Shutting down secondhand feedback

By | March 7, 2013

I have been aware for some time that my position and the demands of my job at Atomic Object isolate me, to some extent, from a complete and accurate understanding of how employees are feeling and what they’re thinking. Because it seems like an important thing to know, I’ve always valued receiving insights from Atoms willing to share their observations from “in the trenches.” I’ve recently come to see that this strategy of accepting secondhand feedback has significant downsides. In fact, I’m so convinced now that this is a bad idea that I will, going forward, avoid seeking it out. I will also politely decline when such information is offered to me. However, I think my original intention (attempting to gain an understanding of how employees are feeling) was good, and I have a new idea about how I might better achieve that goal.

I think it’s very important to always be open to firsthand questions, complaints, clarifications, and discussion. Shutting that down would be an abdication of one of my main leadership responsibilities. The change I’m describing here, and the new solution I’m proposing to experiment with, does not effect my openness to firsthand feedback and conversation. Nothing can replace a direct conversation between two people to build empathy and understanding.

I’m also not talking about the tricky problem of leaders getting honest feedback on their performance. That’s a separate, thorny issue that I’m not considering here.

The problem

My problem is with secondhand reports of employees who are confused, unhappy, or complaining. What I’m no longer interested in hearing are things that sound like this:

I’ve heard Joe complaining about the expectation for blogging.

A lot of people are feeling stressed about work hours.

People are confused as to why you mailed the company about making a case for professional development support.

The company is feeling tense or stressed.

I’m no longer open to hearing these sorts of statements because: they aren’t actionable, they may not be accurate, they might be disguising the source of unhappiness, they may only be temporary, they are easy to over-react to, and they could cause me to slander, through unsupported extrapolation, the many great people I work with.

Not Actionable

When I learn secondhand that someone in my company is confused or complaining, I can’t directly approach that person without compromising my “source”. Everyone has bad days, and following-up, even with some cloaking and sensitivity on the things I’ve learned, might be unnecessary and unhelpful.

Telling the person reporting the observation to me that they should follow-up with the complainer, shifts the burden to a person who may be neither responsible for this sort of work, nor equipped to do it well.

Not accurate

By definition, getting a complaint secondhand is getting it less accurately than from the source. The reporter colors the report. Even when well-intentioned, it isn’t possible for one person to fully and accurately characterize the feelings of another.

Any claim that involves more than one or two people is probably an exaggeration. “Many people” and “a lot of people” and, most extreme of all, “the company”, are approximations that imply much more knowledge than is usually true. How many times, I wonder, has someone passing along secondhand complaints actually talked to more than two or three other people? My guess is, not often. I think it’s very easy, and very human, to exaggerate the count of your observed population. I’ve been guilty of that myself.

Disguised source

The temptation to represent a complaint or negative feeling of your own, more safely through another, is all too human, but not particularly noble.

Only temporary

Who doesn’t occasionally complain about something or feel down? That’s pretty human too; as is returning rather quickly to a more even-keeled attitude. Hearing about, and reacting to, a snapshot of negative emotion could be unnecessary, possibly intrusive, and a burden you don’t need to bear.


Stories of individuals — their words, their emotions, their actions — are powerful, and hard not to react to. The more you know and have relationships with individuals, the easier it is to overreact to their individual distress or complaints. But for a company larger than, say, 10 people, it’s probably inevitable that at any point in time at least one person is unhappy or confused about something at work. Assuming that a single individual’s complaint is universal is a mistake I’ve been guilty of, and overreacting is a potential consequence of that mistake.

Crazy extrapolation

When I’m feeling stressed or off-center, I’m more likely to make the mistake of extrapolating one person’s complaint or confusion to a group or even everyone I work with. Here’s how my crazy thinking might spin up: Joe doesn’t seem to understand why working 40 hours a week is important? Damn! Everyone in their 20s seems to be clueless about what a full-time job means! How can they not get it? What’s wrong with this generation? What new action should I take to get the point across? (fume, fume)

This mistake amounts to slander, pure and simple, even if I don’t speak the words openly.

