You’ve heard countless times that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. So when something not-so-positive happens – a customer is upset, you missed a deadline, or made an error – don’t let your boss find out about it from someone else. Manage your professional reputation and get there first to create the first impression of what happened.
Managers don’t like surprises. If your manager is going to get a call about something that isn’t positive, let her know before the call comes in. You will create her perception of the situation, and perceptions are hard to change. Don’t wait for the s*** to hit the fan. Get ahead of the problem by coming forward and giving your manager and other stakeholders a heads up.
It could sound something like this, “I just had a tough conversation with John in IT. You may get a call. Here’s what happened… I didn’t want you to be surprised.”
Or, “I told Brian at Intellitec that we’re raising our prices in the second quarter. He wasn’t happy. You may get a call.”
Or let’s say you’re going to work on a strained relationship. Tell your manager before you take action. It could sound something like this, “I want to work on my relationship with Julie. Our relationship has been strained since we worked together on the software project last year. I’d like to approach her, tell her that I know our relationship is strained, and that I’d like a good working relationship with her. Then I’d like to ask if she’s willing to have lunch with me, talk about what’s happened, and see if we can start again in a more positive way. What do you think of me doing that? Would you approach the conversation differently? I don’t know how it’s going to go, so I wanted you to know what I’m planning to do, just in case it backfires and you get a call.”
Manage your professional reputation assertively by taking responsibility for mistakes, working on damaged relationships, and telling your manager before someone else does!
No one likes to make mistakes. We want to do good work and have people think well of us.
The key to maintaining your relationships and reputation, when you make a mistake, is to take responsibility and make things right as soon as possible. Saying something wasn’t your fault or becoming defensive will only damage your reputation and relationships. As counterintuitive as it sounds, you will gain respect and credibility by admitting fault and correcting problems.
I often get asked if people lose credibility by being humble – asking for feedback and admitting to making mistakes. It takes strength to ask for and be open to feedback and to admit when you drop the ball. So while it may seem counterintuitive, the more you ask for and respond to feedback, and admit when you make mistakes, the stronger you will appear.
I made a mistake at work. Now what?
When you make a mistake say something like:
“I dropped the ball on that. I apologize. I’ll fix it and let you know when it’s been handled.”
Or, “Thank you for the feedback. This clearly didn’t go as planned. I’ll make those changes and let you know when they’re done.”
Also, let people know the steps you’ll take to avoid similar challenges in the future.
You could say something like:
“Thanks for letting me know that our process is causing your department challenges. We certainly want the process to be smooth. My team will fix this month’s report, so your team doesn’t have to invest more time. We’ll update the process for next month and walk you through the changes before the report is due.”
Don’t provide a bunch of reasons for breakdowns. No one cares. Telling people why something occurred can sound like excuse management. People just want to know things will be made right.
Asking for feedback, taking responsibility, and telling people how you will correct errors may not be your natural or first reaction. The more you can train yourself to do these things, the easier you will be to work with and the better your reputation and business relationships will be.
The people you work with want to do a good job. They want you to think well of them. Yes, even the people you think do little work. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume people are doing the best they know how to do. And when you don’t get what you want, make requests.
Version one: “You did this thing and here’s why it’s a problem.”
The other way is less direct. Rather than telling the person what went wrong, simply make a request.
Version two: “Will you…” Or, “It would be helpful to get this report on Mondays instead of Wednesday. Are you able to do that?”
It’s very difficult to give feedback directly without the other person feeling judged. Making a request is much more neutral than giving direct feedback, doesn’t evoke as much defensiveness, and achieves the same result. You still get what you want.
When I teach giving feedback, I often give the example of asking a waitstaff in a restaurant for ketchup. Let’s say your waiter comes to your table to ask how your food is and your table doesn’t have any ketchup.
Option one: Give direct feedback. “Our table doesn’t have any ketchup.”
Option two: Make a request. “Can we get some ketchup?”
Both methods achieve the desired result. Option one overtly tells the waiter, “You’re not doing your job.” Option two still tells the waiter he isn’t doing his job, but the method is more subtle and thus is less likely to put him on the defensive.
You are always dealing with people’s egos. And when egos get bruised, defenses rise. When defenses rise, it’s hard to have a productive conversation. People stop listening and start defending themselves. Defending oneself is a normal and natural reaction to negative feedback. It’s a survival instinct.
