Career Management Archive
Last week I was talking with a friend who works for a large investment bank. He said, “I don’t believe in the premise of your book. There is no place for negative feedback in the workplace. It’s just not possible.” And I’m seeing firsthand how hard it is for people to receive negative feedback. All kinds of people – sensitive people and less sensitive people, Type A and laid back types. No one wants to hear she made a mistake, could have done something better, or any other type of negative feedback. It’s just too hard.
This is a massive conflict for me. At Candid Culture, we teach people how to give and receive feedback and yet, here I am wondering if it’s even possible.
We need to be able to tell people what they can do better. And the truth, is, while people may not want to hear negative feedback, most people do want to know what they can do to improve their performance and get ahead, hence the quandary. Give negative feedback and evoke others’ defensiveness or say nothing and put up with whatever isn’t working? I, of course, would prefer that you give the feedback, believing that it empowers people to make better personal and professional choices. The question is how?
Here are six steps to make giving negative feedback possible:
- Set the expectation at the onset of working relationships that you will give and receive balanced (positive and negative) feedback regularly. If you’ve worked with people for years and have not set this expectation, it’s not too late. Simply say, “I realized we don’t give each other a lot of feedback. In the spirit of continuous improvement, I’d like to implement a weekly debrief during which we talk about what’s working and not working. We’ll give each other feedback during the meetings.”
- Assess candidate’s openness to feedback when you interview, and don’t hire people who don’t accept negative feedback. We do practical interviews at Candid Culture. We give candidates a chance to do some of the work they’ll be doing on the job and tell candidates what they can do to improve, during the interview. Then we see how they accept our feedback. We also ask interview questions that help elucidate whether or not candidates are open to feedback and we ask candidates’ references how well the person accepts negative feedback.
- Observe performance regularly and provide balanced feedback from the start. Don’t wait until a problem occurs or until you have time to give feedback. Begin the practice of meeting weekly to review and discuss work, setting the precedent that this is the way you do business.
- Provide positive feedback regularly so people know the good stuff and aren’t solely focused on the negative feedback they receive.
- Ask for and be open to feedback. When you demonstrate being open to feedback, you earn the right to give feedback.
- Lastly, don’t underestimate how hard it is to hear negative feedback. When some people receive negative feedback, they begin to question themselves, their skills, and their value. So tread lightly. Pick your battles. Address only what you really need to and say things gingerly, remembering that you’re talking to a sensitive person, no matter how tough he may seem.
Most people avoid giving feedback because they’re concerned about (don’t want to deal with) the other person’s defensive response. It’s easier to say nothing than deal with someone’s defensiveness. So we say things are fine when they’re not.
If you want people to tell you the truth, do the opposite of what they expect when responding to feedback. Rather than become defensive, say, “thank you.”
Saying “thank you for the feedback” is not intended to be a pollyanna response, nor does it mean you agree and that the person is right. Saying “thank you” catches the other person off guard (in a good way) and buys you time to think and respond calmly, making it more likely that you’ll get feedback in the future.
Each of us wants to be thought well of and be seen as competent. Negative feedback calls both into question and the brain responds defensively. The challenge is that defensive responses scare other people into silence. And you only need to get defensive once for people to believe that you don’t deal well with feedback.
Don’t underestimate the power of your emotions and ego. You are likely to respond to feedback defensively, even if you don’t see yourself do it. A seemingly benign ‘explanation’ of why you did something as you did it, is seen as defensive and is thus off putting to others.
Here are six strategies for responding to feedback well:
- Responding to feedback strategy one: Have feedback conversations when you have the time to listen and are rested. If you’re tired, on a deadline, or rushing to your next meeting, the conversation will not go well.
- Responding to feedback strategy two: If someone catches you off guard with feedback and you know you won’t respond well, interrupt the person. Tell him that you appreciate him bringing this to your attention and you want to give the conversation the attention it deserves, but now isn’t a good time. Schedule a time to finish the conversation within a few days.
- Responding to feedback strategy three: Have a plan for how you’re going to respond to scheduled/planned feedback conversations before the conversations start. Tell yourself, “I will say thank you, end the conversation, and ask for another time to talk.”
