Feedback to Myself

Last year, after 20 years away from rowing, I bought a boat. It’s a 26 foot long needle of Kevlar and carbon fiber, less than 12 inches wide at the water line, and when it is rowed well it flies. That, however, is the problem: rowing it well is difficult, and rowing it badly is easy. Naturally I want to row well, both because I like the feeling of going fast, but also because I simply can’t abide the idea of being bad at something I love. And so over the past year I have read books, watched videos, and even gotten myself to the starting line of a race, just to see how I stacked up. All these things have helped me row better. I have also worked with a coach. When I compare what I wanted out of a book with what I wanted out of a coach, though, I realize that out of a book I wanted instruction, while out of a coach I wanted affirmation, acknowledgement that I am making progress in the boat.

Yet when I hired the coach I justified the cost as wanting to learn if I was rowing correctly. The thing is, I don’t need a coach to answer that question – indeed, that question is best answered by the boat itself. I know, mechanically, what moves a boat – how to hold my hands, when to tap the blade out of the water, the right angle to bend my body as I move my sliding seat up for another stroke. When my boat feels like dead weight, when it rolls from side to side, when my oar blades catch the surface of the water as I go up to take another stroke, I know what to try. And when the boat picks up, balances well, and runs without catching and jerking, I know it has worked.

We have the same desire for affirmation at work that I have on the water. It is understandable that we want our bosses and colleagues to provide us feedback. What we sometimes ignore, though, is that we have a ready source of feedback at our fingertips. We often know whether we are doing well at our jobs or not – whether our documents move ahead or come back covered with red ink, whether meaningful tasks are checked off our to-do list, whether our ideas for solving problems actually solve those problems. If we take the time to really ask ourselves the right questions, we generally have a good idea of whether we are doing the mechanics of our jobs well. Just as my boat tells me if I am rowing correctly, your work itself provides moment-to-moment evidence of a job well done, or not.

Why, then, do we crave feedback from others when we often already know the answers to questions like “am I doing it right?” I can think of two reasons.

We don’t trust ourselves. Sometimes we don’t trust information that comes from inside us (or our boats). We trust information provided by experts, bosses, and books, but not that we provide ourselves. We have to get beyond that, not only so that we can build our own constructive feedback loops within our own heads, but so that when feedback does come in we have something to test it against. If you aren’t accustomed to looking first at your own internal data about your performance you won’t know how to judge other people’s feedback of your performance. Is the feedback useful and true, or is it criticism or flattery? Check your own assessment of your performance and you may have the answer.

We want to be recognized. Wanting recognition can seem self-centered or small-minded, and so we dress up our request for recognition by calling it feedback. Let me be clear that wanting recognition is neither self-centered nor small-minded; it is normal and natural and a key source of motivation for many people. Even if our internal feedback loop is humming along well, telling us what is working and what isn’t, we want to be seen. We want to be known. But this desire is different from feedback. Just as when my boat is giving me plenty of feedback in the form of speed and flow I still crave the attention of a coach to say “I see you and you are doing well,” we can know we are doing well at work and still want someone else to recognize it. To say it.

What does this all mean? Essentially, I think, we should be getting better at identifying what we need from our colleagues and asking for it specifically. Think through exactly what you mean when you say you want more feedback. Do you really not know what you are doing well and doing badly? In most cases you do, once you give it some thought (but if you don’t, by all means ask). What you want from your colleagues may be more subtle; you may want help, or connection, or recognition of a job well done. In that case, ask for it. For example, maybe you know you gave a fabulous presentation at the last staff meeting, but your boss didn’t say a word afterward, and so you don’t know if she is going to give you more opportunities to do more presentations. Instead of asking your boss “how did that presentation go,” which is disingenuous (you know it went well!) say “I felt really good about that presentation. Do you think we could find more opportunities for me to grow those skills?”  That opens the door to a conversation that leads to more than just a verbal pat on the back.

