When to say something

I once worked with someone who was a well-known expert in her field. Her name frequently came up for advisory committees, invited journal articles, and she had had a federal political appointment job under a previous administration. Our respective jobs brought us together on a few projects and after these experiences, I came away with the general impression of, “She sucks.” Meaning, I came to realize that she was all about saying and doing things that made her appear to be the big cheese in the room, which would’ve been fine on its own—I am all for women owning their power and leadership—but her out-sized posturing was not matched by anything substantive resembling real thought or work. In fact, all of my interactions with her were exactly the same: she’d make a few statements that put herself at the center of any discussion, and then she would do everything possible to avoid responsibility for any work that followed.

I also came to realize, over time, that many people had had the same experience with her. She was all burning ambition—she was constantly angling for high-visibility appointments in government, heading up special task forces, commissions, etc.—but anyone who actually worked with her on these efforts found that her contributions to be minimal to nonexistent.

I didn’t personally dislike this person—she was friendly and charming. Although, I don’t think I’m alone in being irritated by slackers, particularly slackers who mouth off a lot (about themselves) and are thirsty to get ahead. However, when I discussed her with a good friend and colleague, who also knew this person well, my friend looked at me calmly and said, “It is so not worth stressing about this. She is determined to fill any space that may exist and claw her way to the top. And yes, you could expend energy in trying to expose her for what she is, but do you really want to use up your energy for something like that?”

That was really valuable advice. Any time after that I encountered someone who was all talk, no effort, I realized that I could make a judgment call: if it wasn’t my job to actually give feedback to that person (like, if I wasn’t their direct manager), then I could exert far more control over my own reactions to a person’s behavior rather than try to actually change that person’s behavior. In some cases, I could even learn to value working with that person using different constructs than the ones I had started with. (Not always, but sometimes.)

However: lately I’ve been thinking about the other side to the argument of, “It’s not worth your time and energy to point out how much someone else sucks,” which is, when IS it worth your time and effort to point out how much someone sucks (yes, I know we’d all find kinder and more supportive ways to say that)? What if, by not saying something, that person will go on to do actual harm? In the example I gave above, I can’t see how me and others not saying something led to harm. It may have caused a seemingly endless loop of frustration for people who worked with that person, but I can’t see how anyone was actually harmed by her thirst-without-effort.

The most obvious object lesson to me of letting a determined non-performer go unchecked is, of course, Trump. Never have we witnessed such an example of someone who is so patently unfit for the job he holds. It is extraordinarily painful to witness a boastful, painfully insecure, narcissistic bully occupy a job for which we—meaning, collectively, the country, the world—most need to see high performance. I mean, it is one thing if your waiter is having an off night; it is another thing altogether if the president can strip away people’s rights and torture human beings and incite his followers to violence and racism while looting the government’s resources for all he can get.

I do not mean to say that Trump sucks at all things. He is obviously very good at inspiring a cult-like devotion in his troubled, angry followers. While I find his cos-playing of a leader to be horrifically bad, beyond vaudevillian, he certainly knows how to play to his audience. He just sucks at all of the things that we desperately need him not to suck at with respect to his current job.

So this gets me back to the question of whether there existed a person, or many people, who could’ve said something to Trump at some point along the way that could have prevented this outcome (Howard Stern? Kristen Stewart?). I’m sure that before now, some people picked up on the fact that Trump is a swaggering, pathetic bully. I’m sure they also noticed that he is lacking in any sort of self-awareness whatsoever. And yet, he has been allowed to go on, unchecked, through draft-dodging and numerous failed business ventures and sexual assaults and feuds, and here we are.

What I’m trying to say is: there are a lot of people who probably didn’t think it was worth the time or the energy to tear down Trump at any point in his career. Sadly, the opposite seems to be true: that there are a lot of people who feel like it was worth their time and energy to build him up (as strange as it may seem, you have to admit that the guy has some serious mojo when it comes to collecting lowlifes).

I don’t blame all of the silent Trump observers who have come before this terrible period in our country, actually. I can’t possibly imagine how they could have foreseen an outcome like this. I DO blame the people who are actively enabling his ineptitude once he took office. I don’t care if stopping treason, corruption, and lawbreaking are not in your actual job descriptions; do you defecate in the street because it doesn’t say anywhere in your job description not to do that? I thought not.

[I’m going to pause here and make a distinction here between giving honest feedback on someone’s performance and reporting a crime or a violation, because the latter is a whole set of decisions and considerations unto itself and not to be jammed into a discussion like this.]

So to round off this discussion: what if you, employees of today and tomorrow, find yourself in a situation where you can give feedback on someone who has, uh, shall we say, problems? I guess here are the relevant questions I would ask you:

–Have you been invited to give feedback and would your feedback truly be heard and respected?

–If you do give the feedback, have you considered how you will present it, i.e., with concrete examples?

–Have you assessed whether the person receiving the feedback has the capacity to actually hear the feedback and respond to it constructively? (Some people don’t, you know, because of life circumstances or because they just…won’t.)

–Have you assessed the possible cost to yourself? (Many would find this to be a cowardly consideration; I don’t. I think it’s absolutely an important consideration, out of several others.)

–Have you assessed what harm this person could do if allowed to pursue his/her thirsty, ambitious goals? Like, could you imagine that this person could be a CEO? A member of Congress? Or even the President of the United States?

Would you ask yourself these questions? I would completely understand if you did, and also if you didn’t.