- Responding to feedback strategy four: If you receive feedback that doesn’t feel accurate, ask others, who you trust, what they think. Just be prepared to hear what they have to say, and, of course, respond with “thank you.”
- Responding to feedback strategy five: Don’t respond to negative feedback in the moment, even if the other person wants you to and you think you can do so without being defensive. Don’t underestimate the power of your emotions. You will be upset, even if you don’t feel upset, and your response will be better after you’ve had time to process. Tell the person who gave you feedback that you take their feedback seriously and want to respond thoughtfully, and thus you’re going to think about what s/he said before responding. People may be frustrated with this response at first, but they’ll be appreciative later.
- Responding to feedback strategy six: Be sure to get back to the person, who has feedback for you, within a few days. Tell him you thought about what he said and then tell him how you feel. You can speak candidly. Your words will be calmer and more thoughtful then when you received the initial feedback.
We know people are hesitant to give feedback. Make giving you feedback easier by responding calmly. No one expects to hear “thank you for the feedback.” Your unemotional response will strengthen your reputation and relationships, and make it more likely that you get more feedback in the future.
Many of us are hesitant to give peer feedback. We worry that giving peer feedback will damage our relationships. We wonder if we have the right and if it’s our place to give peer feedback. And we are concerned about what the consequences of giving peer feedback will be.
Giving peer feedback isn’t so different from giving feedback to a friend or even a direct report. While you have an implicit ‘right’ to give a direct report feedback, doing so without building trust will ensure your feedback falls flat.
People respond to feedback in predictable ways. Most people get upset and defend themselves. This is normal and natural. Negative feedback conflicts with our desire to be thought well of, which all people (despite what they might say) want. People are more open and less defensive when they trust the source of the feedback and trust the sources’ motives. Follow these practices when giving peer feedback and your feedback will hopefully be well received.
Four practices for giving peer feedback:
- Think about why you want to give feedback. Really think about this. Is your desire to help the person change a behavior, or are you just being judgmental? If your intention isn’t to help someone replicate or change a behavior, say nothing. It’s not feedback you’re planning to give, it’s only your opinion you want to disseminate. One of my friends recently told me she felt my son’s name was waspy. Her comment wasn’t feedback as there was nothing I could do with the information. She simply gave me her judgmental opinion, which annoyed me.
Also consider why you want to give feedback. Do you simply want something done your way, or do you feel strongly that what the person is doing is having a negative impact on him/her or the organization? I worked with a business leader who red lined every document his staff created. He didn’t only change language that was wrong, he edited documents so they were written more akin to his writing style. This made his staff feel that they couldn’t do anything right and it wouldn’t matter what they produced, he’d revise even the most ‘perfect’ work. So they stopped trying. Evaluate your true motive. Just because something wasn’t done your way, doesn’t mean it wasn’t done well.
- Provided your motives are pure – you’re trying to make a difference for someone and his/her behavior is causing real challenges, it’s ok to speak up. Be sure you have the relationship to give peer feedback. Does the person know you have his/her back? If you speak up, will s/he trust it’s because you care about her or the organization, versus you just want to express your opinion and be right.
- Provided you are giving feedback to alter a behavior and you have the relationship to give feedback, it’s important that you ask for permission. A peer relationship is a lateral one. You each have the same ‘power’ (at least by title) in the organization, thus you don’t intrinsically have the ‘right’ to give feedback. You earn the right to give feedback by asking for permission and being willing to hear, “No, thank you.”
Asking for permission to give feedback might sound something like, “I’ve noticed a few things that I think are making ________ project harder than it has to be. Would you be willing to talk with me about it?”
Or, “Our weekly team meetings are tough. It’s a challenging group. I have a couple of ideas that might make the meetings easier to run. Would you be interested in talking about them?”
Or, “I have something I want to share with you. I feel awkward bringing this up because we’re peers and I’m not sure it’s my place to do so. But I care about you and want you to be successful. Would it be ok if I shared? Feel free, of course, to say no.”
