I It was barely in my 20’s when I found myself thrown into the vagaries of middle management. It’s a weird position to be in. I was telling people what to do and how to do it when I’d barely managed to be a person in the world (I’m still figuring that one out).
When it comes to finessing the finer points of office politics, there’s no one better to ask than a public servant. And fortunately I had one on tap. My mother had spent the better part of her career navigating the treacherous waters of the Australian Public Service (there was a period when her job title was actually “navigator”), so whenever a tricky or even mildly bemusing issue came up at work, I turned to her.
I don’t remember specifics of the situation that resulted in my mum’s best-ever piece of advice, but her words have stayed with me throughout my career. At the times I’ve conducted myself in ways I feel most proud of, they helped me to do it. And they’ve haunted me after some of my greatest interpersonal and professional regrets.
Her suggestion was pretty simple. It’s a 21st century update on Thumper’s rule:If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”, adapted to the fact that sometimes you need to say something not nice. It boils down to this: if you’re telling someone they’ve done well, say it in writing. If you’re delivering bad feedback, say it out loud.
In a managerial context, this is incredibly useful. It allows the person to whom you’re giving negative feedback to ask follow-up questions and to defend themselves if you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. It means they can’t read over what you’ve said later as a cudgel to beat themselves with and, from a ruthlessly strategic vantage, it also means they can’t forward unkind words out of context.
When you are saying something nice, it means you’ve left a paper trail, something they can keep, look back on and hopefully feel good about.
Mum gave me this suggestion around 2010, when Facebook and Twitter were toddlers, and Instagram was barely on the sonogram.
Now that bad feedback can be delivered publicly and to almost anyone at any time, the intervening years have only served to underscore the wisdom of her words.
She was teaching me about the value of checking in, before any hands were wrung over calling out. She was offering me a primer on defamation. She was giving me an opportunity to practice gratitude before mindfulness became trendy.
Thumper’s mother was a Pollyanna. I’m blessed that mine is a pragmatist.
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