Sandi is an up-and-coming marketing manager at a big tech company—at least she thought she was. Then she started receiving negative feedback in emails from her manager. Things began to go south when Sandi had what she thought was a typical one-on-one meeting with her manager. Shortly after she returned to her office, Sandi received a recap email from her manager that included improvement feedback that wasn’t discussed at the meeting.
Over the next few weeks, Sandi received several other emails with negative feedback from her manager, most of which she felt was incorrect, unjustified, or nitpicky. Suspecting that her manager was creating a paper trail to put her on a performance improvement plan, Sandi decided to stand up for herself.
She sent a reply to the latest critical email from her boss and refuted each point her manager had made, including screenshots of her work to prove her case.
This was only Sandi’s first retaliatory strike. Shortly after that, Sandi told her story of unfair treatment to a writer for a major business news outlet, who published her ordeal to millions of readers, naming Sandi’s employer.
The article didn’t indicate what Sandi planned to do next, but we can safely assume it is one of two things: she either quit soon after the article was published, or she is spending most of her working time plotting her next move against her employer.
Blame Bombs Are a Culture Killer
Sending negative feedback via email is a coward’s way of avoiding difficult conversations. It is toxic to relationships because it feels like an attack—like a bomb being dropped out of nowhere.
It’s not just terrible bosses who send negative feedback via email. It’s also the most common passive-aggressive tactic used by coworkers to blame each other for problems, particularly across department lines.
Blame is the number one culture killer, and email is blame’s safest delivery vehicle. It strikes from a distance, so the attacker doesn’t have to look the enemy in the eye.
Employee engagement is the first casualty of a culture that tolerates blame. Blame bombs not only destroy relationships and teamwork, but they also waste a massive amount of time and energy as the vicious cycle described in the story above escalates and repeats.
Turnover is another casualty of blame culture. Employees might cite other reasons for their departure in their exit interviews, but many people leave because they are simply tired of the battle and having to remain constantly vigilant to protect themselves. There is a reason why the word “attrition” is used to describe the loss of people in both war and business.
Can your organization afford to lose even one person to blame bombs?
The Best Defence System
This type of passive-aggressive behavior may happen in some organizations more than others, but it happens to some degree in every workplace that doesn’t institute the following rule:
Don’t give negative feedback in emails.
If you think someone might not like to hear what you want to tell them, speak to them face to face or via a video chat or a phone call if a face-to-face meeting isn’t possible.
It really is that simple.
The only exception to this rule is when one person asks another to review their work. In that case, the feedback is requested, expected, and is often best provided in writing.
Insecure people hide behind texts and emails, and their relationships suffer as a result.
Strong people pick up the phone or wait for the next scheduled one-on-one meeting to discuss potential friction points.
Originally published March 7, 2023 on LinkedIn.