- Lastly, don’t worry about giving peer feedback perfectly. You might follow our feedback formula to a tee. You might not. There is no one right way to give feedback. Speak from the heart. If you’re nervous to have a conversation, say so. If you’re not sure it’s your place to give a piece of feedback, say so. If you’re worried you won’t deliver the feedback well, say that. Saying how you really feel, being human and vulnerable builds trust, relationships, and credibility. People want to work with other real people, and real people have concerns. It’s ok to share them.
Giving peer feedback doesn’t have to be hard. Evaluate your motives. Ensure that what you plan to share is really feedback versus merely your opinion. Build trust, ask for permission, and speak from the heart. If you make a mess, you can always clean it up. Simply repeat the steps by saying something like, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I hope it’s ok I said something. I really want this project to go well for both you and the team. How could I have done that better for next time?”
Since having a child, the words “I’m sorry” have taken over my life. “I’m sorry I missed your birthday.” “I’m sorry I’m delayed in replying.” “I’m sorry I missed your call.” “I’m sorry it took me four months to send you a thank you card.” These two words come out of my mouth so often that they’ve taken over my vocabulary.
I’m a big fan of taking responsibility and personal accountability. I think being accountable is easier than passing the buck. When I’m accountable, I have more power and control. When someone else is accountable, I have neither. But there’s a difference between being accountable and apologizing for yourself.
Last week I vowed to stop saying, “I’m sorry.” And yet, the next words out of my mouth were apologetic. Apologizing for oneself is so natural, it’s pervasive, aka, a hard habit to break.
Below are a few strategies for being accountable but not apologetic:
- Be accountable: Establish clear priorities and boundaries. When I had a child, I set very clear guidelines for myself on work hours and travel practices. And I stick to those 99% of the time. Having clearly established boundaries makes decision making easy.
- Be accountable: Only commit to things you know you will do. For personal situations, only commit to things you genuinely want to do.
- Be accountable: Tell the truth. If you don’t plan to do something, say so, without apology. “Thank you but no” has a lot of power.
- Be accountable: Know your limits and what you need to be healthy and functioning at an optimum level. If you need eight hours of sleep, structure your life to get it. If you need weekends focused on your family, do that. If a trip home this summer feels like too much, don’t go. Taking care of yourself enables you to take care of others.
- Be accountable: Renegotiate when you need to. If you realize something you agreed to isn’t feasible or in your best interest, renegotiate versus suffer through it. Or, keep your commitment, but don’t recommit the next time a similar opportunity or request comes around.
- Be accountable: Be careful where you invest your energy. I love my family and friends, and they will never get a printed party invitation or holiday card from me. Ever. I want to do both. I really do. But just thinking about collecting addresses puts me over the edge.
- Be accountable: Give yourself a break. You’re doing the best you can. You’re a human like everyone else. We’re all doing the best we can.
Being accountable isn’t being perfect. It’s being human with points for effort. Be yourself. Take care of yourself. And do your best, unapologetically.
I’m often asked, “Can I give my boss or the people above me feedback? Is that really realistic?” Giving people ‘above’ you feedback has everything to do with the quality of your relationship and less to do with the person’s title. If your relationship is good and your boss is open to feedback, then yes, you can practice the feedback formula with him/her. If your relationship isn’t that solid or your boss isn’t open to your feedback, practice managing up by asking for what you want instead of giving direct feedback.
No one likes to be criticized or told that s/he is wrong. When giving someone direct feedback, no matter how kind the delivery, you are telling someone, “You’re doing ______ wrong. Please do _____ instead.” Being that direct is challenging when you don’t have the best relationship or when people are highly defensive. You can achieve the same desired results by simply asking for what you want.
Asking for what you want is less judgmental than giving direct feedback and is a subtle way of telling someone s/he is not giving you what you need. And people who are paying attention will get that. They don’t need it spelled out.
Here are a few ways to practice managing up with your boss and other leaders in your organization:
Giving Direct Feedback: “You don’t make time for me. I’m getting behind on projects because you don’t take the time to review my work.”