My new approach

Seeking secondhand information, or simply being open to receiving it, has had negative consequences for me, and possibly my company. With any group of more than 10 people, it is probably impossible to communicate anything of substance without being misunderstood by at least one person. Through crazy extrapolation and over-reaction, it’s possible to come to the conclusion that either I can do nothing right, no effort is good enough or appreciated, or no else gets it. None of those are true, of course, but those negative feelings building over time can be both discouraging and bad for the company.

Given that the secondhand information isn’t actionable, has negative consequences for me and others, and doesn’t achieve the original goal of keeping me accurately in touch with my employees, I’ve decided to shut this channel of information down.

What I’d like to create in place of this secondhand channel is a culture of distributed responsibility for encouraging people with complaints and confusion to seek first-hand clarification and conversation. For example, if person X hears person Y complaining, or making statements that are at odds with person X’s understanding of a situation or communication from a company leader, then instead of person X bringing that to the leader, person X should share his or her perspective with person Y and encourage them to stop verbalizing their complaints and instead talk directly with the leader who’s confused or confounded them, and who has some ability to clarify or rectify a situation or problem. In short, I hope everyone becomes willing to say, “I hear your concern, I respect you, and I want you to take positive steps to resolve the issue productively. Go talk to the source.”

I believe my original motivation for being open to secondhand feedback was a good one: How do I, as a busy leader of a company of many individuals, stay in tune with how people are feeling and the general tone and temperature of the company?

How happy or satisfied or fulfilled people are feeling at my company and whether this feeling, in aggregate, has gone up or down recently, seems like a really important thing to know.

We track a couple of financial KPIs (key performance indicators) so why can’t I figure out a KPI for probably the single most important thing at Atomic?

In fact, I think I have. Stay tuned and I’ll share this idea with you in my next post.

Carl Erickson (83 Posts)

Carl is the CEO and cofounder of Atomic Object, a software product development company with offices in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. Learn more about Carl.



David Christiansen on March 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm.

That strikes me as an emotionally healthy way to live, whether we’re talking about work life or life life. It’s especially important when there’s no distinct boundary between life life and work life, such as when you work with family, own the company, or work at home.

Carl Erickson on March 7, 2013 at 6:12 pm.

I agree, Dave. After I had the epiphany, and did the writing, I was struck by how much better this is, and how I should have figured it out earlier.

Leon Schmidt on March 8, 2013 at 8:43 am.

The existence of “grumbling in the trenches” may be a KPI. How an organization reacts to it may be either a mystery, challenge, skill, or mishap. I think it’s only possible to keep most of the people happy most of the time. The game of life is still in it’s experimental stage.

Carl Erickson on March 8, 2013 at 9:22 am.

That’s something I had to learn, Leon, as my company grew from 10 or so to 40. There will never be a day, or maybe even an hour, when everyone’s perfectly happy or content. Expecting otherwise is unrealistic.

Laura Vaughn on March 8, 2013 at 11:48 am.

I also feel like avoiding secondhand feedback on feedback/research is critical as it relates to projects. For example, when you’re designing a piece to communicate your brand and product to your customer, it’s really detrimental to get all of your input and feedback from your sales people. Even though they’ll be using the piece, they aren’t the customer and any information they have on the customer is usually rooted in opinion rather than data, which is inherently unactionable.

A little off topic – but struck a cord with something I’m working through right now!

Carl Erickson on March 8, 2013 at 8:19 pm.

Great lateral thinking, Laura. Couldn’t agree more. Getting out of the building is always good and always hard.

Daniel Schoonmaker on July 19, 2013 at 10:28 am.

I’m disappointed that it took me four months to discover this post. It’s a fascinating insight that I think should be shared widely.

Carl Erickson on July 19, 2013 at 11:14 am.

Thanks, Dan. I think you need to click that little button in the upper right corner and subscribe. ;-)