that makes them relatively impossible to fulfill their stated function is that even when they are darkly and bracingly fun in the Brechtian way I suggested earlier, they are also framed by a whole legal apparatus of documentation and cover-our-ass procedures and liability hedging that every statement and response is burdened by anxious over-interpretation.
Managers have been trained by HR to document any problem or issue they have with an employee so if they ever want to fire their ass, they have a record of the problem.
(In my experience, anyone and everyone who ever gets fired always complains about the manager’s failure to “set expectations” and I’m sure it’s true some of the time, but as more and more people who suck at their job use it, it starts to sound like the familiar complaint that your ex- broke up with you in a particularly “bad” or mean” way. Which mine certainly did, I can tell you that)
Employees of course know managers need to cover their asses too, and document all issues (or even potential issues) which can make even a minor problem get all amplified out of perspective and lead to a lot of hedging and euphemistic language on both parts to keep the anxiety below the level that incites weeping or nausea.
I’ve found myself using two or three introductory clauses—several in the subjunctive case--before I could finally spit out some minor critical suggestion about the employee in question trying to be more proactive. I’m embarrassed to recall sentences like:
“You’ve been doing such a great job, and you are really engaged in day-to-day business, but if I were to make a suggestion about how you might take your work to the next level, assuming that is your ambition (attentive pause as I anticipate and await eager head nod) then it would be great if we could work together to…”
You get the idea. Maybe I’m just a candy ass about this. Too much time teaching students at fancy schools where a B- was like a death threat, requiring approval from high-level officials.
But frankly, I don’t think one’s tone or style or approach helps you escape from what is essentially a structural problem or at least a structural fact about corporate life in America.
So long as we want and need to maintain the ideological fantasy that our office is a family (with managers who are basically parents that can fire us), these impossible exchanges in which we both speak out of the rulebook of corporate compliance are inevitable.