Of Resilience and Sparrows

Two house sparrows have nested in the bird house in my backyard. They are raising their second set of chicks right now. The first set died in early May. I had been watching the parents’ attentive flights in and out of the birdhouse, and the funny little wide-beaked heads poking out waiting for their meals. And then one day there were no little heads, and no more flights. The birds have tried again, as birds do. Nestlings have a breathtaking death rate. It isn’t only the house sparrows – there was the robins’ nest in the grape vine overturned in a storm and the ready-to-hatch eggs smashed on the porch, the featherless chick fallen from some unknown nest on the gravel walk, the birdhouse raided and knocked down by squirrels. There is also the juvenile starling I see every morning under the sedum and peonies, begging like any teenager for mom to serve up more snacks. I think that one’s going to do okay.

(The river of death running through my backyard brings to mind the Kahlil Gibran poem that contains the line “your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.” I mutter those lines to myself a lot in the garden.)

There is a work-a-day word for the ability to make a new nest when the storm has knocked the old one down: resilience. This is the ability to roll with challenges, to right your boat when it is swamped by waves. Resilience isn’t being so big the waves can’t touch you, or building a nest so strong it can’t be overturned, or knowing so much you can’t be bested. Resilience is having the flexibility, self-belief, social network, and doggedness to regroup when everything has been scattered.

There are courses and books and degrees and institutes dedicated to community and organizational resilience. What interests me is how we can build little nodes of resilience within organizations and structures over which we don’t have power. Sure, in the end, that makes those organizations and structures stronger. But in the immediate term, the benefit of resilience accrues to us, to our colleagues, to each other.

What do I mean, really, by resilience in the workplace? Let me think of some actual examples. How about the staff member whose project was ending, facing a time with uncertain funding, who volunteered to lead a difficult process she had only participated in once before? With a choice of jumping ship or building herself a new boat, she built the boat. It was a good boat, too. Or the colleague who saw her contribution to the paper (a contribution she labored over) thrown out because she hadn’t quite understood what was needed? She was disappointed, but in the wake of the disappointment she worked on framing papers and the next one was better. This kind of refusal to be broken and deterred by failure and loss is what I mean by resilience. It isn’t avoiding vulnerability and risk, but finding a way to navigate through them.

While each of us can build our own resilience, we are more resilient as a group than we are as individuals. In the cases above, it wasn’t just the staff members’ resilience that mattered, but the willingness of their colleagues to be flexible and take risks. In a more rigid workplace, one more bunkered and entrenched with protective layers of formality and process, perhaps we wouldn’t have risked ourselves (our project’s reputation, our paper’s publishability) for each other.

As of now, the house sparrow’s second set of chicks live. Their eyes are open, and they look out of the bird house alertly, with none of the hatchling’s floppy vulnerability. They will fledge soon, and face a whole new set of risks and dangers. I hope they will not, this summer, become the sap that feeds the tree of heaven (literally feeding the hawks, I suppose) but whether they live or die I am quite sure that same pair of house sparrows will try again, and again, and again.


The frustrating thing about insight is its unpredictability. We all have flashes of insight, of understanding our challenges and their solutions, but those flashes are just that: lightning strikes that illuminate the page just long enough to read a phrase, but not long enough to take notes in the margins. And you certainly can’t plan on a lighting storm just when the proposal is due or the data come in or the team begins to come apart at the seams. But insight isn’t a gift of the gods or a sign of hidden brilliance. Insight is just your brain doing its own work on its own time.

Most work is controllable. We can decide to work well and thoroughly and we will do so. Every morning it takes about an hour and a half to slog through my emails, and I do it. Many days have meetings scheduled, and so I show up and participate. Most weeks, and certainly every month, quarter, and year, I have deadlines to meet and so I put pen to page (or fingers to keyboard) and produce documents. I control those things. What I don’t always feel like I control is the unpredictable presence or absence of insight, of the flash of lightning that will sometimes mean that a proposal wins, an argument convinces, or a decision makes life better for a colleague.

What is insight, really, and why can’t we control it? I really like this definition of insight: an instance of apprehending the true nature of a thing, especially through intuitive understanding. The true nature of a thing. So often I feel like I am peering into dim, murky light when I am trying to solve problems or even create text describing the world as it is, or as we would like it to be. When I am able to do that well it is because of that flash of light that allows me to see the true nature of a thing, and then I am better equipped to act on it. But why can’t we know the true nature of a thing without insight? Why isn’t the true nature of a thing – especially a thing like a behavior or an epidemic or a bureaucracy – apparent in plain light?

