I followed my natural inclination to be as thorough and detail-oriented ‘as possible’*. It may have been exacerbated by my great respect for my employer and desire to please them. So now I know, and can adjust my time consumption VS zealousness balance to a viable level.

 

Graph shows the trade-off between cost and quality
‘The cost of quality’ by Linda Bourne.
(source: Project Manager.com.au)

 

My supervisor spent the rest of the conversation giving positive feedback, and overall the conversation left me feeling good but aware that I need to adjust my admin time. So now I am trying to rein in my pedantic tendencies.

 

Memory flash back

Then I came to think of a comment that confused me several months ago, made by one of the office ladies during the last interviewer assembly. She said to me and another interviewer that we don’t need to do research to verify and complete partial responses when we check the interview forms, because it will be checked in the office anyway. ‘It is just double work’.

The comment confused me and kept circling in my mind, seeding uncertainty about what to do when checking the forms, because it contradicted the guidelines we had learned in the training course. It broke the clean line of consistency I associate with the employer. Every aspect of the job is regulated by clear, well defined rules; not by a diversity of ad hoc staff interpretations (as may be common in some other workplaces).

I ended up telling the boss about it and asked her to clarify the rules. She confirmed my understanding of the rules and said she would follow up with the office ladies.

 

Message received. Finally

Now, several months later, I can hear what the lady probably REALLY said to me about checking the forms. She probably said: ‘Your admin hours are too high!’ I get it now (I think). With a few months of delay.

The comment caused confusion and no improvement, because it did not specify the problem and its consequence. In contrast, my supervisor’s specific and clear critique is helpful and enables me to take action, and it does not cause any confusion.

What this really highlights is how much easier workplace communication can be in the absence** of a social workplace environment and its expectations about intercepting indirect communication.

My supervisor’s supervises employees who she rarely sees face to face, and who are not ever present in the office; who therefore can never be expected to pick up on any indirect messages from the office ladies. So she communicates and passes on feedback in a direct and concise manner, and even supports some types of messages with a written, concise summary afterwards.

What a relief! and what a difference from my experience working in an office and other workplaces where there could be a sense of looming dissatisfaction without being able to pinpoint the source of it, and where serious complaints could hit suddenly, like a lightening strike from a clear sky (I do fear this could still happen in my current job although I am not physically present in the workplace).

 

Questions to readers 

Have you encountered any of this in a place where you worked:

  • Good communication. What made it work well?
  • Miscommunication. What made it go wrong?
  • Being targeted with any kind of complaints. What triggered it and how did you handle it?

 

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*Unless I find the work is boring or meaningless, in which case I’m capable of totally overlooking even humongous details.

**Obviously I and my colleagues in similar positions are the absent ones – the workplace is very much present.

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9 thoughts on “Direct VS indirect critique in a workplace

  1. A Quiet Week

    Hello my friend!

    I am returning to the internet with bigger steps now. I wanted to say hello and thank you for all the visits and kind words. 🙂

    I have an uneven work history. I understand just how you feel, understanding what was meant after a loooong time has passed. Years after reading reviews about my “lack of flexibility” or “overly detailed reports” I understand what happened.

    Alas, when I work again I hope to construct a position that will play to my strengths without knocking me down for my weaknesses.

    My biggest communication issues have been difficulty understanding nuances of meaning. When I worked with schizophrenics, I fared much better with the clients than my co-workers. I think this is because I would question my clients when I did not understand and nod and smile with my co-workers.

    Miscommunication was a big problem due to me having a thin skin. I felt crushed if I misunderstood a client and took it very personally. I’d obsess and agonize for days. Same with co-workers. My intent was always to do good, I felt terrible if my misunderstanding caused difficulties.

    I don’t recall any complaints, but I had a co-worker who criticized me for my lack of experience. It was one of those “I’m going to teach you to do a better job” situations that always left me feeling overwhelmed and deficient.

    I worked well at this job because I enjoyed the clients so much. I felt deeply connected to them and as if I could help make a difference. Oddly, that same love led to burn out. I had trouble letting go at the end of the day and would fret constantly.

    Now, I write to connect with people and to help. It is easier and I don’t stay up late worrying about social aspects and I can take breaks as I need.

    Happy Day!
    Lori

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    1. Mados

      Hi Lori,

      Thank you and welcome back to bigger steps!… it is very nice to hear from you!

      Alas, when I work again I hope to construct a position that will play to my strengths without knocking me down for my weaknesses.

      That’s my goal too! With “construct a position”, do you mean self-employment or some sort of workplace accommodations?

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    2. Mados

      “overly detailed reports”… Heh:-) I’ve had that one too, albeit as gossip which I discovered indirectly. (after getting sacked! It is the same incidence/workplace I wrote about earlier) I do realise that I have a tendency to go out on a tangent when I write. I’m trying to be really careful to not do that when it isn’t appropriate (like in a report/summary), but it is really difficult to work out the right the balance between ‘insufficient information’ and ‘too detailed’.

