When feedback from distant bosses feels like an insult

Rob Walker
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Send your workplace conundrums to, including your name and contact information (even if you want it withheld). The Workologist is a guy with well-intentioned opinions, not a professional career adviser. Letters may be edited.

I work in design, and someone checks my work (and that of my peers) before it gets sent out. We all want it to be great, of course. The problem is that my supervisors' feedback can seem belittling, like they think I'm not that smart, or don't know what I'm doing.

To make things more complicated, they are in another office, in Quebec (I'm in the United States). So there's no face-to-face feedback; it's all email and phone conversations. Sometimes I think there are also language issues. For many of them, French is their first language.

I don't think it's intentional, but their comments always end up making me feel that they think I'm a bozo at a desk who can't do anything for myself. Is there a way I can say something about this without seeming like a jerk?


Keeping up clear and productive communication with the home office is one of the eternal challenges of remote work.

Start by seeing if you can get more specific about what's happening here. Over the next week or so, pay attention to exactly what your supervisors are saying that's making you feel insulted.

Are there specific phrases that bug you? Is the troubling feedback mostly in email, which is notoriously easy to misinterpret? Or, if it's happening on the phone, is this a tone-of-voice issue? Do your peers seem to have similar troubles? And as you gather facts, ask yourself whether it's possible you're projecting negative meaning that just isn't there.

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The goal is to move to a sharper sense of the problem. Just saying, "You make me feel disrespected," or something similarly sweeping and vague, isn't going to lead anywhere. You want to be able to say something specific like this: "When you say X, it makes me wonder whether you're suggesting I have a problem doing Y." (Be prepared for the possibility that there really is an issue with some of your work: I doubt your bosses want to make you feel like "a bozo," but maybe they're doing a bad job articulating some legitimate critique.)

Depending on what you learn, you might consider whether occasional video calls on Skype or another service might help. This seems plausible, given the presumably visual nature of your work.

This process could culminate in a conversation focused on your concerns, which you should frame as an effort to improve communication. But it might be more effective to take a gradual approach, addressing incidental comments as they arise.

Either way, get past thinking about this solely as a complaint, and focus on fixes. Your bosses will benefit from clear lines of communication, too. It's not your job to help them achieve that, but it's to your advantage to try.

The shouter next door

The co-worker in the cubicle next to mine doesn't seem to respect the fact that she works in a shared space with a whole bunch of other people. She's obviously stressed out, not just by work but also by repeated calls from her preteen children about inane things.

Sometimes she screams and angrily cusses into the phone at them, and that just makes the hair on my neck stand up. I usually put my earphones on and crank up the volume to drown out her conversations. But the other day I had to get out of my seat and seek shelter for a while in an empty office.

Should I just continue these tactics? I feel like the situation is aggravating me to the point of wanting to say something because if I don't, I might just explode one day.


To some extent, exposure to other people's conversations is simply a side effect of cubicle culture, and sometimes a combination of headphones and strategic breaks is the best solution.

But there are limits, and I'd say you should not be forced to listen to a co-worker regularly cussing out her kids or, really, anyone.

I don't know if your job involves talking on the phone to company clients or vendors or other contacts, but if there's even a trivial amount of such activity in your job description, use it as your excuse.

The next time your colleague has such an outburst, wait until she has simmered down a bit (but not so long that she can pretend not to know what you're talking about), and politely explain something like: "Hey, sorry, your family conversations are none of my business, but you may not realize how flimsy these cubicles are. Maybe you could borrow an office for certain calls? I just don't want a client to overhear anything inappropriate."

She may not realize that the whole office knows her personal business, and will take the hint to dial it back.

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

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