While meandering your way through the corporate world, your path will invariably cross the paths of a lot of weird characters. Some of them will be your colleagues and some of them will be your superiors/managers/leaders. It is relatively easy to work with weird colleagues, as you can navigate the “potholes” they create with some ease. However, working with/for a weird superior is a challenge in itself. You have to handle them very gingerly, to not offend their delicate sensibilities. Quite a few times during my career I had to work for managers/leaders who had weird habits that made the team and me extremely uncomfortable in their presence. One of the managers I worked for, eons ago, had a very disconcerting habit. He was always itchy.He was scratching various parts of his body all the time. Don’t know what it was—dress fabric, skin condition, unhygienic lifestyle or something else. Nevertheless, one thing was constant, he was always itchy. We all felt that he never considered his persistent itching was making his team members uncomfortable. It seemed, he never gave it a second thought; to him, whatever he was doing was probably normal and perfectly acceptable. There were times when his scratching was so acute that many employees were embarrassed to even make eye contact with him. Because as he is talking, he is scratching here, scratching there, and scratching an itch everywhere.
Similarly, a friend of mine had the unfortunate privilege of working for a manager who was always itchy down there—you know where—and was frequently touching/scratching/adjusting his private parts while talking or presenting. Maybe he was a member of the pocket pool club. His habit of “playing” with himself in public was a disquieting experience for all his staff members, but was probably pure bliss for him.
Bell the (itchy) cat
So, how do you handle a situation where your supervisor has a habit that makes others in the team and you very uncomfortable to work with/for your boss. Now, if it were one of your colleagues who had a disgusting habit, then, there are direct and indirect ways to broach the matter with them. However, there is no easy way to tell your manager(s) that their strange habits, such as continuous itching or touching their private parts in public, are making their direct reports very uncomfortable. Talking to them personally about such sensitive and personal issues is probably a sure-fire way to destroy your career. In extreme cases, they may even fire you claiming ridicule, rudeness, discourtesy or disrespect.
Furthermore, if you are working in a small organization that does not have an HR function, you cannot even approach someone in HR for advice or intervention. In my experience, HR is useless in these situations anyway. They will say that they cannot do anything in this matter and very deftly put the ball back in your court. Moreover, HR will rarely involve themselves in a “fight” between employees and their manager, unless the fight goes nuclear and threatens the established order. Most importantly, in a “fight” between an employee/employees with a manager/managers, the HR will always side with the latter, come hell or high water. So, how do you “bell the cat” in a situation such as this? What do you do when you find yourself in a situation where you have to communicate a difficult message to your boss but cannot reach out to anyone for help?
Well, if you are lucky, then your stint with the firm will be very short, and you’ll land a better gig in a bigger firm and leave the scratching and the itching behind. Some of my colleagues were the lucky ones. However, for most of us unlucky ones, we had to get creative to handle the problem at hand. And that’s what we did; two of us came up with an idea. The chances of it working was slim, but slim was what we were willing to work with. Since we felt we could not approach the manager in person, we decided to send him an anonymous feedback. One of us went to a typing school, typed an anonymous letter highlighting the “itchy situation” we were in and snail-mailed it to the manager.
I am talking of an era—mid 1990s— where very few of us had an email account; hence, anonymous emails were not even a possibility. Furthermore, this company did not have an HR arm; therefore, there wasn’t a way to get any advice from HR.
After mailing the letter, we waited patiently and a couple of weeks later the letter arrived. We knew that the letter had arrived based on his discomfort around us one particular day. Then, he was away from work for the next few days. When he returned to work, there was a noticeable change in the way he conducted himself around us. The anonymous feedback definitely worked, because the persistent scratching of an itch stopped. Maybe all it took to fix the itch was a visit to a doctor and a skin lotion.
However, in the case of the pocket pool guy, a similar anonymous feedback did not work. The guy just ignored the anonymous feedback and continued on with his obnoxious behavior. Maybe he thought the anonymous letter was a prank by someone or maybe the guy was a weirdo and got some weird satisfaction by touching himself in front of his employees.
Feedback in the new century
OK, I do realize that my anecdotes are from a bygone era, so last century as some would say. So, how would you address similar situations in today’s time and age? For example, instead of a persistent itch, what if your manager has a bad body odour? How would you let him know that (s)he stinks? How would you provide this upward feedback? Remember, nobody wants to hear that
their child is they are ugly stinky.
