Sometimes I wish that people were better at taking or giving criticism or recognising suggestions rather than associating them with insults and automatically taking a defensive position. It creates a hostile work environment that decreases motivation, especially when you’re constantly given the same handful of responses: Having it thrown back in your face and placing the blame back on you, as if you’re the problem. Being told to be patient and wait because it’ll get better after ‘new blood’ is injected into the environment… eight months later.

Perhaps it’s the culture many of us have grown up in, where it’s difficult to receive genuine criticism on your policies and actions without a so-called feminist icon being misogynist and saying you need to get rid of your ill-fitting jackets and that you have a ‘big arse’ [video] (immediately after claiming you’re good at your job, somehow missing the fact that they just negated any compliment prior) and then defending why they said you have a fat arse instead of apologising for their comments. Add to it that women, people of colour, and many openly and out queer people are often the people who receive most unsolicited advice from people who haven’t quite listened to the problem or the actual concerns of the person, and the people who provide the advice act as if everything they’re saying is novel and has never been considered before.

Before I have to fend off the #NotAllSomething crowd, cisgendered white men love giving unsolicited advice to everyone else. Straight people definitely enjoy telling queer people how to exist. White people, we love expressing how people of colour should do a thing (presumably to make us comfortable). Able-bodied people love telling physically disabled people how to do a thing, while people without mental illnesses or learning disabilities pretend they’re really good at knowing how people with mental illnesses or learning disabilities should function or conform. We all give unsolicited advice, but some people give it out a lot more without having the lived experience to even give solicited advice to people from specific demographics.

For example: I’m a non-binary queer/bisexual person who lives with ADHD and dyslexia; I’ve been diagnosed as having high anxiety (especially social anxiety) and depression. I’ve also been fat for most of my life. I do not need men to tell me what to do ‘as a woman’ (because I present feminine), and I do not need straight people to explain to me how to ‘express my queerness’. People without ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, or depression do not need to tell me how to cope with these things (unless they are a trained professional with whom I’m working to address them, which makes it solicited advice). I do not need people to send me weight-loss regimens because if I want medical advice? I can go to a fucking doctor.

As a white person, I do not get to pester any person of colour with advice on how they should exist.

Unfortunately, because so many of us deal with constant unsolicited advice due to having a perceived deficiency, sometimes it’s harder for us to actually recognise what we’re getting as a relevant suggestion (such as the ever-constant ‘how can we make the work place more inviting’) or useful criticism (including classics like ‘if you are going to make a big deal out of student privacy, it would also be nice if you practised privacy for your staff’). But we do need to figure out how to decipher the useful criticism and functional suggestions from the garbage we get elsewhere.

In a work environment, it is an absolutely vital skill to have. It is also easier to figure out what is actual criticism (‘she needs to focus more on building a cohesive staff because cliques are becoming an issue and having negative impacts’) and what is useless drivel that needs to go find a hole and bury itself (‘it would be nice if she would smile more’). As a person in a leadership role, if someone working for you lodges a complaint that they feel undervalued and neglected by the staff, it is worth considering why they feel that way and examining those reasons. Instead of immediately telling them to ‘be patient’ and ‘deal with it’, instead of explicitly stating that ‘new people will make things better next year’, instead of blaming them for ‘not involving themselves more’ or ‘not participating in events’, it is far better to figure out the exact problems. Many people love focusing on the symptoms instead the cause.

IBO's Learner Profiles, outlining the 10 traits that 'make a learner'.

As a teacher in an IB school, it’s highly ironic that I even have to suggest people reflect on their actions to figure out why others feel the way they do. (Credit: IBO / PDF)

Did that particular person try to volunteer for events but get pushed out because a clique made it difficult to have an opinion? Or did they actively stay away from them? If so, why? Were they volunteered for something without consideration for their current workload rather than given an option to participate or asked politely? If you observe meeting structures, do you hear people complaining about the specific work they do in a snarky and attacking manner and frequently without including them? Do you, as a manager, take the word of someone else and place blame on the other without even hearing their side of things? You might get a larger picture if you take a few minutes to reflect on these things.

