Bad Boss BS: “I didn’t mean that”

Four 2d characters stand close to but slightly apart from a 3d bad boss character.

Words are great. They’re one of my favourite ways of communicating. But they can also be ambiguous. “Break” has 71 meanings. “Play” has 52. “Down”, “slip” and “snap” have 26 meanings each — one for each letter of the alphabet. Feedback is often delivered in words. And words can be vague, ambiguous and open to interpretation (which is three ways of saying the same thing). Bad bosses can fail at feedback through imprecision or by failing to recognise that what they say and what we hear might be two different things. So what are the dangers that language presents in feedback conversations — and is there anything we can do to help clarify the message?

Understanding labels

Bad feedback is often delivered in vague labels. “You’re very passionate in meetings” is the sort of unqualified ambiguous feedback that could mean lots of things. Is passion a good thing or a bad thing? A label like passionate might elicit different reactions and mean different things to different people. The problem with vague feedback using this type of label is that it’s likely to trigger an emotional response. It feels like it talks about us as people, rather than behaviours we enact.

When bad bosses continually use emotionally charged language to label us, we’re likely to default into “wrong spotting” — we think of all the reasons why the “accusation” isn’t true. This reduces our chances of interrogating and understanding why they chose that word and what they might understand and mean by it.

In ‘Thanks for the feedback” Stone and Heen describe how we can increase the value that we get from even badly communicated feedback when we move from “wrong spotting” (why the feedback isn’t valid) to “difference spotting” how our version of “the facts” differs from the way the boss has described them.

There are some tricks that we can use to slow down our emotional reactions to poor language choices and interrogate the meaning and motivation behind them. This gives us a better chance of understanding the boss — even if they’ve done a bad job of starting off the conversation.

The feedback equation (INPUT = OUTCOME)

Think of any feedback that includes coaching and evaluation as an equation. There’s input (the feedback) and the outcome — some change that the boss is trying to achieve.

The feedback or evaluation should be based on data and the interpretation of that data. This provides the motivation to the boss and the content of the message they’re trying to convey. Take a step back from the language that’s been used and try to get a clear sense of this side of the equation. Where is the feedback coming from — what is the data and what interpretation has the boss made, given that data they’ve received. Consider what’s different about the way you understand the situation compared with how the boss has communicated it. Use this as the basis for exploring the issue.

The other side of the equation deals with the outcomes the boss is hoping to achieve. This side of the equation might contain advice, consequences or expectations. But again, the language the boss uses to convey these could spark defensiveness or aggression if it’s badly phrased, ambiguous or doesn’t feel fair.

Feedback is a transaction that sometimes requires translation. Bosses come to us with information they want to share and an outcome they want to achieve — but bad bosses can do a poor job of communicating one or both sides of this equation.

We can help a bad boss to explain themselves by showing patience and resilience as we explore their meaning and build a shared picture of both sides of the equation. Ask yourself what’s different about the data and the ways they’ve described things. Ask yourself why we might think their expectations are unreasonable? Ask yourself if what’s right about the feedback and build outwards from there. Ask them about any words that you have a particular problem interpreting or responding to. When we show genuine commitment to understanding their feedback, even a bad boss can’t object to answering these sort of questions.

Feedback conversations can be some of the most valuable interactions that we have at work. So, it’s a shame when we miss the meaning because of a poorly communicated message. We can gather valuable information by helping explore an ambiguous message, and by doing this with patience and rigour we give the boss fresh language they can use in future conversations.

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