You’re more likely to get what you want from others when they don’t feel attacked and don’t feel the need to defend themselves. Consider simply asking for what you want rather than telling people what they’re doing wrong, and see what happens.
I will admit, asking for what you want in a neutral and non-judgmental way when you’re frustrated is very hard to do. The antidote is to anticipate your needs and ask for what you want at the onset of anything new. And when things go awry, wait until you’re not upset to make a request. If you are critical, apologize and promise to do better next time. It’s all trial and error.
Being in the wrong job feels terrible. It’s not unlike being in the wrong romantic relationship, group of friends, or neighborhood. We feel misplaced. Everything is a struggle. Feeling like we don’t fit and can’t be successful is one of the worst feelings in the world.
The ideal situation is for an underperforming employee to decide to move on. But when this doesn’t happen, managers need to help employees make a change.
The first step in helping an underperforming employee move on to something where s/he can be more successful is to accept that giving negative feedback and managing employee performance is not unkind. When managers have an underperforming employee, they often think it isn’t nice to say something. Managers don’t want to hurt employees’ feelings or deal with their defensive reactions. In fact, when we help someone move on to a job that she will enjoy and where she can excel, we do the employee a favor. We set her free from a difficult situation that she was not able to leave out of her own volition.
I get asked the question “How do I know when it’s time to let an employee go?” a lot.
They can’t. Even with coaching and training, they don’t have the ability to do what you’re asking.
Numbers one and two are coachable. With the right training and coaching, employees will likely be able to do what you’re asking them to do.
Numbers three and four are less coachable and are likely not trainable.
When you’re confronted with someone who simply can’t do what you need them to do, it’s time to help the person make a change.
The way you discover whether or not someone can do something is to:
Set clear expectations
Train, coach, and give feedback
Train, coach and give feedback
Train, coach and give feedback
Welcome to management.
After you’ve trained, coached, and given feedback for a period of time, and the person still can’t do what you’re asking her to do, it’s time to make a change.
Making a change does not mean firing someone. You have options:
Take away responsibilities the person can’t do well and give him other things that he can do well.
Rotate the person to a different job.
Firing someone is always a last resort.
Sometimes we get too attached to job descriptions. The job description outlines a specific responsibility that the person can’t do. So we fire the person versus considering, who else in the organization can do that task? Be open-minded. If you have a person who is engaged, committed, and able to do most of her job, be flexible and creative. Give away parts of the job to someone who can do them well. I’ve also seen employees who were failing thrive in a different job. Organizations that are flexible survive; organizations that are rigid do not.
Let’s say you’ve stripped away the parts of the job that an underperforming employee can do well, and she still can’t perform effectively. Now it’s time to make a change.
Here are some words to use when having the difficult “it’s time to move on” conversation:
“I really want you on my team and to be successful in our organization. Over the past six months, we’ve had several conversations about the parts of your job that are a struggle. We’ve taken away responsibilities that aren’t a fit for you and have replaced those responsibilities with things that seemed like a better fit. And yet I can see that you are still struggling. I’m very sorry to say that it’s not appropriate for you to continue working here. Today is your last day.” Depending on your organizational culture, can also say, “How do you want to handle this? You can resign or we can let you go. I’ll do whatever feels more comfortable for you.”
This is a difficult conversation that no manager wants to have. Yet I promise you, this conversation feels better to your employee than suffering in a job in which s/he can’t be successful. After you’ve set expectations, observed performance, and coached and given feedback repeatedly, letting someone go is kinder than letting the employee flounder in a job in which he cannot be successful.
You will be passed over for jobs, projects, and opportunities – personally and professionally. People will choose not to buy from you and they’ll choose not to be your friend and romantic partner. And that’s ok. Not everyone is our right “customer.” The key isn’t to win every opportunity. Rather, it’s what we do when we don’t get what we want.
When you’re done feeling disappointed, mad, and frustrated, get curious. Find out why you were passed over. I’ll never suggest you make changes. I simply want you to know what’s standing in your way, so you have power – the power to choose. Eliminate your business blind spots.
