Author Georgia Murch: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful
People hear your content. And smell your intent. Our words matter. So we need to get them clear and fact based. Our content is how people experience us. If we are coming from a good place of genuinely wanting to share our perspective AND hear theirs; they will feel this. If we believe we are right and they can not change our minds; they will feel this too. It’s the well-known saying by Maya Angelou; ‘At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel’. No matter how good your content is, how many examples you have, if you deliver it poorly and disrespectfully it is not as likely to be heard or actioned.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Georgia Murch.
Georgia is a multiple best-selling author of Fixing Feedback, Feedback Flow and her most recent book Flawsome. She’s a keynote speaker and the leading expert in designing feedback cultures and helping teams ‘work as one’. She’s obsessed with how people talk to each other and to themselves.
She is a self-confessed ‘corporate hippie’, is quirky and down to earth and believes that to really connect with others and yourself, you need to be real. That includes owning all your good and all your flaws.
She features regularly on national TV, radio and writes for many of the major papers and magazines. Working with public and private clients for over 25 years, leading teams and businesses, designing and facilitating culture change and leadership programs means she’s done the miles. This deep experience means she truly appreciates the diversity and challenge of workforces and understands the complexity of managing a business while leading change.
I think COVID is asking something of us. It’s asking us to step up, not just to leading others. But to leading ourselves, understanding ourselves, our responses, our triggers, how we are wired. The best way to lead others is to start with you.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Well it all starts with your parenting right?! But I’ll fast forward a little and won’t go that deep. Well not to start with anyway. I grew up in bayside Melbourne, Australia. It was the ‘most livable city in the world’ but something tells me, with stage 3 and 4 restrictions becoming our norm, we might not win it this year ;-).
I grew up with my younger brother James, my Mum and Dad. I find myself parentless this year after losing my Dad to lung cancer and my dear Mum to leukemia 18 years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child Jacko. It’s a strange space to be. To not have parents anymore. It has been a challenging time too considering we’ve had to grieve in isolation. Not something I would wish on anyone but at least you get to deal with grief head on and not push through with distractions and not deal with it.
I’m a single Mum of two fabulous teenagers, Jacko (18) and Holly (16 — ah the joys). They have become my teachers. It’s a much better way to see things right?! I gotta say, parenting as they get older is much easier. I do not miss the whingeing. Eye rolls can always be ignored.
I’ve been in professional services and consulting for most of my career. Working with leaders, teams and organisations across multiple industries and countries. At the same time, I was managing my own teams and business units. So I understand the complexity of people and leading. The light and the dark. Now I have my own practice and a team that feels like family. It’s a very special place to be.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think people are sick of being sold to. I know I am. I know that leaders want to hire experts who understand their problems rather than walk in with pitches. I also believe that people want to work with those that are real. It’s not that hard to ‘sniff out’ people that care and those that want to make a buck.
Last year we were asked to help this organisation reduce their silos and restore a healthy relationship to conflict. Their engagement scores were low and turnover was high. So the decision was made to hire an expert who would be the messiah and fly in on a magic carpet and help solve their dysfunctional behaviours and poor collaboration.
And you know what, I can lead the horse to water and set up the environment for the change but I can’t make people step into the more functional behaviours. That’s their gig.
It was pretty easy to see that the core reason why the change would not happen was the bulk of the executive team. They wanted to tell others to change but were not willing to hold each other to account. They were fast to blame and slow to take responsibility. So I presented my findings, with evidence, and discussed how this would block success. I didn’t get the job. I’m ok with that. Our business wants to solve workplace issues. We want to get to the core issues and we are prepared to lose work and share our perspective than take the work.
I think people smell integrity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Oh gaud. That’s a big ask and I find it hard to separate career and life because for me I am the same person and one influences the other.
When I decided to start my own business it required risk. In fact, I spent the last of my savings and got down to $2K in the bank. As a single Mum this was a high risk place to be. Then I decided I wanted to be a leader in my field. I wanted to become the expert in feedback. How we give it and receive. I wanted to create better workplaces, cultures and relationships as a result. To do this I needed to start creating my own thought leadership.
Now I nearly failed English at school. I’m sure not handing in homework contributed to this. So writing three books, two of which are best sellers and hopefully the third on its way feels pretty interesting to me. How can a ‘failing student’ become a bestseller, a keynote speaker and a mentor to senior leaders?