Maybe it is because we cannot see and hold in our conscious minds all the glittering bits of data that make up the true nature of a thing; intellect, while powerful, has bandwidth, and complex problems exceed it. If you think of intellect as the part of your mind that you direct to crunch data and answer emails and write text, imagine it operating in the plain, ordinary light of day. Beneath that self-directed activity, though, is the rest of your brain with its trillions of connections operating in a different, brilliant light. Just as you could never expect to run or leap just by ordering your muscles to fire (your intellect would make a mess of ordinary movement) you cannot expect your brain to solve every complex problem by intellectual effort. Sometimes you have to let your brain make the leap, undirected. And when that leap happens you see the light flash as the door between the unconscious mind and the conscious intellect swings open to let the insight through.

Is this all a little too woo-woo? Probably. I’m not much of a neuroscientist. But the truth is that we do find solutions to complex problems when we deeply understand them, and those solutions often come to us complete and without conscious effort, and usually when we don’t have a pen handy. So how to help urge insight along, make that flash a little more likely? I’ve got two thoughts.

Help your brain do the work. Insight isn’t magic – you can’t have insight into something you don’t know or don’t understand. Your intellect can help insight along by doing the work of learning, exploring, asking, and thinking. Give your brain the information and learning it needs to make connections, find commonalities, and make generalizations. Feed your brain with experiences, real and secondhand, to learn from. You need grist for the mill. Provide it.

Open the door. The furious intellectual work we often do to solve problems pushes hard against the door between our conscious and unconscious minds, but that is the same door that must swing open to let insight through. As long as we are pushing that door stays shut. When we do something like shower or run or daydream our busy brain relaxes, the pushing stops, and the door opens enough to let the light through. My advice? Smell the flowers, stare out the office window, look at the clouds, walk aimlessly. It’s the only way I know to call down a lightning strike.

Its Not Easy

I was not a good student. In fact, I was a really rotten student from the time we moved from wooden blocks to books, and all the way up through high school. I couldn’t read until second grade, and I spent third grade in the counselor’s office taking weird test with colored blocks as they tried to figure out why I couldn’t spell or do basic arithmetic. In fourth grade my dad made me a massive poster with the multiplication table and pasted it to the ceiling above my bed so I would see it even when I wasn’t trying to. In seventh grade my parents went nuclear when my school tried to track me away from the college-bound students, and then I spent endless hours weeping over my pre-algebra homework. High school, aside from literature and writing courses, baffled me – I did not understand, until the end, that other people actually remembered details of what they read the first or second time, and that it was unusual that no matter how hard I studied I barely passed.

School just sucked, and for good reason: I am probably dyslexic. That a writer is also dyslexic isn’t as surprising as it might seem – there are dyslexic writers and poets, like the poet Philip Schultz who wrote a slim book called My Dyslexia about his own struggle with the beast. Most of us do find our way, eventually, onto a path that lets our strengths expand and our weaknesses fall behind us. But you will notice if you and I talk about dates or data that I will never mention specifics – I will talk about trends, connections, meaning, but never the numbers themselves, because the numbers have disappeared from my memory as if I had never known them.

Why do I tell you this today? I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague I depend on and respect deeply. Her brain works very differently from mine, and we touch different sides of our work. We got on the topic of learning (we both have young children) and I told her a bit about my own schooling fiascos, and she said: “I always assumed that things came easily to you! That you were great in school, and that your path to where you are was straight.” I said I assumed the same about her – she seems like the consummate student to me. But she struggled, too, because while her memory is a steel trap (while mine is a bucket without a bottom) she had trouble with concepts. She did objectively great in school, while I did objectively terribly, but neither of us felt particularly good about ourselves at the time.