All of us have blind spots – things we do that are off-putting to others, that we’re not aware of. For the most part, people won’t tell us our business blind spots, instead, they simply pass us over. Being rejected is feedback, it’s just not specific enough to help us make different choices. If you want to be able to change your behavior, you need to know what behaviors are standing in your way. Then you can choose what, if anything, to do about those behaviors.
When you get turned down for an opportunity, practice these strategies to eliminate your business blind spots:
Allow yourself to have an emotional reaction, to feel disappointed, and to grieve the loss.
When your emotions dissipate, call people who can tell you why you were turned down, and ask for feedback. The goal of the conversation: Eliminate your business blind spots.
Be humble and open.
Consider saying something like, “Thank you so much for considering me/us to support your needs. We were disappointed not to win your business. Would you be willing to share what had you choose a different provider and what we could have done differently to be a stronger candidate? I’ll be grateful for anything you’re willing to tell me.”
Depending on the circumstances, you could also say something like, “I wasn’t put on the _______ project. I wonder if you have any information as to why? I appreciate anything you’re able to tell me. Your input will help me grow and eliminate my business blind spots.”
Regardless of what you hear, thank the person for the feedback. You can ask for additional information and ask who else you can talk with, but don’t become defensive. The less defensive you get, the more feedback you’ll get. Make it easy to tell you the truth (as the other person sees it).
Remember, information is power, and power is control. Many people don’t give direct feedback because they’re afraid of the other person’s reaction. Surprise people by being open to feedback, and eliminate your business blind spots.
Validate feedback that doesn’t feel right to you. If you’re not sure what someone told you is accurate, vet the feedback with other people you trust. Simply ask other people who are aware of your performance, “I received this feedback. Does that resonate with you?”
Sit with the feedback for a few days before taking any action.
When your emotions have passed, decide what – if anything – you want to do with the input you’ve received. Perhaps you want to make changes. Perhaps you don’t. Either way, you have more power than you did before you received any input.
You won’t win them all. The key isn’t avoiding rejection, it’s what you do when you don’t get what you want. Be brave. Be open. Ask for feedback. And you’ll have the power to make different choices next time, if you want to.
Need to give negative feedback? Practice out loud. The words you say in your head while driving to work will not be what comes out of your mouth when you give the actual feedback. Ask a friend, family member, or even your pet (aka someone you don’t work with) to listen to you deliver the feedback. If people outside of your industry and organization understand the feedback, the feedback recipient will be clear, too.
Giving feedback is stressful for both the person giving the feedback and the feedback recipient. The best way to manage the stress of giving feedback is to be prepared.
Here are three ways to prepare for difficult feedback conversations:
Write out the feedback, save your notes, and walk away. Read your notes later and ask yourself, “Have I been clear?” Then see if you can cut the notes in half. Shorter feedback is better.
Practice out loud. Use our 8- step Feedback Formula as a guide. The Formula will ensure you give clear, specific, and succinct feedback without emotion.
Bring type-written notes to your feedback conversations. When the feedback recipient becomes defensive (and they will) or you become flustered (and you might), your notes will help you keep the conversation on track.
During every feedback training I teach, I am asked how to reduce feedback recipient’s defensiveness. Defensiveness is a normal, healthy response to feedback. When you give someone negative feedback, you (subtly) tell the person they did something wrong. No one wants to hear that, so the brain goes on the defensive. It’s a normal survival mechanism. Instead of avoiding and dreading defensiveness during feedback conversations, prepare for it. And the best way to prepare is to practice what you want to say out loud. Speaking a message is not the same as practicing the conversation silently in your head. Speaking out loud is more stressful and takes more time. So, if a conversation is particularly difficult or awkward, practice out loud!
I’d like to give a huge shout out to Angela Fusaro of Physician 360 for sharing this video with us. Angela practiced my eight-step Feedback Formula on her dog, Thor. I thought it was so funny and thought you would, too.
Figuring out if a candidate will like and can do a job is fairly straight forward, figuring out if a candidate will like working in your organization is much harder.
A clear and specific job description should tell a candidate whether or not a job’s responsibilities are things she can and wants to do. What’s much harder to determine is whether or not the candidate is a good culture fit with the organization. Will she be comfortable working with the organization’s employees and in the organization’s culture, and will other employees be comfortable working with her? It’s hard to figure that out during a 60 or 90-minute conversation, during which both interviewers and interviewees are on their best behavior.