It just reminds me about how important it is to rewrite the belief systems we have about ourselves. Some of them created by ourselves and other externally. In my case it was an education system. We’ve got to be careful not to let the wrong things measure our self-worth.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh yeah. This is good. When I was a young whipper snapper and in my early 20’s I had a gig in recruitment. A good mate of mine referred me to meet with a potential client in the food production industry. The email told me that the client needs some support with his leadership team because a couple of them were creating a toxic culture. OK great. I love this work. He sent me the invitation to meet. The client’s name was Richard Dickbottom. Yep. That was his name. Well in the invite anyway.
My mate has been known for his practical jokes so I took the name with a grain of salt. When I met him in person I looked into his eye, shook his hand and with a smirk said; ‘Great to meet you Richard (with emphasis) Dick-Bottom!’. He pulled his hand away promptly. Things just got awkward. I didn’t know what to say. The meeting went for 10 mins. He said he had to go.
I called my mate as soon as I left the meeting and told him what happened. He assured me that was his real name. I was livid. Why didn’t you tell me? He assumed I would read the invite properly and ask if it was his real name.
Moral of the story. Never assume anything. Be kind to people no matter what. That person has subsequently changed their name. Can’t say if I was a catalyst or not. And by the way, what were his parents thinking?
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
I’m not big on dishing out advice. Everyone is running their own race. And right now many of us are working harder than ever to respond to a landscape that keeps changing, by the minute. The pressure is on. Not just to work hard but knowing that people’s livelihoods and lives are being deeply impacted by the decisions we make and the current world’s crisis’ including the continued climate impact.
What I have seen in so many overworked and exhausted leaders is a correlation to self-worth and poor boundary setting. Many leaders find that their identity is attached to what they do. Therefore, the harder I work, the more value I add. Or the busier I am, the more success I get to achieve. While these statements might be true, they also don’t serve the permanent busy leader.
We also hold a few poor truths that keep us busy. If I say no to people or projects, relationships may suffer. If I make the unpopular decisions, I will become unpopular. Jacinda Arden is a brilliant example of this in her leadership stance when COVID first hit. Going straight to Stage 4 lockdown for 4 weeks was an unpopular decision. Until they had got to no known cases and restored their country to ‘roam free’ and resumed business as unusual. Her role was now made easier because they were not fighting the virus on top of running a country.
I have found that getting to the core of why we get to burnout stage is key to learn from and therefore rewire. Taking a break or having a bath is a good short-term filler but if we go back to the same treadmill then we haven’t got the core and why we keep doing what we are doing. And the pattern will continue. That’s every leader’s journey to go on.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe we are all called to lead. Not just others but also ourselves. Especially ourselves. Leading isn’t about managing people. It’s taking a stance in something you believe in. Flying the flag for a cause, educating others about how to do something. It’s putting a step forward to help something or someone progress. It’s about inspiring people into things not ‘telling them’ into it. That’s management. Not leadership.
There are ‘leaders’ who have the title by name only. They wait for others to make a decision, they do not use their voice, they do not deal with issues as they arise. They wait. They wait for someone else to deal with the issue, they enable people issues by walking past behaviours that are not ok. They watch.
Leaders step up. Speak out. Shut down. Good ones do it with grace and clear explanation. They recognise it’s not easy. But they push through regardless.
It’s our belief in our sense of self and our ability to give ourselves permission to lead imperfectly, that holds us back. Belief that you can make a difference and that every action makes a difference. You don’t need a title for that. If you think you’re too small to make an impact, try sleeping with a mosquito in your room.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
There are some great techniques and tools out there to prep better for meetings like Donna McGeorge’s: 25 Minute Meetings, or learn to put on your ‘power pose’ that Dr Amy Cuddy has shown us or even attend world leading training in nailing your presentations by Colin James. And the list goes on. We know we can always build our skills and capability. The more responsibility we have the more we need to grow our capability and confidence to do these components of our role well. And…
I think the one thing that creates great internal tension and dissonance is the expectation we have to how these meetings, presentations and conversations are supposed to go. We ‘should all over ourselves’. I should be better, I should nail this, I should be impressive, I shouldn’t make a mistake. Aiming high is not wrong. Trying to control an outcome and having an expectation on how things should roll is the problem. We do this to ourselves fast and easily and it creates and contributes to the tension before we even get there.
