Author Marlene Chism: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Keep the conversation moving forward. Talk more about what you want rather than what you don’t want. Example: “I want us to come to resolution” is better than “I don’t want to argue.” Or “I want to help you grow” is better than “I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” Lead the conversation by speaking about what you want, not what you don’t want.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Marlene Chism.
Marlene Chism is a consultant, executive educator, and the author of From Conflict to Courage: How to Stop Avoiding and Start Leading (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or MarleneChism.com.
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 “back story” and how you got started?
I had an awakening in my mid-thirties. I had been working at a blue-collar job since the age of 18 and realized that if I didn’t make some decisions, I would retire a factory worker. So, I went through what I call the “three life tragedies.” The first tragedy is when you know you want something more, but you don’t know what it is. The second tragedy is when you know what it is, but you don’t believe it’s possible. The third tragedy is when you know what it is that you want, you believe it could be possible, but you have to be willing to give up all that you know. So, through a series of going back to college, experimenting with toastmasters, and coming to the decision that I wanted to speak professionally, I finally jumped without a net, and started shifting my identity to professional speaker.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My ability to get to the root of the problem and facilitate clarity. In order for that to happen, I have to build a safe space for people to open up. I’m a radical listener and I can pick up on clues that I can use to ask the right questions, coach the person, or if needed, offer insights and advice.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of the best things that has happened is the opportunity to work with LinkedIn where I’ve developed five courses on topics such as difficult conversations, working with high-conflict people, managing conflict in a hybrid environment, and anger management. Another blessing was the opportunity to publish my book, From Conflict to Courage, with Berrett-Koehler. This happened through a string of events that are seemingly unrelated but amazingly in sync with my journey.
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?
I made so many mistakes that I can’t name just one. I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have any business acumen. I made a lot of the same mistakes I see young people make today, such as not building relationships and going straight for the sale. I didn’t do my research, yet I would reach out offering my solutions. In today’s world it happens on social media and through email. I cringe when I see it, but I have grace because I know I made the same mistakes by phone and in person.
The worst mistake I ever made was to tell a CEO he was an avoider. He told me I was “crossing a boundary.” I said, “But we are going to work together, and I have your best interest at heart.” He said, “I haven’t signed a contract yet.” Needless to say, I learned that as a coach or consultant, you need to meet people where they are. Don’t give any advice until the contract is signed and before you’ve gained trust!
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees thrive and avoid burnout?
Stop avoiding conversations that need to be had. Every problem I have seen, even those that lead to litigation, could be traced back to a conversation that needed to happen but didn’t. Tell the truth. If something is mandatory, don’t pretend employees have a choice. Develop all of your leaders so that they confront problems head-on and have the skills to manage conflict, otherwise you’ll not know what’s at the root of your problems. You’ll throw away time and resources having workshops, personality assessments, and other initiatives that only solve the problem temporarily. Good leadership trumps all the initiatives in the world, but you have to develop your leaders and know what you expect of them.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
My definition for leadership is this: If leadership is about anything it’s about alignment, and alignment is about focusing energy.
What it means: First you have to be crystal clear on your desired outcome, your vision, your values, and your process. Only then can you “align” to those ideas and work with your team to align. If you get off course, then it’s because either you weren’t clear to begin with or you didn’t realize you had lost focus.
How it applies: If a leader needs to have a difficult conversation, they need to first be clear about the intention of the conversation. If at any time the conversation turns into verbal ping pong, that means they have lost clarity and thus, have lost alignment. It’s time to course correct to align with the original intention and outcome. By the way, there are only two ways to align: tell yourself the truth, or course correct. You have to have clarity first.
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?
I have a morning routine of setting an intention, meditation, and journaling. I also do some breath work to get myself centered and then I trust the process.
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?
I use a process and have developed a “blueprint” for having performance conversations. Within that blueprint is a set of skills that can also be used independently of the “bigger” conversation. The most important part of feedback is starting with the right intention. If you start a conversation from anger or resentment it will backfire. If you start a conversation for the purpose of “documenting” you’ve started from the wrong intention. The point here is that you have to clean your energy and do some forgiveness work before you can effectively deliver feedback that could be sensitive. Always have the intention to help the other.
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?
You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. You do your employees a disservice to make them think they are doing OK when they aren’t. My suggestion is to set expectations from the beginning that you will be offering feedback and check ins. If you handle the small issues from the beginning, you’ll never need to have a difficult conversation. There should never be any blindsides or surprises.