Some companies use personality assessments to assess culture fit. Others have lots of people meet with candidates. I’m fond of the job shadow interview, which very few companies do.
If you’re really serious about a candidate, why not invite her to spend a day or a half day in your office participating in a job shadow interview. Candidates can attend meetings, have lunch, hang out in the break room and hallways, and meet fellow employees during the job shadow interview. Candidates and employees are more likely to let their guard down and be themselves outside of a formal job interview. You want to know the person you hire as well as possible. You don’t want to hire someone who turns out to be very different once she actually starts.
Hiring and training new employees is the most costly thing most businesses do, so slow down and invest more time. Before you make a candidate an offer, ask the candidate if she would be willing to spend half a day in your office participating in a job shadow interview. That invitation could sound something like, “We really like you and think you’d be a great fit. Before we make you an offer, we wonder if you’d be willing to spend an afternoon (or a day), sitting in on some meetings and job shadowing a potential peer. Would you be interested in doing that?”
Candidates, you’re interviewing and assessing an organization just as the people in the organization are interviewing and assessing you. You won’t be successful or stay in a job very long if you don’t feel at home in the culture. If a hiring manager makes you an offer and you are seriously considering it, ask to job shadow interview for a half or full day. That request could sound something like, “Thank you so much for the job offer. I’m very excited about the possibility of working for you! I want to be sure that I’m a great fit and vice versa. How would you feel if I spent a morning or afternoon attending a few meetings and job shadowing someone on the team? This will give me an even better sense of the organization and make sure this is a great decision for both of us. What do you think?” I can’t imagine any employer outside of those working on government, classified information saying no.
Taking the wrong job and hiring the wrong candidate is costly. Slow down and make better hiring decisions by giving candidates a chance to experience your culture with a job shadow interview, when people aren’t on their best behavior. You’ll make better hiring decisions and save lots of time and money in the process.
The people you live and work with are hesitant to give you negative feedback. They’re afraid you’ll freak out, and they don’t want to deal your freak out. It’s easier to say nothing.
When I started teaching how to give and receive feedback, I provided elaborate explanations as to the predictable response to feedback and the rationale for that response. Now I’ve boiled the natural response to receiving feedback into three words: The Freak Out.
Every person you know – personally and professionally – wants to be liked and approved of. Even the people in your office who you think are lazy want you to think they do good work. And when anyone calls another person’s competence into question, that person is likely to freak out (become defensive).
It’s very difficult not to get at least a little bit defensive when receiving feedback. A defensive response often sounds something like, “Thanks for the telling me that. Can I tell you why I did it that way?” The problem with that slightly defensive response is that what the other person hears is, “You’re not listening. I am wasting my time talking to you.” Then the conversation quickly ends. People want to feel heard. And when the feedback recipient becomes defensive, the person giving feedback doesn’t feel heard.
Don’t feel badly about becoming defensive when you receive negative feedback. Becoming defensive when receiving bad news just means you’re a living, breathing human being with feelings. That beats the alternative. But The Freak Out scares people. They don’t want to deal with your mild, moderate, or very defensive reactions.
Because people want to avoid The Freak Out, they keep negative feedback to themselves, or worse, tell someone else. If you want more truth, you need to make it clear there won’t be negative repercussions for speaking up.
Here are seven steps to get others comfortable giving you negative feedback:
1. Ask for feedback.
2. Be specific about the type of feedback you want.
3. Tell the person from whom you’re asking for feedback when and where she can observe you in action.
A bad example of asking for feedback: “I really want your feedback. Feel free to give it anytime.” This is too vague and doesn’t demonstrate seriousness on your part.
A good example of asking for feedback: “I really want your feedback on the pace of the new-hire-orientation program. Will you sit through the first hour next Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. and tell me what you think of the pace and why?” This request tells the person specifically what you want and demonstrates you’re serious about wanting her feedback.
4. When you receive feedback, say, “Thank you for telling me. I’m going to think about what you’ve said and may come back to you in a few days to talk more.”
5. Don’t respond to negative feedback immediately. Walk away instead of responding.
6. If you’d like more information or want to tell the person you disagree with what she said, wait until you’re calm to have that conversation. That can be minutes or a few days later.