I’m a reforming control freak. I think many leaders can relate. After all, it’s probably one of the traits that got us into the roles we’ve held. Yet I think it’s one of the things that can stifle our business and team’s success if we hold on too tight. I used to run meetings with rigor and passion. If I’m honest with myself, I had an outcome in mind, the answers I wanted to hear and knew the voices that would be useful or those that would not. So what’s the point in running the meeting then? Well buy-in really. But did I get buy-in this way? I’d get decision making and compliance but they weren’t not necessary on board. They would give me passive agreement. They agree because they know there’s little point otherwise.
My stress level when things didn’t go the way I wanted them to was obvious. It also shut down new ideas and didn’t allow people to be heard. But they were on time and outcome focused. Being overprepared is also unhelpful and quite controlling.
What if we prepared as best we could and expected mistakes? What if we didn’t hide them? What if we had a question come our way and were ok with not knowing the answer? What if we came with problems but were not wedded to an outcome? I reckon we’d have more people on board, more ideas put forward, and better decisions being made. People feel safe to share and to be themselves rather than my expectations of them.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?
In of my roles I was the Head of People for a successful management consulting firm. We were running one of our bi-annual ‘Human Capital’ meetings where we would gather feedback from the senior leaders about their team members. We’d use this data to make decisions about bonuses and their future moves, with or without the business. They were important.
One of our Project Directors, Richard, was giving feedback about a Consultant. He was telling us he was great with clients but his attention to detail was poor. He was a good facilitator but light on when it came to contribute content for the project. Interesting. I asked Richard how the Consultant responded to this feedback. Crickets. Nothing. He had not told him. So we are going to make a decision about someone’s career but not give them the content that could make them better? Or even the chance to hear their perspective and see if what we are saying is reasonable or not?
How I responded to that moment was not one of my finest moments. I gave stern feedback and I did it in front of people. This was a moment for me. How can we expect others to lead well if the Head of People can’t lead by example? And there was a massive opportunity for our people to grow through the feedback we give them — if we learned how to do this well. It’s funny how your triggers can sometimes become your cause. And so my commitment to having these conversations well and teaching teams and organisations to do the same began.
Part of how I lead now, and what we teach organisations to do, is with regular checks in with our people. We did a lot of research around what creates high-performance cultures. Where leaders and their people commit to giving and receiving regular and meaningful feedback on a consistent basis organisations grow. Just look at Netlfix and Bridgewater who say that their dogged commitment to feedback is one of their key levers for success.
While I don’t shy away from giving feedback to my team, my clients, my stakeholders, it’s not something I get excited about. It can be difficult. Their reactions, the impact and seeing people disappointed in themselves. I also find myself learning as sometimes what I chat to them about is not 100% right. So it’s a learning for all. But we are stronger for it and we often talk about how much trust creates rather than destroys.
Our team ‘performance reviews’ are now ‘performance forwards’. We’ve already discussed their performance on a regular basis so no need to go over. We set new goals based on what we learned from the past 6 months. So much easier.
This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?
Well let me ask you this; If you were doing something that was having a positive impact on the workplace and/or the people around you, would you want to know what you’re doing or saying that was making a difference? I’m pretty sure the answer would be ‘hell yeah’.
What about the circumstance where you were having a negative impact? Would you want to know? Well the data tells us ‘hell yeah’ as well. People want more feedback. The low performers need it and the high performers want it. We all have blind spots about who we are and the impact it has. And when people don’t get any feedback at all, people disengage and leave. They don’t feel seen and certainly not focused on.
Feedback is a rich gift. We have all been guilty of sitting on a little pot of gold that doesn’t belong to us. That gold will help the people around you grow. Yet we often don’t lead into doing this because of our fears and discomfort. We can choose our own discomfort as a priority over another persons’ evolution.
If the gig of being a great leader was increasing your decision making power, getting a new fabulous title and car park and the pay rise of course, we’d have all our people putting their hat in the ring. Leading requires us to own the responsibility and the honour of helping those around you grow.
‘Daring to lead’, as Brene Brown puts it, requires us to borrow people from their family for hours each day and return them in a better condition than they started. How can they do that if we are not educating them. It’s a bit like parenting. The more you invest in them, the greater the growth and their sense of self.
One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Not surprisingly, this question has become common in the new working world. Yet my answer remains constant. Here’s what I have learned after 10 years of research and teaching and 3 books later:
People hear you content. And smell your intent.