There are things we don’t know about each other, stories and experiences behind our interactions that would lead, if we let them, to understanding and a bit of grace. Our weaknesses, our cracks, our annoying foibles, they all have origin stories, the tale of how we came to be. These stories can seem immaterial at work, because no matter how hard or easy our path we are all now participating in the same race, and we must contribute to our team or fall behind. But knowing someone works harder than most to remember things (or organize their time or dress like everyone else or manage their pain or relate to their colleagues or get to work on time) gives us a tenderness for each other that makes it all much more bearable. We don’t need to know why someone has to work harder than others at something – it is enough to know that they do.

You should still expect me to remember what I should remember, of course. But perhaps when you tell me you’ll be on vacation the week of July 10, and I sheepishly ask you again the next day what week you’ll be on vacation, you’ll remember my leaky-bucket memory, think of your own leaky buckets, whatever they might be, and just tell me again. July 10, Lisa. July 10. And then I’ll write it down.

Brain on Strike

The other day a colleague busted me shoe shopping online at work. The sad thing is that I hate shoe shopping, so I wasn’t even indulging secretly in an illicit joy – I was mindlessly looking at shoes because nothing better occurred to me. My brain was blank and empty, with nothing feeling urgent enough to focus my attention. So I looked at shoes.

Some days are like that. I think of these as gray days, or flat days. They are days when I can’t dredge up enough passion to care about the mundane tasks that make up most of my work – the document reviewing, email answering, invoice signing, and phone calling that adds up to program management. I suppose you could call that procrastinating (and it is) but it feels more akin to work blindness than work avoidance – on the days when I lose my bearings I simply don’t see the little bits of my work, just as certain someones in my household simply don’t see the crumbs on the dinner table after the plates are cleared. They aren’t salient, and so they don’t exist.

Let me assume I am not the only one who has days like this. If I am, and if all of you dig into each and every day with a passion and productivity that knows no peaks and valleys, well, I suppose I have now outed myself. But I doubt it. I imagine I am simply normal and human. And if we all have days like this, we all need to manage them – and come out of them – as best we can. Here are some of my self-management tricks:

Acceptance. In a month, in a year, in a career, days like this don’t matter. There is some certain allowable number of days lost to shoe shopping, internet browsing, or socializing. I don’t know what that number is, but if your boss is sincerely happy with your productivity and you feel like you generally work hard, forgive yourself the occasional bad day. Just let it go.

Distraction. Even if bad days are normal and forgivable, sometimes you don’t want to wallow in them, you want them to get better. If I am stuck in a day when everything is gray and flat and I can’t make myself do what I should, I can unstick myself, sometimes, by doing something I don’t need to do but is productive none the less. Like writing this blog. Yeah, it doesn’t get my projects managed, but it is better than shoe shopping. After doing something productive I often find I feel better about doing the stuff I couldn’t bring myself to do earlier.

Confession. It’s good for the soul, right? Simply confiding in a colleague – even your boss – that you are having trouble getting moving today can be helpful. They might offer sympathy and let you know they have those days, too, or they might offer something even more helpful like a walk to get a cup of coffee, after which you might feel more able to tackle your work.

Rest. Maybe your brain is telling you something when it goes on strike. While online shoe shopping may get you through till quitting time, it isn’t that much fun. If your brain has walked off the job, maybe you should, too. Take a vacation day. I find that if, on a bad day, I ask for a vacation day the coming Friday the rest of my week perks up in anticipation of a day to myself. On which, I promise you, I will not be shoe shopping.

Not Zero Sum

Winning and losing, and who does how much of which, is in the news a lot. I’m pretty fond of winning, myself – through college I set my alarm for 4:50am every week day to get to crew practice on time, and to this day nothing makes my heart race like the count-down sequence before rowing shells surge off the starting line. Of course winning, almost by definition, means someone else is losing. This is a zero-sum game, and there can be a deep satisfaction to it, to being victorious and triumphant and better-than.

And yet I don’t believe rowing races, or chess matches, or winning and losing in general, are the right metaphors to make sense of the world. Winning and losing can be a great game, a way we to act out conflict and competition without damaging relationships. But I’m doubtful whether win/lose is a useful way to understand our relationships to our world, our communities, or our workplaces. I am reading a book called The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children, by Alison Gopnik, that argues that humans are a deeply cooperative species, and that the need for cooperation is driven by our unusually long, vulnerable period of childhood – we need others to help us get those fragile creatures through childhood alive. Deeply, biologically, it takes a village, she argues. Cooperative child rearing and cooperative, altruistic behavior allows for that long period of vulnerability and growth, and we could not be human without it.