Managing Up by Asking: “How can we ensure you get to review my work each week, so I can finish the projects I’m working on?”
Giving Direct Feedback: “Every time we have a meeting scheduled, you cancel it.”
Managing Up by Asking: “If meetings get cancelled, is it ok if I reschedule them?
Giving Direct Feedback: “You’re a micromanager. I feel like I can’t make a move without your permission.”
Managing Up by Asking: “I’d like to manage ________ project. What do you need to feel comfortable with me doing that?”
Telling someone at any level s/he is doing something wrong, which will likely evoke defensiveness. And being direct requires both courage and a good relationship. If you don’t have the relationship to be so direct, simply ask for what you want.
The first time my now almost-three-year-old son stood up in his crib, I didn’t see it. I was sitting in his room watching him at the time. I was literally watching him in his crib, and yet I didn’t notice when he stood up for the first time. I wasn’t looking at my phone or talking with someone else. It was just he and I in the room, and yet I was so distracted with whatever I was thinking about, I didn’t ‘see’ him stand up for the first time.
When he was born, I was given the advice to stay present. And I scoffed at that advice. Of course I would stay present.
Living in the present sounds so simple. When you walk, walk. When you eat, eat. When you work, work. We’ve all heard this advice, and yet, it’s so hard to do.
Before having a baby, I would lie awake in bed at night worrying about the vendor who wasn’t the right fit, a decision I needed to make, or something I needed to finish. Now I think about those things when I’m ‘with’ my son – watching him, but not seeing.
If we’re thinking about anything other than then what we’re doing, we’re not living in the present moment. Instead, we’re focused on either the past or the future. And this is where stress and anxiety live. If we only think about what’s happening now, it’s impossible to be stressed, anxious, or worried. The question is how to stay present when our brains want to do anything but.
Here are seven strategies for living in the present moment:
Live in the present strategy one: Write down everything you need to do, so you can free your brain from thinking about it.
Live in the present strategy two: Don’t over commit or over plan. Plan days with a schedule that you can easily achieve. Over committing causes stress and worry.
Live in the present strategy three: Only commit to do things you really plan (and at least in your personal life, really want) to do.
Live in the present strategy four: Give yourself a limited and prescribed time to talk about a problem and/or to worry about it. When the time is up, let it go and think about something else. Ask the people around you to help hold to this time limit. If you bring the topic up in conversation, ask your colleagues to point out that you’re still focused on the problem and refuse to have the conversation with you.
Live in the present strategy five: Remind yourself (from moment to moment) to be present. When I’m with my son, I remind myself to really be with him and not thinking about or doing something else.
Live in the present strategy six: Compartmentalize your time. Determine how long you’re going to do something, and only do that activity during that time period. When the time is up, move on to something else. When I’m not with clients, I spend half of each workday with my son. And when I’m with him, I don’t have my phone so I’m not tempted to check my email. When I’m with him, I’m really with him.
Live in the present strategy seven: Leave your phone some place you can’t see it. We are addicted to these little people separators. I find that one of the only ways I don’t check my phone, is not to carry the phone with me.
Being in the present moment requires discipline. If you want to feel more peaceful and less stressed, think only about what you’re doing. Let everyone else worry about the rest.
There are two purposes of giving feedback and only two purposes – to encourage people to either replicate or change a behavior. Providing input for any other reason doesn’t actually qualify as feedback and only serves to damage relationships.
Sometimes we provide input because we’re frustrated or simply don’t like someone. Consider the purpose of your comments before you make them. If your intentions are pure – to help someone replicate or alter a behavior, then ask for permission and give feedback once given the green light. If you’re ‘just talking’ to talk or vent, say nothing.
Here are five criteria for when to give feedback and when to say nothing:
Giving feedback criteria one: You have the relationship to do so. You’ve built trust. The recipient will know your motives are pure – to add value and help.
Giving feedback criteria two: You’ve asked for permission to give feedback. Even if your title grants you the permission to give feedback, asking if the person is open to the feedback can increase receptivity.