Our words matter. So we need to get them clear and fact based. Our content is how people experience us. If we are coming from a good place of genuinely wanting to share our perspective AND hear theirs; they will feel this. If we believe we are right and they cannot change our minds; they will feel this too. It’s the well-known saying by Maya Angelou; ‘At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel’. No matter how good your content is, how many examples you have, if you deliver it poorly and disrespectfully it is not as likely to be heard or actioned.
So what makes good content? And what makes feedback constructive?
The reason why so many feedback, or difficult conversations, go south is we tend to rely way too much on our opinion of the situation or assumptions we make about what the other person is thinking or feeling — and we lead with it. Instead of grounding the content in facts and examples of when it happened, who said what and dates, times and data to show people why we have an opinion about the person or circumstance.
For example, just because someone is coming across as aggressive or defense and ‘everyone else thinks so’ — is not a fact. It’s an opinion. It needs to be backed up with examples of exactly when it happened, what was said and even body language. It’s hard to disagree with facts but easy to deny opinions.
If the feedback is a blind spot for someone then how will they ever understand if you don’t share the examples? They won’t. Simple. Then you look like the problem and the relationship may become strained.
Now constructive (negative) feedback is important to help people understand their gaps and blind spots but it’s not enough to grow your people. If you want to lead a high-performance team you need to be giving at least 4 more pieces of constructive (positive) feedback. In fact, 4 pieces is the least amount according to most of the research out there. Think about it. If your people only ever hear from you when things are not good, how will they feel? How will they feel about being seen by you? It’s like the child that only gets attention when they are doing something wrong. And all the times they do things right, no one says a thing.
Our greatest need in life, aside from shelter, food and water, is to feel like we belong. To be seen and noticed. Giving positive feedback and catching people doing things right does this. It’s also easier to have the tougher conversations because they feel valued by you.
Same thing goes for positive feedback too. Give examples; ‘That presentation was brilliant because you didn’t do death by powerpoint, you asked for feedback and you were succinct and clear’ or; ‘You managed that client really well by listening to all frustrations, even asking for any others, and letting them know you didn’t have the answer and that you would get back to them. Rather than making something up’. After this feedback are your people likely to replicate these behaviours? You bet. Praise does not mention examples. It just says. ‘Well done. Good work, Nice job’. It’s nice but not helpful as we don’t know why it was great or a good job.
The remote factor. Makes no difference to this. People still need good content and intent. You’ll just need to get their perspective before you both make any decisions about moving forward. Otherwise you’ve got a touch of the ‘always righty’ about you and that’s not great intent. That’s command and control.
Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.
I’m going to take a stand on feedback and email. Don’t. Feedback is a conversation not a letter. Which is an email is closer to. We often stand behind a keyboard and have these conversations because we are uncomfortable. Because we are feeling awkward and nervous about delivering it. And you will never know the real impact. You can’t see it.
I see feedback as a dance. A dance that needs to maintain an even rhythm. It’s very hard to do this on email. One of the problems is that you can’t read tone. We read words with our own bias’ and assumptions. We are also wired to see the negative more easily that the positive. So this can be a recipe for disaster. We also don’t encourage the conversation. We have to wait for their reaction and we still don’t know if that’s how they really fell.
I’ve seen the fact that people are remote as an excuse to not give the feedback. In many cases it can be easier. OK so let’s assume we are going to have the verbal conversation because we now know it’s the right things to do ;-) When you go to deliver feedback to a remote employee you are often more open to learning as you do not get to see them working on a day to day basis. You also get to use your notes and you don’t have to fill the silence in. You ask questions and wait.
Tech firms have been remote working for years now and they don’t let this get in the way. It’s not a feedback issue. You just work in different places. That’s all. Simple. Come armed with facts and questions and you’ll be fine. Remote workers need more people, not less. So they can grow, feel engaged and seen.
How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Here’s a tip. If it sounds critical or harsh. It likely is. Doing it on email might be easier for you to start with but it rarely finishes well. It’s really about trying to reduce our own discomfort but it sacrifices the other person as a result. Feedback is a conversation. Not a letter on a computer. Which is what we make it.
Use email for confirming the conversation you’ve had. Not starting one.
And if you don’t have time. I would suggest you don’t have time to clean up the wake that gets created from it in the first place. If you have good content and intent — then a conversation will get you the outcome.
In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?
McKinsey published a white paper; ‘Bad to great; The path to scaling up excellence’. In this they cited that the number one thing that makes great leaders great, were those that learned to ‘nip issues in the bud’. To deal with them as they arise. To address the spot fires before they become bush fires. Good leaders do this.
