columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

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 with 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?

Green responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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