Giving feedback criteria three: You’re not upset. Wait to give feedback until you’re calm, but don’t wait longer than a week (max two).
Giving feedback criteria four: Four months haven’t passed since the incident happened that you want to address. If the purpose of feedback is to encourage someone to replicate or change a behavior, the feedback needs to be given shortly after the event occurred. If you wait, the feedback is unhelpful and creates suspicion of other things you haven’t said.
Giving feedback criteria five: You have a specific example to provide. No example, no feedback. Feedback is supposed to be helpful. Telling someone they’re “doing a great job” is nice to hear but isn’t specific enough to be helpful or sincere. Likewise, telling someone their work isn’t “detailed oriented,” isn’t helpful without a specific example or two.
Evaluate your motives before you speak. Are you attempting to encourage someone to alter or replicate a behavior, or are you just sharing your unsolicited opinion? Give feedback for the right reasons, and retain your relationships.
Every time I ignore the red flags I see when interviewing a candidate, or when I feel an employee is struggling, or a project is off track, I pay the price. Every single time.
You interview a candidate whose commute will be 75-minutes each each way, but she says she likes to drive. Sure, until it snows. Move on. You haven’t gotten an update from a project team in over a month, but this group is typically reliable, so things are probably fine. Check in. Even the most diligent employees need accountability and attention.
They call them red flags for a reason. If you suspect a problem, there likely is one. Don’t just wait and ‘see how things go.’ Make a hard decision, get more information, or get involved. Wait and see is often a recipe for disaster.
Sometimes we don’t get involved because we don’t have the time or want to focus on other things. Other times we just don’t trust or listen to our gut.
I usually know what I want and need to do, both personally and professionally. Yet I tend to ask LOTS of people for their opinions of what I should do. I solicit advice from friends and colleagues, and in the end, I usually do whatever I want. Why not just trust that I know the right thing to do and just do it? Dad, are you reading this? See, I listen. My dad tells me all the time to stop soliciting opinions, I often ignore anyway, and just act.
Here are a six steps you can take to help listen to yourself and ensure you don’t overlook or ignore red flags:
1. Become very clear about your desired outcome. Decide what you want.
2. Eliminate distractions. Get quiet, aka, still your mind.
3. Think about the situation at hand. Weigh the facts and your options.
4. Decide without belaboring.
5. Act on your decision.
6. Don’t look back. Your initial decision is usually the right one.
Trusting and listening to ourselves can be hard. Perhaps it’s the fear of making a mistake or being wrong. Chances are you’re right. So pay attention to the red flags, trust yourself, and listen to your gut.
I think Instacart is a brilliant idea. I make a grocery list online, someone else goes shopping for me, and drops my groceries on my porch. What a great way to save time, unless I want a certain brand of canned tomatoes with no rosemary, and two green bananas and three that are almost ripe and one that is ripe right now. Meaning, if I want my groceries a certain way, I need to go shopping myself. No one else will pick precisely what I would. And delegating work and managing people is the same.
No one will do something just like you will. They might do it better or worse, but either way, work won’t be done just as you would do it. If you want something done precisely your way, you’re likely going to need to do it yourself.
There is little more demoralizing than working hard on a document and having your manager red line it with edits that aren’t wrong, they’re just not her way. This kind of feedback makes employees wonder why they bothered doing the work in the first place. Employees find themselves thinking and possibly saying, “If you’re going to change my work to be more your way, you should just do it yourself.”
This isn’t to say that if you have a vision for how work should be done that you shouldn’t delegate. Managers need to delegate work or they will be focused on the wrong things, exhausted, and resentful, and employees won’t grow, develop, and be properly utilized.
Managers need to set clear expectations, follow up to review work, provide regular feedback as the work is in process, and then expect and accept that completed projects won’t look just like what they would have done. Employees might produce great work, but it likely won’t be a mirror image of what the manager would have done herself.
If getting work that is slightly askew from what you would have done works for you, delegate the work. If work produced must be a certain way, you should likely do it yourself, or risk both you and your employees’ frustration.