An unconventional method of providing a feedback, such as a feedback via an anonymous email may still work today. Or, maybe it won’t; the manager may take the feedback as someone trolling and laugh it away and ignore it completely. Alternatively, can you approach HR and ask them to convey the feedback anonymously? Can HR “bell the cat” for you? Maybe; maybe not. I think it probably depends from organization to organization. In my case, most interactions with HR were unsatisfactory. They were never helpful when it came to providing some creative ideas to handle difficult situations. HR rarely had any original ideas; they mostly had canned responses, which hadn’t evolved with time. Furthermore, what if the firm you are working for is quite small and does not have an HR department? Then, you are SOL, and you’ll have to get creative.
Upward feedback/360-degree feedback
In many organizations, the HR department facilitates upward and 360-degree feedback. Both types of feedback are anonymously collected using surveys and questionnaires. In upward feedback, only the subordinates provide their thoughts on managerial effectiveness of their boss(es). In 360-degree feedback, companies use surveys and questionnaires to collect feedback from peers, subordinates, supervisors, customers, etc., on an employee’s effectiveness and job performance. HR then collates the survey results, analyzes them and communicates them to the respective employees. Employees surveyed via those two methods are then required to define an action plan to work on the areas of improvement.
Both upward feedback and 360-degree feedback are generally conducted by an independent third-party vendor to ensure transparency and to also ensure that nobody from the parent organization is able to influence the results of the survey.
Please be careful about upward feedback if you are the only person reporting to your boss. Your feedback although collected anonymously will obviously not be anonymous.
In my opinion, upward and 360-degree feedback are no different to what we had done above—anonymous feedback via snail-mail—except that both upward and 360-degree feedback have the stamp of legitimacy from HR. In our case, the small company we were working for did not have an HR arm; hence, we had to resort to an unconventional method of providing the feedback. Different methods achieving the same results, I’d say.
How to provide direct feedback to your boss
The operative word to use while providing direct feedback to your boss is—carefully. Bosses everywhere have a very thin skin and are easily offended, and you don’t want to offend your boss(es). And if your boss is abusive, then, you have to be extra careful. (S)He can make your life a living hell if they feel slighted.
If you are considering providing direct feedback to your boss, then, do keep the following observations—based on my experience—in mind:
- Consider the merits and demerits of providing the direct feedback. If demerits outweigh the merits, don’t. Don’t burn any bridges.
- For every boss who can take a direct feedback, nine others can’t, and those bosses will lash out at you, covertly or overtly.
- One or two feedback at a time and to the point. Prevent overloading of feedback. Humans can’t handle too many feedback in a single session.
- Most bosses have big egos. Big egos and feedback don’t necessarily mix well. Tread carefully.
- Most bosses do not want to hear the truth about themselves. Lie to them about themselves, praise them, place them on a pedestal and your career will fly.
- Humans, in general, don’t like to be corrected and think very highly of themselves. Most of us suffer from Dunning-Kruger effect—a cognitive bias where we self assess our cognitive ability as better than what it really is.
- Finally, remember Peter principle—in a hierarchy people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. And incompetent people have delicate sensibilities. This principle has stood me in good stead in every facet of life.
And here are some useful links to websites that contain information on how to provide direct feedback to you boss.
- Giving feedback to your boss (Forbes)
- Should you give honest feedback about your manager (INC)
- How to give your boss feedback (HBR)
- Stop pretending that you can’t give candid feedback (HBR)
- The best way to give honest feedback to your boss (Lifehacker)
So, can we learn any lessons from the anecdotes above? Yes, I think so.
- Some of our actions or habits, however innocuous they may seem to us, may offend someone or make someone uncomfortable. For e.g., many of us go to work with a flu, since we do not want to use a day or two of sick leave. It may seem perfectly normal to us; however, to our team members our action may be a cause of concern, as they may want to keep away, and rightfully so, from a person who is a carrier of an infectious disease. After all nobody wants to fall sick, right?
- Empathize. Put yourself in your employees’ shoes and look at things from their perspective. Great managers/leaders do that.
- Some people make course corrections given proper feedback, even though it is delivered anonymously, and some people couldn’t care less if their actions are offending someone; they will carry on without budging an inch.
- Sometimes unconventional thinking works and works best.
- Yes, in the game of life, you win some and you lose some of your bets; that’s how it is. Life’s unfair, but you have to carry on with the journey.
N.B. Names used in this post are fictional. Any similarity with/resemblance to any real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Please don’t get triggered.