In a leadership position, if you are hearing talk about ‘cliques or groups causing problems’, it is in your best interests to address it sooner rather than later. For employees who are negatively impacted (overlooked, excluded, or demotivated), it is not enough to simply tell them to ‘be patient and wait for new people to join next year’ or that ‘the schedule next year will fix it’. While the problem may not have an immediate resolution, seeing that you’re doing something will make people more willing to trust that you are trying to find better options. Even if we have to be patient for those Better Options to work, we are more likely to believe in them and to trust your decisions.

Do not do nothing or appear to do nothing; show us that you’re working on finding solutions, even if it’ll take time for them to work. Do not tell your negatively impacted employees to ‘try harder to join in’, especially when you also claim that you ‘see how the cliques are affecting the work environment’. Do not let the clique continue as they are, as it hasn’t been working and is making people more uncomfortable; you will lose employees, and that is a waste both in terms of loss of talent and in having to both find and train someone to fit the role again (while also trying to help them fit in with or reluctantly tolerate the clique environment). Do something. Ask negatively affected people for their opinions first. Talk to cliques and split them up when scheduling duties.

Also, be straight-forward with your own criticisms of staff behaviour. Perhaps it’s the fact I’ve chosen to spend my career as a teacher or maybe it’s the fact that I’m a person who requires others to be more blunt than usual, but it is beyond exhausting to have to decipher half-messages about things that are going badly or what people did wrong. I hate it, students hate it. Honestly, I think most people hate having to try to figure out what’s wrong or what the problem even is. If you can’t directly explain why something is an issue, being a manager probably isn’t for you.

Once upon a time, I had a school manager who liked to overstep boundaries and, whether she intended to or not, undermine the authority of teachers on her staff. When she heard that two of my students took my keys while I was dealing with student drop-off, locked a third student in the classroom, and then hid my keys in a disused locker, she decided that she wanted to come talk to my students about how it was irresponsible. Ignoring the fact that I already dealt with this problem, as it was a classroom/behaviour management issue, frustrated me; I told her that I’d already dealt with it and would contact her should it happen a second time, but she still wanted to come up and talk about it with my students. For me, this showed that she did not trust in my ability as a teacher. After voicing my frustration, I shrugged, said whatever, and she came to my lesson to discuss the problem.

Except she didn’t. She gave them some vague speech about how you should respect other people’s property and that teachers needed some feeling of safety to leave their things on their desks and not have students touch them. She was so vague that my one native-speaking English student didn’t understand her at all. He literally stopped her and said, “Excuse me, I have no clue what you’re talking about. What happened?”

Even the three boys involved had no clue she was talking about them until I asked her to stop and explained to them, asking questions: “Something happened this morning where two people took and hid my keys. Do you remember this event? Could you explain it to me?” At that moment, they realised what it was that she was talking about. At no point did she directly reference the event that happened, at no point did she explicitly state what was an inappropriate and irresponsible action. Had I not intervened — which, by the way, decreased her level of authority in the eyes of my students — they would not have understood what the problem was and why it was inappropriate behaviour.

When I hear this kind of discussion from managers with adult staff members, it infuriates me. If you have adults on your team who refuse to acknowledge their behaviour is hurting others, they are the people you need to focus on. You need to call them out for it, either directly and personally or by calling out the behaviour, because they need to recognise that the person in a leadership position sees how they’re acting and what it is doing to others. You can’t just say things like ‘I see how some groups are affecting staff morale’ or ‘some people have said I’m playing favourites with the duty rota’. Directly address the issues. And do it in a way that puts your staff down, saying ‘Person A can only do this because they can’t teach science’ or ‘Person B can only teach music’. It makes it sound like we have no other useful skills and are just being under-utilised because we’re useless (which isn’t true at all).

And by the way, don’t get defensive. Please.

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