      You description of working with schizophrenics reminds me of when I worked in aged/handicap care. Now I won’t make myself nicer that I am, because I found most of the practical tasks dreadfully slow and boring and have little patience with certain kinds of behaviours. But I did feel much more comfortable with the clients than the colleagues, and had good relationships with many of the clients. I somewhat feared my colleagues based on presumptions of being an easy potential target + many who work in the care sector do so not because they want to but because they aren’t qualified for anything else, so ‘they seem frustrated, and may respond to the temptation to take it out on someone’ + they tend to be a specific type of people who are very different from me and communicate in less obvious ways, so there is great potential for miscommunication!

      I coped by having multiple casual jobs within the care sector so I could adjust my number of hours for each employer according to how I was going. Cranky or mysterious colleagues = fewer hours.

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  2. bloodfreak

    Every aspect of the job is regulated by clear, well defined rules; not by a diversity of ad hoc staff interpretations (as may be common in some other workplaces).

    *May* be common? I think I can confirm that it is indeed quite common. It sounds like you’ve found what many would consider to be the perfect workplace. At one point in time, I might have thought so as well, though now, I’m not so sure.

    To your questions:

    Good communication. What made it work well?

    Specific instances of good communication, not sure if I can point to a moment in time per se. More often, you don’t notice them. Things simply flow, and even when a challenge surfaces, people aren’t afraid to raise it and discuss it without fear of reprisal. I believe direct, honest communication is the best approach, and it’s not as simple as it sounds for most people. Learning to be direct without sugar-coating things *and* without ruffling too many feathers is hard. People also need to learn to develop thicker skins and recognize that a challenge to an idea is not a personal attack.

    Miscommunication. What made it go wrong?

    For me, I have great difficulty with the overly-diplomatic, politically correct style of communication. (When you talked about your flashback, I have a feeling that this is also the problem of that office lady you mentioned. She probably did *not* say, “your admin hours are too high” and therein lies the problem!) These people seem to be afraid to utter a phrase unless every possible interpretation is addressed and all in the same breath. Every word must be couched in a euphemism because Heaven forbid, someone might misunderstand and have their feelings hurt! Some people’s words are so nuanced that the intention is completely lost. When I have to work with these people, I almost always experience miscommunications.

    This seems to be a style favored by people with very formal, traditional project management background, and it’s very much at odds with people from technical backgrounds, who tend to favor a direct — sometimes bordering on laconic — style of communications.

    Being targeted with any kind of complaints. What triggered it and how did you handle it?

    Ah, I do have a personal story for this one! I came to work one day without showering and having perspired a lot. I was quite rank and I knew it, but I figured if I kept my arms down, I’d be safe.

    It was a smallish family organization, maybe a dozen people in the office, no formal HR to speak of. It was the comptroller/owner’s son who asked me in to his office and gently but directly said that there was some concern that my clothes smelled 🙂 It was a bit embarrassing, but I wasn’t completely surprised. I said it was me that smelled, not my clothes. I’d been in a hurry and didn’t have time to take a shower that morning. We laughed it off and I don’t think either of us felt too uncomfortable after that. I got along really well with everyone there and it was generally a good work atmosphere. I’ve never had an “HR issue” since then, but that was my last clerical job. I entered the high tech industry after that, working mostly in organizations with established HR procedures for just about every possible conflict. Judging by how I saw other people’s HR conflicts getting resolved, I have a feeling if the same incident had occurred in any of these places, it would have been handled very differently and it would have much more uncomfortable for everyone involved.

    Sorry for the blather again. I really do try to pare it down!

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    1. Mados

      Thank you for your observations! It sounds like direct, honest communication applied with tact/diplomacy/skilfulness is what makes/made workplace communication work well in all the situations you mention. – and that when the communication style works well, then it isn’t noticeable much.

      She probably did *not* say, “your admin hours are too high” and therein lies the problem!)

      What she meant is just my interpretation (=guess!), and it isn’t her job to give me feedback, since I don’t work in the office. It is the field supervisor’s job, and she does that really well…

      I wrote about my suspicion that the office girl tried to give feedback in a well-intentioned, cautious, indirect way that just happened to not work on me… but maybe she did not.

      Otherwise, I don’t know much about office lady-culture … I have worked in an office before, but there were very few ladies.

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  3. autisticook

    I’m still working on workplace communication. It’s one of my biggest pitfalls.

    One perfect example that comes to mind is at my previous job. We had two general managers and a team supervisor for support (which used to be my job, until it got taken over by a personal friend of one of the two general managers). I was working late one day trying to fix a problem and had to enter my work hours in our administration when I discovered that I couldn’t enter overtime anymore. I didn’t get any paid overtime but the rule was that any extra hours could be taken as lieu time.