Here are six steps on how to delegate, a skill I think most managers can strengthen:
How to delegate step one: Provide clear instructions to the person to whom you’re delegating. If you have an image of what something should look like, provide a sample document.
How to delegate step two: Ask the person to whom you delegated to tell you what you’re expecting. Don’t ask, “Do you have any questions?” The right answer to that question is, “No,” and gives you no insight about the person’s understanding of your expectations. Instead, ask, “So I know I’ve been clear, what am I asking you to do?” Or you could ask, “Based on what I’ve said, what do you think I’m looking for?” There are lots of ways to assess a person’s understanding. You simply need to get the person talking.
How to delegate step three: Don’t assume people know what to do. We have all left someone’s office with a new project thinking, “I have no idea where to start.” And then that project goes on the bottom of the pile.
Ask the person, “What are you going to do first?” If they give you an answer that tells you they know what to do, step back. They’ve earned some freedom. If they give you an answer that will not lead to the results you want, step in and offer help.
How to delegate step four: Ask to see work as the work is completed versus reviewing all of the work when the project is done. Giving a lot of upgrade feedback after work is completed is demoralizing to employees and wastes a lot of time. Tell employees, “I’d like to see your progress every Friday (or whatever interval is appropriate depending on the length and complexity of the project). This isn’t to micromanage you, it’s to ensure you don’t do a bunch of work that I will want changed. I don’t want you to waste your time.”
How to delegate step five: Give candid feedback when you review work. Don’t say something is fine if it’s not. Make changes while the work is in its early stages versus when it’s almost complete.
How to delegate step six: Resist the temptation to edit work or give feedback on work that is correct but wasn’t done your way. Remember, if you want something done your way, sometimes it makes sense to do it yourself.
When it makes sense to do something yourself: When you must have something a certain way and you’re the only person who can and will do it that way. If you’re ok with things not having the same words, formatting or flavor you’d put on them, delegate. If you need your bananas to look a certain way, go pick them up yourself. And both options are right answers. It’s ok to want what you want.
We know impressions are made quickly and are hard to change. But it’s not impossible to repair your reputation. If you want to change how people see you, I’d suggest being very overt about the changes you’ve made. Don’t simply alter your behavior and wait for people to notice. They likely won’t.
Once people have formed an opinion about you, that’s often their opinion for as long as they know you. For example, if you have a tendency to be late, even if you periodically show up on time, your friends and coworkers will think of you as the person who is always late. If you work with someone who tends to miss deadlines, even if she periodically turns work in on time, you’ll think of her as someone who misses deadlines.
Once people make a decision about us, that’s often how they’ll see us for the duration our relationship. So if you want to repair your reputation, you’re going to have to do it overtly. Making changes and hoping people notice, won’t produce the desired result.
Here Are Eight Steps to Repair Your Reputation:
- Ask people who can impact your reputation and whose judgment you trust for feedback.
- Work hard to manage yourself and not get defensive. Respond to all feedback, no matter how hard it is to hear or how invalid it may feel with, “Thank you for telling me that. I’m going to think about what you said. I may come back to talk more later.”
- Once you’ve absorbed the feedback, decide what, if any, changes you will make.
- Change your behavior for a period of weeks.
- Return to the people who gave you feedback, tell them about the behavior changes you’ve made, and ask them to observe your behavior.
- Tell the people who gave you feedback that you’ll ask them for feedback again in a few weeks, and you want to know what they see.
- Return to the people who gave you feedback and ask what changes they have or haven’t noticed.
- Repeat steps 3 through 7 at least quarterly. Everyone periodically does things that can damage their reputation.
Overtly pointing out the behavior changes you’ve made, asking people who are important to you to pay attention, and give you additional feedback, is key to altering your reputation. Most people working to change their reputation don’t do this. They make behavior changes and hope others notice. If you want to alter your reputation and how others see you, you need to do so overtly. Tell people the changes you’ve made; don’t make them guess. Ask people to observe your behavior, and then ask for more feedback. And no matter how hard the feedback is to hear, don’t get defensive. Becoming defensive will ensure you don’t get feedback the next time you ask.