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 five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.
1. Set the intention for the conversation. Example: Kim I’d like to meet with you at 2:00 on Tuesday. The intention for the conversation is to clarify the documentation process and see what support you need. (Letting people know the topic of conversation takes their guard down. In that conversation you may uncover reasons why Kim isn’t up to speed. You must remain open. Don’t start the intention with “why are you not doing documentation?” You will find out why later. Start with a declarative statement of what will be in the future, for example, increasing the efficiency of documentation.
2. Stay out of your story about the situation and focus on facts and observable behavior. Don’t say things like, “It seems you have an attitude problem,” or “Everyone else thinks you don’t care.” Those are assumptions and stories. Instead say, “I noticed at the meeting you crossed your arms and rolled your eyes.” Or “I noticed you have been coming back late from lunch every day this week,” instead of “Stop leaving everyone else to do all your work during lunch.” Keep the emotions, interpretations, assumptions, and perceptions out of it. Speak only to the observed behaviors or the facts.
3. Keep the conversation moving forward. Talk more about what you want rather than what you don’t want. Example: “I want us to come to resolution” is better than “I don’t want to argue.” Or “I want to help you grow” is better than “I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” Lead the conversation by speaking about what you want, not what you don’t want.
4. Don’t allow power of attorney. In other words, don’t speak for anyone but yourself, and don’t allow the employee to speak for others. Represent yourself. Do not ever talk about what “everyone else” is saying about the employee. You will cause drama that you can’t recover from. Stay away from “Julie said…” Also don’t allow the employee to represent anyone else. If Roberta says, “Everyone feels the same,” then tell Roberta to bring everyone to the room. Or you can say, “since everyone isn’t here, what do YOU think?” The key here is to not allow power of attorney. No one gets to represent anyone other than themselves.
5. Own the part you played to start with a clean slate. Whether this is in a team setting or with one individual. If you’ve let something go on for too long, you are partly to blame, even if you inherited the problem. If you’re getting ready to change as a leader, give fair warning to create the opportunity for success. Start with a clean slate by saying, “I have something to admit. I didn’t address this issue early on because it seemed small. Now rather than rehashing the past and pointing fingers I’m telling you that we all get a clean slate. In the future if this problem continues, I will address it individually and the consequences will be…”
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. How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
I recommend not giving feedback over email unless it’s for a simple request. In that case, start with a salutation, and a greeting. Then simply ask for the change you need. For example: Hi Bill. I hope you had a great weekend. I’d like to make one minor tweak on the PDF. Please use a san-serif font to match our brand. Thank you.
If the feedback is more complex or could be sensitive, my suggestion is to opt for ZOOM, TEAMS, or a phone call. Prepare that conversation like you would if you were in the office face to face.
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?
If the issue is minor, address it quickly with a request, a clarifying question, or a correction.
Request: Jamie, I’ve noticed you didn’t include me in the email to the team. I need you to include me on all team emails.
Question: “Jamie, I noticed that the project isn’t finished, and the deadline is today. Walk me through what’s happening?”
If the problem is more complex or has been going on for a long time, it’s a sit-down meeting with the person. You have to use your own judgment about when to hold the meeting. Before the end of the day could allow the person to process the information. If your intention is to help the person it shouldn’t be all that dramatic, so time of day is mostly dependent on your own frame of mind and ability to stay centered.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss listens and helps you to grow. A good boss doesn’t necessarily fix all complaints, but they help you to become empowered. They don’t take complaints personally. They see a complaint as engagement. I had a really good boss when I worked in the factory. He allowed me to train on high level jobs and he always encouraged me for my initiative and work ethic. On the other hand, I had a boss who wouldn’t listen to complaints. He didn’t know how to draw people out to help solve the problem. He would say “I didn’t ask you to work here, and there’s nothing I can do!” Every time I’ve interviewed employees, they say listening is the number one skill they want in their leader.
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.
I can think of several:
1. Be the change. Stop trying to change everyone else and instead, be the change you wish to see!
2. No more blame. Take responsibility for your experience.
3. Work on your inside to change the outside.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Knowing your feelings won’t change the facts, but knowing the facts can change your feelings, and when you change your feelings, you change your experience.
Also…Your story is the source of your suffering. And if your story is the source of your suffering, your story can also be the source of your salvation. (I learned the first part in my class on narrative coaching. I came up with the second part.)
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me on LinkedIn at linkedin/in/marlenechism or on my website at www.marlenechism.com.
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.