“It’s Not You, It’s Me”: Turning a bad break-up line into a positive career feedback conversation

By: Ali Randel

Photo via flickr.com under Creative Commons License

“It’s not you; it’s me.” This phrase is one we have all heard before. It is the archetypal break-up line in romantic comedies, and it’s probably made a few appearances in your own romantic storyline–whether you were on the giving or receiving end of this canned line.

The phrase has been used so many times that it has largely lost its intended meaning, prompting eyerolls and disbelief whenever it’s actually used. We all know that “It’s not you; it’s me” can just as easily mean, “It’s definitely you; I just don’t feel comfortable telling you that.”

Why does this phrasing make tough conversations easier, even if we know it may not be how the speaker actually feels? Why do we rely on this line, or some version of it, so frequently in difficult conversations like break-ups? This line is more than just a common idiom; it says a lot about the way we all think about, give, and receive feedback. It reflects a mindset that can help us have more productive conversations in both our private and professional lives.

Phrases like this put ownership of the problem on the messenger of bad news. They shift the conversation from a commentary on someone else’s performance, to a conversation about your needs not being met. It helps us avoid one of the most prevalent derailers of productive feedback conversations — defensiveness from others — while still recognizing that a problem exists. The sentiment of “You aren’t good enough” (Or “It’s you”) is entirely different from“I’m not giving you what you deserve,” or “It’s me.” Instead of placing judgment, the phrase seemingly just identifies a gap.

What is interesting about our tendency to use this language is that whether we realize it or not, the statement — “It’s not you, it’s me” — is accurate. But instead of “I’m not giving you what you deserve”, the reality is more likely to be “I’m not getting what I need from you.”

The same variance also exists in our professional lives. A hands-off manager may be viewed as a trusting coach by an experienced employee, or as an absentee leader for a new employee. The behavior of the manager is the same in both instances; the outcome very different based on the needs of the recipient. In this situation, the two employees would provide contrasting feedback, and both would be accurate. A person’s performance is relative to the expectations we hold, not necessarily a product of objective judgment.

Our perception of people is based on our wants, needs, and expectations — not solely their behavior. However, the fact that our perception is based on our wants does not mean that it is only our problem to fix when we are in a frustrating situation. The idea of, “it’s not you; it’s me,” applies to both sides of the feedback equation.

In the work example given above, both parties are responsible for the outcome. The employee’s expectations of what a manager should do are what lead to the label “absentee manager,” and the manager’s expectations of what an employee should need influence her behavior in turn. Both the employee and the manager play a role in the others’ perception, and both have a stake in the outcome. The employee wants to be supported and the manager wants high performance. Neither is currently getting what she needs. This kind of joint ownership needs to be understood and reflected in our feedback conversations.

At work the issue is virtually never an objective one of “a poor manager” or a “needy employee.” Regardless of personalities, perceptions, and needs, employee and manager ideally do come together to create a mutually desired outcome. Constructive feedback conversations where both parties take some of the responsibility is an important part of creating that outcome.

What does this mean for us when we find ourselves in a feedback situation?

Whether you’re the “you” or the “me” at the beginning of a feedback conversation, consider these four questions:

1. What role am I playing in the tension I’m experiencing?

2. What outcomes will I be satisfied with?

3. What can I change to get me closer to this outcome?

4. What am I unwilling to compromise on?

“It’s not you, it’s me” isn’t just an age old method for breaking up with someone; it’s a shift in mindset that can help all of us deal with a number of tough conversations. After all, a break-up is really just one kind of difficult feedback session.

Ali Randel is a CrossLeader on the Research and Development Team at McChrystal Group, a leadership and management consultancy composed of a diverse mix of professionals from the military, academic, business, and technology sectors.