As an aside, the reason she says we need this long childhood is to grow brains that are adaptable and creative, because as a species we don’t stick around the place we were born and do exactly what our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did to survive. Instead, we are a roaming, restless species where the new generation encounters challenges un-imagined by the generation before, and so simply passing on what has always worked for us is unlikely to equip our progeny adequately. I appreciate that point of view as the mother of a child whose world will be vastly different from the one I was born into. I’m looking at you, Internet.

Work, of course, can be seen as either a playing field for the zero-sum game or the village where we collaborate with each other. Which view we chose determines how we interact with our colleagues, and ultimately determines our workplace culture. Whether you agree with Gopnik that cooperation and solidarity are deeply human motivators, or with the currently ascendant Ayn Randian view that self-interest trumps all, we can take a pragmatic look at what either cooperation or competition does to a workplace and decide which we want.

On a practical level, when the workplace is an areana for competition you can expect that:

  • Knowledge becomes currency, and power. You don’t share information, you hoard it, so that you always have more than other people.
  • People are ranked one above the other: “Sue is okay, but Pete is better,” rather than “Sue is a really good writer, and Pete is a really flexible thinker. I’ll get them to collaborate on that proposal.”
  • Approval becomes a zero-sum commodity to be fought for; if my boss thinks well of my colleague, there is less approval to go around for me, because if this is a zero sum game, someone must lose if my colleague wins. And so, of course, I am going to sabotage her work (oh so subtly) to get ahead. I did warn you I like to win, didn’t I?

Seeing work as an area for collaboration, on the other hand, leads to different outcomes, where what is best for you can be best for me, and where there is enough approval and knowledge and good work to go around. I’ll be the first to admit that workplace policies and practices can undermine those good vibes – there often isn’t enough approval communicated in any direction, and sometimes resources are unfairly allocated, and what is good for me is bad for you – but that shouldn’t be an excuse for us to give up and wallow in our baser nature. We can aim for better.

Regardless of what I want for my workplace, I’m not giving up on competitive sports. I believe there is a place for ferocious competition. Yet when I think back on my years of rowing competitively, and the races won and lost, in my mind’s eye I never do see the people I won or lost to. Instead I see the image of my coach, a bear of a man, biking up the course alongside us, waving his arms and hollering in delight as we crossed the finish line. I feel the hands of the woman in the seat behind me, patting my back in shared sadness after a loss. I didn’t get out of bed at 4:50 in order to win, I realize – I got up at 4:50 in order to do something hard in a community I loved.

I still do, only I get up a wee bit later these days, and I get to pull alongside of all of you.

That Time of the Year

Waiting for your annual employee performance review can be like waiting for a phone call from a cagey love interest: what does he think of me? He likes me, he likes me not…he likes me, he likes me not. Around APR time we spend a lot of energy wondering does my boss like me (appreciate me, think highly of me, respect me) and very little time wondering do I like how this year went? Of course we want our boss to think highly of us and rate us well, but if that is what we worry about at APR time we miss the best-use of an APR, which is to help us do our jobs better.

When you think of the performance appraisal process as an opportunity for your boss to rate you, and pass judgement on your work, the focus becomes the boss, and the boss’s opinion. You wait anxiously to see what your boss will hand down to you, like some grown-up version of a child’s report card with its numbers and letters and threat of summer school. This is a passive approach to performance evaluation, but it can be very comfortable because the responsibility for analyzing, measuring, and evaluating falls on the supervisor, not the person being evaluated. When the news is good, this sort of APR can be received as a gift, and when the news is bad it can be rejected as untrue.

So what’s the alternative? Treating your APR like you would any other meeting or presentation where you are the subject matter expert. You need to prepare to present at your APR, not just receive. Before your APR, set aside some time, pull out a pad of paper (or however you think best) and write down what worked well and what didn’t this year. This isn’t some argument with proof points about how you are a spectacular employee and deserve a promotion (I’m sure you are, and you do, but save that for just a moment). This is an honest assessment, just for you, about how you’ve done. What are you proud of? What are you ashamed of? What do you want to get better at? What do you want to do more of? What do you want to never have to do again? The goal here is just to understand yourself and your work.

