I recently received some indirect feedback. It was well-intentioned – meant to help me do my job better. I welcomed it, because I think any feedback on performance and what could be better is better than nothing. There is always something to learn, some way I could improve what I do. Perhaps even more importantly, it also gives me information about the other person – as Tara Mohr says, feedback can often say more about the person giving it than the receiver.
At the same time, indirect feedback can reinforce an organizational culture of gossip, triangulation and an unhealthy system in which expectations are unclear. I personally prefer direct feedback, and do my best to offer it respectfully. When someone criticizes a third party who is not present, rather than speaking directly to them, it can often come out as edgy, even mean – not offered respectfully. Taking that kind of criticism and passing it along to the subject could be seen as helping them out, but instead it can set up a “drama triangle,” a concept first articulated by Stephen Karpman in which the recipient could play a role of “victim” or “persecutor” depending on the situation, with the critic playing the alternate role, and the person passing the criticism along playing the role of the rescuer. Indirectly addressing conflict in this way can be a method of releasing tension that may help participants feel better in the short run, but over the long run does not address any root cause, and results in chronic tension. This can be very toxic in the work environment, severely hampering a team’s performance.
Once I became conscious of the idea of the drama triangle, I started to see them everywhere. It is relatively easy to see those you are not directly involved in. It is much harder to see the role you are playing yourself. My first clue is usually hurt feelings, mine or others. I have learned to pause and consider whether there is some drama triangle at play. Stepping off the triangle is even more difficult, and something I am still practicing. I find the most helpful thing for me is to draw on the work of Tara Mohr and Brené Brown about knowing my own truth (which is all I can ever know), do my own work to reflect and learn (usually through journaling), and then moving forward in the best way I can. Often I find the most powerful move is to lean in to the relationship directly – to move through fear, risk being vulnerable and directly seeking feedback. I also practice not passing on indirect criticism – instead I seek to redirect so that I don’t serve as a go-between. Everyday there are so many opportunities to practice all of these behaviors. It can feel challenging because it takes me out of my comfort zone. I imagine it always will be a bit uncomfortable to directly engage with conflict, but I hope to practice enough so that I grow my capacity to do it in spite of the discomfort.