As soon as they see an issue arise, once or twice, they have a chat about it. It’s a conversation, not an accusation; ‘Hey, I just noticed you roll our eyes in that meeting. Talk me through what’s going on’; ‘Hey, I noticed you were 15 minutes late. Is everything ok?’. ‘Hey, I saw that your conversation with Peter got heated. Talk me through what happened’.
State what happened and ask for the why. Then you can let them know what you’d like to see in the future.
What if you don’t have the chat to the serial late person? What if you don’t address passive aggressive behaviour? What if you don’t discuss poor workmanship? Bottom line. Not much. And mostly likely unaddressed it sets the tone for what is ok.
Leaders set the tone by what they are prepared to walk past. If you walk past things that are not ok, in a way you are enabling it. But again, it’s a conversation — not an accusation. You are there to learn and discuss. Not accuse and control. It will also reduce your own stress and anxiety of holding on to issues that need to be talked out.
The leaders that do this well, do this often. They deal with things as they arise or in their regular 1 on 1’s. If it’s not a normal tone for a team then set up a system to implement nipping things in the bud. Have regular catch ups like we discussed early. Ask for feedback and offer them the same. Then these conversations become like a metronome that creates an ease and things get done.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
It’s easy for many of us to recall a ‘bad boss’. Leading is a difficult gig. The higher you get the more judgement you receive and the greater the expectations. Yet we often move faster in our career than we do in our own personal evolution. We place more value on learning the job than growing ourselves. Yet they are both needed in tandem. I think ‘bad bosses’ are just those that haven’t done the work on themselves. Nor acknowledge the ripple effect they create.
It’s the leaders (I struggle with the word boss these days. It’s so old school and says I will boss you around) that put their own growth as much of a priority as they do learning the job that stand out.
I have been led by several great leaders. A couple of troubled souls as well. I have also worked with both as clients. I get to see the whole spectrum. I recall the last economic crash where the MD of the firm I worked for called the leaders into a room and said he didn’t have the answer to how we move forward but he knows we will create one together. Vulnerability and collaboration right there.
I have watched the Founder of a tech business step aside and appoint a new CEO because he recognised that the skills he had to get the business to where it was today, would not be strong enough to grow the business for the future. Amazing humility.
Even this week, I heard a CIO share with her peers that she has spent too much time complaining about the exec team and not enough time contributing to making it better. It set the tone for significant ownership thereafter. That’s courageous and leading by example.
Great Leaders acknowledge their humanity. That they can’t be everything. They can’t know everything. But they can be honest with others and with themselves.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
We are not short of ideas. We are not short of research and evidence. Or frameworks and techniques. We are short on leaders listening to all this fabulous information out there on ‘how to lead’. What I am increasingly finding, from being a consumer of information and a lifelong learner is that we probably don’t need more data.
We need people to be more real. To show up as they are. Without defence or pretence. To accept what they are good at and acknowledge where they fall short and be okay with that.
I’d like to see more permission to be human granted and stepped into. I’d like to see us seeing no difference in character from the office to the home. No games. No hiding. No acting. All real plays rather than role plays. And it starts with us setting the tone. When we are able to be real and take responsibility for the impact we have on those around us — that’s brave. This takes work for many of us.
I think COVID is asking something of us. It’s asking us to step up, not just to lead others. But to lead ourselves, understand ourselves, our responses, our triggers, how we are wired. The best way to lead others is to start with you.
This facilitates less blame — of self or others. Then be able to reconcile where they come from and require how we make them work for us and not against us. It requires self-awareness and self-acceptance. That’s my hope. We all become flawsome. Knowing that the journey to being whole, is learning to be holey.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love any wisdom from Don Miguel Ruiz. One of my favourites is The Four Agreements. It describes the four agreements that the Toltec Tribe stand by to live in peace with one another. I am going to be cheeky and give you two;
Don’t take anything personally
Don’t make assumptions
There is a huge amount of freedom that comes when you live this way. Can’t say I am this free but this is the aim. It reduces the tension in myself and my leadership.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I blog regularly about all things feedback to others and to self and how teams and workplaces work as one. You can subscribe on www.georgiamurch.com and follow me on social media for some inspiration and invitations to online events and offers.
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.
I’ve loved the chance to reflect and share. Honoured to be asked. Thank you.