Take these raw notes and sit with them for a bit. What story, what concern, what theme is coming out of your notes? You can have that be the “topic” of your APR. When your boss asks you “So how do you think the year went,” you will have your answer: “This year was really challenging for me with the new project starting up, and all the travel. It stretched me, and that was pretty uncomfortable.” You have made the overarching assessment of your year, and whatever information your boss provides about skills and strengths and weaknesses has a frame to fit into. You have made sense of your own performance, and the data and suggestions your boss is going to give you now have a context you embrace.

It’s true that not every boss is going to ask you to comment on your performance before launching into her own assessment, and it is also true that sometimes your boss’s assessment is going to be so wildly different from your own understanding that you can’t reconcile the two. But going through the process of honestly making sense of your own performance beforehand will at least take the sting out of some of the negative stuff and give you a way to take it in. If you have already heard it from yourself, you will be prepared, and what is more, you might be able to move into problem solving together rather than just trying to hold it together during the meeting. And sometimes bosses are less hard on us than we are on ourselves.

Finally, think about what you want out of your supervisor in the coming year. Sometimes during an APR the supervisor will ask “what can I do to help you,” or “do you have any feedback for me?” This is not the time to say “I can’t think of anything” or “you’re awesome,” but to provide some well-thought out suggestions. Maybe you want a regularly scheduled check-in, or permission to take a course, or more frequent feedback on your performance. Ask for it. And if your boss doesn’t ask for feedback, you can still provide it. You can frame this as the help you need in order to address the performance opportunities and challenges raised in the APR. For example, you could say “It would help me manage my workload and prioritize if you could meet with me for a few minutes at the start of every week to discuss my tasks.”

And about you being a spectacular employee who deserves a promotion? That can certainly be part of the conversation, and fits into a discussion of where you want to go in the coming year, and how to get there (and what help you need from your boss on the way). Just don’t let the box-checking, gold-star-seeking, all-A’s-on-the-report-card side of yourself (the side that is anxious for other’s approval) prevent you from seeking your own appraisal, first.

Looking for Friends in all the Wrong Places

One of my dearest friends interviewed me for a job I didn’t take. She was a stranger to me then, and I was applying for a job as an entry-level program administrator in her department. She was to test out my Russian and see if I would be a good fit for the job. We were about the same age, had similar interests, went to similar colleges, and grew up not far from each other. We instantly knew we should be friends. I forget how it all happened, but I guess I needed a friend more than I needed a job, because after coffee together the next day I had one and not the other. It worked out fine.

It’s probably good that position didn’t work out, because an instant connection is a poor way to decide on a new co-worker. We do it all the time anyway. Sometimes we do it on purpose, thinking about “fit,” and how someone will mesh with an established team. Sometimes we aren’t aware of doing it, thinking we are making decisions on the merits of someone’s skills and knowledge. The New York Times had a piece recently titled The Utter Uselessness of Job Interviews describing how interviews actually negatively impact one’s ability to pick the objectively best candidate. Instead of using data, people made assumptions about candidates based on what they thought they knew about them after an interview. People chose the best candidate with their gut, not their brain. The article describes how, when confronted with this information, people still preferred to do interviews despite evidence that it produced worse results. And I understand: it is hard to imagine picking someone to work with day in and day out without ever having looked them in the eye.

A key bit of information in that article that gives me hope for our ability to use interviews effectively is that the authors assumed companies are using free-form, get-to-know-you interviews, not structured, skills-based discussions with a standard question list for all candidates. Using the same questions for all candidates and comparing their responses is a good way to be sure you are using your brain, and not your gut, to make staffing decisions.

