If I was a self-respecting clickbaiter, this would be the part where I distract you with the offer to purchase a barrage of consumer goods (of varying degrees of bawdiness) or send you on a möbius-striplike path of external links in search of whatever nugget of wisdom I supposedly have to offer. But as much as I started this blog in pursuit of clicks, that objective has since changed (in case you hadn’t noticed). Lo and behold, I actually have a real, honest-to-goodness suggestion to make.
[A couple of quick things on the point about the objectives of this site. 1. I’ve only drawn a minor amount of attention to this so far, but here’s me pointing out definitively that my objectives changed dramatically with my departure from Purgatory. I feel a little embarrassed about some of my earlier posts in which I openly appealed for clicks, but I’ll leave them as is. They’re a good reminder that my purpose – in a variety of ways – has become much broader. 2. I was reflecting today on the fact that White-Collar Purgatory was the textbook example of a situation in which “if you’re not laughing, you’re crying”. These days I’m much less inclined toward outright satire in my writing, not because I’ve lost my sense of humor (I hope), but because – I’m realizing – satire was my outlet for so. much. frustration. I mean, to some extent, I knew that and you knew that. But what I perhaps didn’t realize was how much less I would be inclined toward satire in the absence of that frustration. These days, no frustration – no, really – seems to be yielding not only a different agenda, but a different tone too.]
A week-or-so ago, I met a friend for lunch to catch up on events that have been detailed on this site. He and I met professionally some years ago and have remained in touch, socially, since. This is relevant because it means he is well versed in matters of white-collar purgatory (my words, not his).
At one point in our conversation, I offered a representative anecdote of a boss I once had. In my travels as an office dweller, this particular boss was not unique in his deployment of condescension as a power-mongering tool – this is the calling card of many an unlikable manager – but he was, let’s say, pretty good at it. The kind of person that always seemed to find a way to be just the right amount of patronizing: repulsive, but only to a degree that would still allow him to backpedal (“oh, I didn’t mean it like that”) if he were ever called on it.
My representative anecdote was not particularly sensational (which was kind of my point, re: this boss’s behavior): it simply involved him, after a meeting that we attended together, patting me on the back and congratulating me for having had the courage to speak up in the presence of hierarchical superiors.
(Admittedly, as a functioning adult who fancies himself unafraid of petty reprimand, I did have the option of pointing out my distaste for this sort of thing. However, these moments were common and my objecting in every instance would have created strain that, frankly, I didn’t want to deal with. The problem was with the person: this was someone who took pride in issuing passing reminders about the fact that he – the middle manager in a large corporation – was personally responsible for signing off on his staff’s paychecks. He wasn’t about to change.)
You might have guessed that I did not want this person’s approval for my having conducted myself as – again – any functioning adult would. In fact, I found it pretty offensive. For a moment, set aside what you know about my feelings toward faceless corporations and all that they entail: I imagine you’ll still understand when I say that I don’t think a person should feel the need to kowtow to those who ‘outrank’ them in some arbitrary way. (Note: I’m talking about no form of hierarchy other than that found in a big corporation.) If you want my opinion on how things should work, I’d say that such a relationship ought to be respectful, not reverent. By extension, to congratulate a person on so much as speaking in the presence of superiors implies a culture of reverence that I want no part of.
In the moments following my anecdote, my friend expressed concern that perhaps he too was guilty of such condescension, however inadvertent, toward the people who report to him in his job. I pointed out that the mere fact of his having this concern probably meant that he wasn’t guilty of any such thing. Besides, I know him and know that he’s a genuine, caring sort of person who would – by sheer intuition – probably never treat his subordinates in any way that would be construed as patronizing.
But as we had this conversation, I realized that I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, as it relates to this particular dynamic, that allows a conscientious manager to avoid coming across as offensive. After all, it can’t be wrong to offer congratulations for a job well done (assuming that such congrats are warranted), can it? And surely the answer isn’t to simply never offer such sentiments, for fear of offending the person at which they’re directed. (It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is the fastest route to another common WCP phenomenon: the problem of feeling underappreciated).
We ended up moving on to other things, but I’ve come back to the question in my mind a couple of times since. And guess what? I’ve figured it out.
All you have to do is follow the link at the end of this article and fill out a short questionnaire, then the answer will be revealed to you…
(See? Still have a sense of humor. Boom.)
Here’s the trick, as I see it:
Thank, don’t congratulate.
When I think back to superiors I’ve enjoyed working with (and, if I may say so, how I conduct myself when managing staff), the positive affirmation that I think works best is expression of gratitude:
Thank someone for a job well done. Thank them for their recent contributions. Thank them for the work that resulted in them earning a raise or a promotion or a bonus. Etc.
I think this approach provides for all of the accolade that’s entailed in a – even well intentioned – word of congrats, and replaces the condescension with the face-value gratitude that’s on offer. This – at least in my experience – actually feels good, and not the least bit patronizing. Why? I think the psychoanalysis could get pretty deep here (not that I’m qualified to provide an authoritative opinion anyway); instead, I’ll summarize my thoughts as follows: I think the ‘good’ approach is based on the praiser having an unassuming respect for the praisee, whereas the ‘bad’ approach is predicated on a dynamic wherein the praisee requires the praiser’s approval. Which is to say, it’s loaded with an inherent recognition that, quite literally, “I’m the boss of you.” And that’s just kind of a dickish thing to needlessly point out. (Various other adjectives fit just as well here, in place of “dickish”. Take your pick: insecure, maddening, childish, pathetic, etc.)
By the way, am I suggesting that sentiments of congratulation are always misplaced? No, actually. I think they’re appropriate when commending someone with whom you’re not linked by a power dynamic. So, a peer or a colleague or some such? Perfect. Congratulate away. Thanking them for earning a promotion would be a little weird.
(One other point of clarification seems worthwhile. Clearly the above is something I’ve had to put some thought into even organizing my thoughts on, so what of the hapless manager who unwittingly condescends in the way that I described? Is obliviousness an excuse? I say no. Obliviously unpleasant bosses are everywhere in white-collar wonderland. Hell, both the BBC and NBC made wildly successful sitcoms in the 2000s based on just that fact. As I alluded to earlier, a leader who commands genuine respect will intuitively avoid the pitfalls I’ve described here. For the rest, if the problem is ignorance and not self-importance, then I’m okay with letting them down easier. But I don’t think the behavior itself is made any more acceptable. Note the obvious analogy here regarding traffic laws’/courts’ approach to dealing with infractions by people who “didn’t know”.)
Speaking of “didn’t know”, I don’t know if I’m right about any of this. But…shit, that’s never stopped me from expressing an opinion before, so why stop now?
You won’t believe what opinion I offer next! Stay tuned…