7. You can express a counterpoint of view, you just can’t do it immediately after you receive the feedback.
No matter what a person’s role in your life – your boss, a peer, external customer, or even spouse – it takes courage to give you feedback. When a conversation requires courage, the speaker’s emotions are heightened. If the feedback recipient’s emotions rise in response to the feedback, conversations escalate. This is how arguments start. If you want to put the other person at ease and get more feedback in the future, do the opposite of what she is expecting. Rather than getting even the slightest bit defensive, do the opposite. Say, “Thank you for the feedback. I’m sorry you had that experience. I’m going to think about what you’ve said, and may come back to you to talk more.” Then walk away.
Walking away, when all you want to do is react, is very difficult. Walking away will require a good deal of self-control, but the rewards are great. You will build trust, strengthen your relationships, and get more information than you have in the past – information you need to manage your career, reputation, and business.
It’s hard to watch people do things that damage them – personally or professionally. And yet, if they haven’t asked for feedback, people likely won’t listen to unsolicited advice, so don’t bother giving it.
If you really want to give unsolicited advice, ask for permission and make sure you get a true “yes” before speaking up.
The conversation could go something like this:
“I noticed we’re getting behind on the XYZ project. I have a couple of ideas about what we can do. Would you be interested in talking about them?” Or, “That Monday meeting is rough. I feel for you. I used to run meetings like that. Would you be interested in talking about some meeting management strategies? I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned.”
After you offer to talk (aka, give your opinion), listen and watch the response you get. Do the person’s words and body language portray a true “yes, I’d like your opinion” or what seems like an “I know I’m supposed to say yes, but I’m really not interested” reply? If you get the latter, you’re likely just giving unwanted advice that won’t be heard. If that’s the case, let it go. But if the person appears generally interested and open, proceed.
You could also say something like:
“Last week we were talking about your frustrations about not being promoted. I have a couple of ideas about that. Do you want to talk about them? Either way is fine, but I thought I’d offer.”
Or, “That was a tough conversation during today’s staff meeting. It’s hard to present ideas and not have them be embraced. I have a couple of thoughts about ways you can approach the conversation during the next meeting. Do you want to talk about them?”
If you extend the invitation to talk, the other person has to be able to say no. An invitation is only an invitation if “no” is an acceptable answer. You can’t ask if the person wants your input and then keep talking if he verbally or physically said no.
Be brave. If you care about someone personally or professionally and you see him doing something that gets in the way of his success, ask permission to say something. If you get the go ahead, proceed. If you get a “no thank you,” accept that and move on. You’ve done your part.
In other words, employees need attention, and attention requires time – time many managers may not feel they have.
Here is a five-step formula for employee retention and employee engagement:
Get to know employees better and differently.
Have meaningful, one-on-one meetings [at least] monthly.
Give feedback every time you meet.
Ask for and be open to feedback.
Create opportunities for employees to do the work that interests them most.
Managers, how do you make time for these meetings when you are busy and have several direct reports?
Meet for 15-30 minutes.
Meet over the phone while commuting or waiting for flights.
Ask direct reports to create an agenda and run the meetings.
Ask direct reports to send follow-up notes of decisions and plans made during meetings. Give some of the accountability away.
If meetings get cancelled, reschedule as soon as possible. Direct reports take cancelled meetings personally. Cancelled meetings that are not rescheduled send the message that managers don’t care about employees and their careers.
Employees, if your manager doesn’t schedule meetings with you:
Ask permission to put a monthly meeting on your manager’s calendar.
Provide rationale for why you want to meet – to get your manager’s feedback and ensure you’re focused on the right work.
Ask permission to reschedule meetings when they get cancelled.
Don’t take cancelled meetings personally.
Offer to meet with your manager via the phone when it’s convenient for him/her. Leverage commute and travel time.
Employees need time with their managers. Meaningful discussions and work result in employee engagement and employee retention. So managers, make the time, even when you don’t feel you have it. Ask questions you don’t ask now. Give feedback, even if it’s uncomfortable. Give your employees an opportunity to do the work that interests them most. And watch your employee engagement and employee retention improve. And if your manager doesn’t do these things, politely and persistently ask. You won’t get what you don’t ask for. We are all 100% accountable for our careers.