Most of us value diversity in the workplace intellectually, knowing that it makes our teams and our organizations smarter and wiser. That is knowledge housed in the brain. The gut has a different way of judging people, and generally the gut likes people like ourselves. Our gut can be suspicious of people who make us feel out of our comfort zone, out of our depth, out of ourselves. And yet, when I am looking at bringing someone onto my team, do I really want another me? Another person who knows what I know, feels what I feel, understands what I understand? Not really. I need someone who knows things I don’t, feels in ways I can’t, and understands the things that are beyond me. Those people are unlikely to be similar to me, and so my gut may not immediately warm to them. It may be harder for me to find commonalities, to build rapport, to have empathy, and so I may shy away from bringing them onto my team. That is my gut. My brain knows, though, that when I am looking for co-workers I would do better to look for someone who doesn’t feel quite so familiar, who doesn’t look at the world from the exact same vantage point. How my quaking, comfort-seeking gut feels about that is entirely beside the point.


This year’s newspapers have been full of stories of sexual assault, harassment, and general bad behavior from the presidential campaign to Fox news to New England private schools. What has struck me as I shake open the paper in the morning, or scroll through my Facebook feed, or talk with other women over tea, is the ubiquity of the experience of sexual harassment and misconduct. Yeah, we’ve all been there. That should be a shocking thing to say.

What shocks me most, when I look back on the years during which harassment was a regular part of my life (age and a mane of gray hair seem to have protective benefits) is how often it happened at work, rather than at bars or on dates. By “at work” I don’t mean in an office – though that happens to others, it has never happened to me. Harassment is a real challenge for many of us in development and service work precisely because we are out in the world, on the street, on the bus, on display. How regular is harassment? Well, a quick scan of my memory brings up this litany:

The supervisor at my job cleaning the snack-bar floors of my high school (one of those New England private schools, it so happens) who leered, put his hands on me to “help” me mop, and watched me work, saying I’d make some man a good wife someday.

The frail, broken down old men who were my clients and their wandering hands when I was a social worker for self-neglecting elders.

The boys and men who followed me daily, throwing rocks and cat calling, when I walked around my small town in Turkmenistan in Peace Corps.

The uncountable men on uncountable trains, planes, and automobiles who used the excuse of dim lights and proximity to touch, and deny the touch. I remember one man on a long-haul bus ride across Uzbekistan who sat in the seat behind me, reaching through the gap between seats to grope me. His wife sat stone faced beside him. And I remember the drunken oil worker in the seat next to me on the plane home from Nigeria who leaned in too far, put his hands too close, and talked of inappropriate things until he downed another scotch and fell into a stupor. That was recent; maybe the hair isn’t always protection.

These incidents were all in my “workplace”, and they were all repeated, a chronic, toxic experience of being treated as an object, a thing to be touched. When I close my eyes and remember those times, what I remember most is the anger, the boiling feeling of outrage that this was so ordinary, so normal, and so seemingly unavoidable. And then I remember the feeling of utter boredom with it all, just another dirty man with his dirty wandering hands. I am shocked, thinking of it from a distance now, that daily harassment was part and parcel of work life for me for many years, and that I never considered that remarkable: literally, I did not consider it meaningful enough to remark upon.

I feel compelled, with the daily titillation of stories of high-powered people misbehaving sexually (often at work, it must be said), to remark now. To say how unremarkable it has been, how ordinary and boring and ubiquitous. How did it take us so long to notice? To finally take umbrage?

When I was in high school, I did a semester abroad in the Dominican Republic. I was regularly harassed there, as I was told all teen-aged girls were. When I came home I wrote an essay about the experience for English class in which I basically said that objectification was a cultural norm, and that I had no right as a foreigner to question it, but rather should understand it as an anthropologist might when doing field work. My English teacher wrote in the margin: “Lisa: do not grow so open minded that your brain falls out.”

Over the years I have been guilty of letting my brain fall out, of saying nothing as I accepted what I do not want my young colleagues to accept. This ugly side of our work is not inevitable. It is not unspeakable. On planes, trains, or automobiles, we should be talking about it, and those of us who have come through the experience (and those of us, women and men, who have been lucky enough to avoid it) should be ready to put our brains back in and lend a helping hand.


