One of the best pieces of advice I received early in my leadership career was this:
“Don’t get into the business of third-party feedback.”
This means to receive feedback about the behavior of someone on your team and then try to address that behavior, even though it is essentially hearsay.
I didn’t always follow this advice, because I interpreted my management role to be the problem-solver and the person responsible for the team (and subsequently responsible for how others experienced my team).
What this did was put me in the place of being either the referee or the parent choosing sides, righting wrongs, and generally holding my team back from handling problems independently. When I got involved in situations I didn’t experience firsthand, I sometimes discredited myself and undermined the team. Here’s how.
Let’s say a someone comes to you and shares feedback about one of your direct reports, let’s call her Michelle. This person says,
“I wanted to let you know that Michelle was really rude in yesterday’s meeting. She interrupted people, disagreed a little too directly, and spoke condescendingly. I wanted you to know so you can address it.”
Even if Michelle has a reputation for interrupting, most managers don’t address this kind of feedback or behavior because it’s too uncomfortable. Many will avoid it. But let’s say you don’t, and you attempt to address it with her. Such as,
“Hi Michelle, Can we talk about yesterday’s meeting? I heard that it didn’t go too well. Were you maybe interrupting a bit or disagreeing with a lot of the ideas? I heard that you may have come across a little condescending.”
Not bad, right? You’re being tentative and trying to give benefit of the doubt by saying “maybe” and “may have.” But then Michelle says,
“No, I wasn’t. I thought the meeting went great. Can you give me an example when I sounded condescending? And, who told you this?”
Now what are you going to do? You can’t disclose who gave the feedback and you can’t give an example because you weren’t there.
What you’ve really done is demonstrate that you trust the feedback giver more than you trust Michelle by siding with them and believing their feedback was accurate. Worse, you’ve pitted employees against each other and left Michelle wondering who is talking about her behind her back.
For many cases, third party feedback is not something to act upon. If health and safety are at risk or there are reports of sexual harassment or workplace violence, then you definitely should. Uncover the facts and follow your organization's reporting policies.
But for all the other instances where someone shares feedback about someone else's bad behavior, here is what to do instead.
Recognize that All Feedback Is Biased
An executive I used to work with had a reputation for saying “Every story has 17 sides.” Meaning, one person’s perspective won’t represent the full context of an interaction.
Misunderstandings and personality conflicts run rampant at work. Some people we work well with, others we don't. The point here is that all feedback is biased in some way towards an individual’s experience is. Someone's feedback is merely coming through their personal lens.
In addition, unconscious preferences that favor one group over another are also at play, like sexism, racism, ageism, etc. Because it's unconscious, we don't actively realize this bias is present. It is also hurtful and because the large majority of humans do not want to hurt others, it's difficult to admit.
That said, there is a wealth of research to support that all the -isms are alive and well in the workplace today. Here are a few examples:
Women are viewed less likeable and less likely to be hired for demonstrating the same traits as men (see the Heidi/Howard experiment).
Women of color with equal education and competence are viewed less skilled and promoted less frequently than white peers (Brookings.edu).
Older workers are more likely to be viewed in a negative light and have a lower status than younger peers (Harvard Business Review).
Think back to Michelle in the earlier example. Would she be considered rude if she were a man? If she were white? If she were 25, 45, or 65 years old?
Leaders must recognize that there are 17 sides to the feedback they receive from others. It could be conscious or unconscious bias, it could be the result of a misunderstanding, or all of the above.
Passing biased feedback along is not only unhelpful and unfair but it can also be hurtful.
Put Yourself in a Position to Witness Behavior
If a leader is still concerned the feedback received may be affecting staff wellbeing or mental health, then getting in the position to witness it firsthand is needed.
For example, during my most recent leadership position, I received feedback that one of my directors was intimidating her team and staff feared retaliation for disagreeing with her. I wasn’t provided examples and wasn’t seeing the behavior myself. So, I unexpectedly attended one of her staff meetings.
I sat toward the back, listened, and watched. What I observed was the leader remained standing throughout the entire meeting. When a staff member spoke up in the meeting, the leader would move to stand close to or right behind that employee while they spoke.
It felt intimidating to watch. I could only imagine what it felt like to experience. This was observable behavior that was easily interpreted as intimidating, and I addressed it.
Make a Connection
If there isn’t an opportunity to witness behavior firsthand, then reach out and make a connection with the person who is believed to be behaving badly. Get to know them. Find out how they’re doing, what is going well for them and what isn’t. Ask them if they have what they need to do their job well and what you can do to make their job better.
Bad behavior at work is almost always grounded in insecurity, a need for control, or feeling wronged by the boss, the team, or the company. Making a real human connection can go a long way in building trust and ultimately addressing whatever might be the root cause of the behavior.
Acting on third party feedback is a quick way to discredit your leadership. Most of the time - do not address it. Rather, strive to seek first-hand experiences and make a deeper connection to uncover what might be sparking the bad behavior.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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