If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing [carefully]

As is starting your career wasn’t hard enough with a new schedule (no more summers), delayed gratification (promotions aren’t guaranteed), skill acquisition (a key tenet of Entry Level Escape, there’s also a bunch of new unspoken and unwritten behavioral norms that lie in wait to trip you up. These trip wires will sneak up on you for a few reasons:

  1. Generally, you will not receive explicit warnings to avoid them
  2. They feel right, especially in the face of agreement from peers
  3. They aren’t obviously catastrophic – you won’t see the damage until it’s too late

As your Entry Level Escape coach, I’d like to dedicate a few posts to disarming trip wires so your One Year Plan doesn’t turn into a Five Year Plan.

If you like where this is going and want to learn to grow as a professional and set yourself up with your best chance at promotion in about 12 months, check out Entry Level Escape:

Watch your mouth, and your ears

Venting, letting of some steam, kvetching, and similar activities are common and help build connections among peers. You may recall complaining to your classmates about a specific professor, your siblings about your parents, and your friends about classmates. It’s normal to feel the same buildup of pressure and the same desire for release at work. This is where the risk starts to present though. There is a thin line between venting and disparaging. There is a thin line between constructive criticism or analysis and disparaging. A critical comment between “friends” becomes a blemish on your reputation if it reaches the wrong ears. Even if not directly addressed or stated to the person being discussed it can hurt, in fact it may even be worse than directly stating it once the “telephone game” gets rolling.

Here’s where this trip wire becomes extremely sneaky. You don’t have to make a disparaging comment about someone to be associated with a disparaging comment. If a co-worker says something bad about another person and you don’t address the comment head on, you run the risk of them interpreting (and then quoting later) your lack of objection as agreement. Imagine someone says to you “wow, Bob is a huge jerk” and you say nothing and then a month later that same coworker says “yea both [your name here] and I think Bob is a jerk”. That’s not unreasonable if you don’t object. I’ll give you a rough script to follow in a bit but if you take nothing else from this post, just be careful about what people say to you and how you react (or don’t).

If your entry level role is a prison, you need as few enemies as possible in the yard, so avoid gossip

What should I do instead?

The primary benefit for avoiding this trip wire is minimizing downside risk. I won’t belabor this one because this is a clear case of “just don’t do something” as opposed to Boss Hater and Job Description Adherent where there is a clear alternative behavioral pattern that helps you in your career.

Where this gets fatiguing is in the following places:

  1. You will inevitably need to let off steam. Colleague relationships (peers, managers, juniors, executives, etc.) are interpersonal relationships and it’s normal to have feelings and to want to express them or “let them out”. The key is to not let them out at work. Save them for your friends, family, or even a journal.
  2. You will inevitably be part of a “letting off steam” conversation at work. You need to keep an ear out for these and ensure you politely object when the disparaging, critical, or otherwise untoward remark is made so you don’t get sucked in as a co-signer. What I suggest you say is something like this: “I’m not invalidating your experience or feelings here; I just haven’t seen it myself so I can’t agree with you here”. Make that sound authentic, of course, but the key here is to clearly separate yourself from the comment while respecting the other person’s feelings.

The reason I call these fatiguing is the consistent vigilance they require. You will have to designate some small percentage of your mental capacity to ensure you don’t say anything bad, despite the temptation, and that you don’t unintentionally support a bad comment. It’s the conversational equivalent to carrying a 5lb weight in your brief case. Yes, it’s not impossible but it’ll fatigue you eventually.

What about developmental feedback?

As an early career professional, you probably won’t have many opportunities to give developmental feedback but if it comes up the key is to focus on actions not people. Something like:

  • Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback
  • I observed [behavior] on several occasions
  • [Behavior] leads to [adverse consequences]
  • To avoid [adverse consequences] would you be opposed to trying [alternative behavior]

This recipe is fairly unnatural when written this way but it gives you a rough guide to home in on behaviors, consequences, and alternative behaviors. It avoids saying things you “you always do X” or “you never do Y”, which shuts down discussions. Here’s a less artificial example that could happen in a peer-to-peer situation:

  • Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback
  • I’ve observed tardiness with interim deliverables on the quarterly project on several occasions
  • Tardiness in the early stages of a project tend to pile up and lead to missed deadlines or worsening work-life balance
  • To avoid missed deadlines or burnout, would you be opposed to prioritizing the quarterly project going forward?

No accusations, no hard feelings, and nothing personal. Just a direct, but friendly observation of tardiness, a quantification of the “cost” of the tardiness, and a suggested behavior change to address the tardiness. This is much better than telling someone that “Joe is a bum, he’s always late with his projects”.

Putting this into action

Your mother probably once said, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” and that wisdom applies in the professional world just as well as it applied at the playground. Hopefully this entry nuances and extends that wisdom to help you channel the natural frustrations towards places they cannot harm you professionally. If nothing else, you’ll now be on guard against tacit approval and becoming someone co-pilot. Unfortunately, you will have to be vigilant most of the time, but the good news is that it does become second nature eventually. Think of this as just another piece of the “behaving professionally” cocktail. As I wrap up, I would like to invite you to take this as an opportunity to spread some positivity. There isn’t enough appreciation or praise in the world and if you really want to stand out, don’t just avoid negative comments, add some positive ones too.

If you found this post helpful and want more ways to grow as a professional and set yourself up with your best chance at promotion in about 12 months, check out Entry Level Escape:


Share these tips with friends