Just the word “gossip” sets my teeth on edge. It brings back memories of middle school, where gossip was currency and weapon and social glue embodied in a language I didn’t understand, just as I didn’t understand which kind of Guess jeans or Swatch watch was the right kind. I always had the wrong kind. It was as if middle school was a separate country, and I was definitely a foreigner. In this other land gossip was the lingua franca, the way people connected, fought, and understood their place in the world. The problem with gossip back then, and now in the workplace, isn’t necessarily the underlying social purpose of gossip, but the unintended consequences.

Do we gossip at work? Certainly. I hope we are kinder and more subtle now than we were at age 12, but we do it still. Every time we start a sentence with “did you hear…?” we are probably gossiping. Merriam Webster defines gossip as “rumor or report of an intimate nature” or “chatty talk.” It is this second description that we engage in most at work, and that serves a real work purpose: to connect us to each other in personal, meaningful ways. Merriam Webster goes on to say that the word comes from the ancient word godsib (a person spiritually related to another), which gets at the role of gossip in social connection. When we share stories and news with our colleagues we are strengthening the bonds between us.

But. Gossip forges connections between the sharers of gossip, but it can weaken the connections between those people and the person they are speaking about. Gossip isn’t about you and me, talking together about our broken hearts and new haircuts – it’s about you and me talking about our colleague’s broken heart and new haircut. The effects of gossip in the workplace can be hurtful, just they were in middle school.

There is another kind of work gossip that we engage in that is harder to see as unhelpful, or even to see as gossip. That is talk about other people’s work performance or work style. Let me give you an example:

A colleague and I are sitting in my office, talking about a task we are working on together. And one of us says to the other: “colleague Z really should hear this information. She has been telling everyone to do this the old way, and she doesn’t listen when anyone tells her to do it the new way. She is so abrasive that no one will tell her she is wrong, because she’ll bite their head off.”

Neither of us is Z’s supervisor, and neither of us is Z. What is the purpose of sharing this piece of information? On the surface the purpose is to fix the problem: what should we do? But really, we both know that isn’t so. Our discussion won’t fix the problem. Our real purpose is connection, to share and commiserate and build rapport.  Another charitable way to look at the conversation is to assume that you and I are aiming to get advice on what to do, or that the more junior of us is raising it to the more senior of us in the hope that the more senior colleague will somehow take it up the line to someone who will fix it. In other words, we feel as if we are engaging in feedback, when we are really engaging in gossip.

Ideally, if you have something to say about someone’s work performance, you should say it to them. Clearly, directly, and kindly. If that thought fills you with horror, consider why. Maybe you simply aren’t used to providing people direct feedback, in which case you just need to practice. Or, maybe the thought of providing direct feedback (instead of “indirect feedback,” i.e. gossip), is uncomfortable because the things you would say are not important enough to be said directly. In that case, let them go unsaid. It may be that you are using discussion about colleagues’ work as a way to bond with other colleagues, or raise your own experience without exposing yourself too much. Knowing why you have the urge to talk about a colleague can help you decide when to talk, and when to let things go.

There are times you can and should talk about other people’s performance, of course. If someone else’s behavior impacts you, and you have already spoken to that person directly, or if you have reason to believe that would be harmful, you should talk to someone. You could talk to your own supervisor, or the person who manages your troublesome colleague’s work. You could ask HR for advice on how to proceed. Maybe you have a mentor or coach at work who you could talk to. The important thing here, though, is that your problem is not a hot potato; it should not be casually dropped into someone else’s lap to deal with. You have feedback for someone, and it might get uncomfortable to provide.

None of us wants to go back to middle school and its gossip. I don’t know that any of us spoke the language there, really. We were all foreigners. We can have a different lingua franca at work, though, one that relies not on gossip about each other, but on trust that we will tell each other hard truths. After the Guess jeans and Swatch watch-fueled debacle of 7th grade, I am hopeful that now, as grown-ups, someone would tell me directly if my Talbots pants were just so wrong, rather than talking about my fashion flubs with office mates. And if I was doing my expense report incorrectly, or being a jerk when I was tired and stressed, I hope for the same: that I would get that news directly, from a colleague anywhere on the ladder, who held that hot potato and provided feedback, even when gossip would have felt a whole lot better.