    So I sent an email explaining why I’d been working late and saying that I wasn’t able to enter this in our administration, which would make it very hard to keep track of my lieu time and whether it had been approved or rejected. I also said I didn’t mind arranging extra time off with my team supervisor but that this informal solution would of course mean that nobody had any way of checking.

    I got a reply the next morning from one of the GMs saying that according to the time stamp on the email, I’d only worked an extra 26 minutes, which being less than half an hour would not be compensated anyway (never mind that I had to still shut down my computer and lock up the office after that). Also, he asked me to email all requests to my supervisor so he would be able to check whether I’d actually worked that much. Besides, I’d arrived 15 minutes late on Monday so that would compensate for any lieu time I still figured I should get.

    I replied by saying I had already compensated the 15 minutes on Monday by staying 15 minutes longer and not logging any lieu time, and would talk to my supervisor about the rest, no problem.

    The GM stood at my desk within 1 minute of sending that last email, tersely ordered me to step into his office, and proceeded to YELL at me for about 10 minutes how my incredibly bad attitude would no longer be acceptable and I’d better apologise to him RIGHT NOW.

    I still have no idea what I did wrong.

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    1. Mados

      Wow… Sounds like a hostile management style. And it sounds like he got extremely pissed off… It can’t even be your tone of voice, because it was in writing. At a glance it sounds like the manager is the one with bad attitude. Were all 3 of them like that?

      (which used to be my job, until it got taken over by a personal friend of one of the two general managers)

      Maybe there could be some political explanations rooted in that. First of all, did they just downgrade you and give your job to a friend of theirs? That sounds incredible rude.

      Second, if that’s the case then they may have scape goated you to justify it. Especially the supervisor probably wouldn’t want you around in the workplace at all any more, being morally uneasy with the coup and nervous of retaliation and having to constantly prove that “it was the right choice, I am better at the job” to you, him/herself and your co-workers… stressful. Maybe they’d like to but couldn’t or wouldn’t outright sack you, so they’d scapegoated you so as to justify their own decisions, having someone to direct agressions at, and maybe put pressure on you so you wouldn’t keep hanging around forever.

      It sounds like you were perceived as having attitude (not just from this comment, you have mentioned it somewhere else as well). That could have set it all off and got you into the “negative lime light” and at the stage where this happened, the incidence could have little to do with the actual interaction and everything to do with the inertia of a collective negative attitude to you that had been growing over long time, like a rolling snowbold. At this stage, the behind the scene negative attitude to you (or even hidden workplace bullying) could have reached the Point of No Return where it was just a matter of time before the pressure would push you over the edge, out of the workplace… which may be what at least some of them wanted anyway.

      So maybe at that time where the incident took place, even the slightest disagreement from your side was reacted to as a provocation, and there was really nothing you could do any different, because they’d just put pressure on you till you objected and then call your objection “bad attitude”. Plus, maybe the manager had a bad day and snapped easily.

      That’s what I imagine could be a possible explanation, based on my own experiences and what you write here and some of the other things you’ve written. One thing I do understand better now than when I started working is that with social conflicts in the workplace, often the explanation is deeper and more collective and more complicated than the actual incidence. I have the same problem as you it seems: I don’t notice the build-up phase and only realise that I have social workplace problems when it is too late to fix them:-(

      Thank you for all your inspiring comments:-) I appreciate your contributions very much, I got very exited when I saw them:-) I will answer the other comments later because my morning coffee/computer time is over now, and I need to start my workday.

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  4. autisticook

    Thank you for taking the time to respond at such length! Now it feels like I’m using you as my therapist. 😛
    I only offered it as a typical illustration, there were LOADS of issues that came to a head in that job and that made me finally decide I needed some help tackling workplace politics. Especially since everyone except the managers basically loved me. Customers and coworkers alike. Not exaggerating, I received a lot of nice messages and recommendations after the managers fired me. So… it’s definitely an authority/politics thing that I suck at. Because something must have been bad enough for them to try and get rid of one of their most hard-working, productive, and appreciated employees.
    And I hope I can figure out what that was. So I can stop it from happening again in future jobs.

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    1. Mados

      You are welcome! Thank you for providing such a detailed illustration!

      Especially since everyone except the managers basically loved me. Customers and coworkers alike. Not exaggerating, I received a lot of nice messages and recommendations after the managers fired me.

      That is very nice to hear. Is that your typical workplace issues from other workplace experiences as well – that you are well liked, but have difficulty with authority / management politics?

      Now it feels like I’m using you as my therapist. 😛

      Heh… That is funny. Anyway, blogging can be quite therapeutic. (and much cheaper than real therapy;-)

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