Erika Jackson of ImprovEdge: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated
Authority Magazine
Published in
13 min readSep 6, 2020


Be “them” Focused. Acknowledge that I am bringing my own perspective and I need to know that it is mine so that I can invite empathy. Consider what they may be experiencing, feeling or needing. Particularly in our new way of working remotely, ask “What am I not considering about their at-home remote work environment?”

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erika Jackson, Lead Instructional Designer and Senior Facilitator with ImprovEdge.

Erika’s Master’s Degree in Human Resources and advanced certifications in health and coaching have shaped her life’s work as a change agent, supporting people in radically changing their thinking patterns to unleash potential. As a Lead Instructional Designer with ImprovEdge, she strives to create learning environments where participants play with purpose. As co-author of The Coaching Psychology Manual, Erika’s insights on the psychology of behavior change have influenced thousands of health professionals around the world to shift the way they approach conversations with their patients. Believing in great work coupled with grand play, she also runs a community theater and can be found on stage in her church’s rock band.

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?

In college, I was working for a catering company inside an organization that had an in-house deli. As I sold bagels and sandwiches every day to employees, I noticed they had an opening for an entry-level employee in the HR department. I shared my interest with others in the company who encouraged me to apply. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet several people from the department, through bagels and a smile, and was hired into HR which gave me great experience at a very young age. The organization was growing rapidly and it afforded me the opportunity to progress into greater positions of responsibility very quickly, gaining a variety of experiences from HR Generalist to Manager of Training.

From there, I worked in OD for a large retailer and a government organization, both of which benefited my perspective on how I want to interact with employees, and people in general. It was during this time that I became increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional approach to people development, which focused on performance reviews and externally driven goal setting. When I discovered the concept of coaching, I knew I had (accidentally) found the way of being that aligned with my values. Through a series of synchronicities, I was introduced to Karen Hough, CEO of ImprovEdge. When I learned that my experience as instructional designer and coach coupled with my background producing shows for live theater could benefit ImprovEdge, I was hooked!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

ImprovEdge provides business skills training with an improve twist. Before I started working with ImprovEdge, they had tested their programs, and they knew that it worked anecdotally. My early contribution was connecting what was working to why it was working. I was interested in promoting the idea of “play with a purpose.” Tapping into research, we added basic neuroscience into the debriefing of each of our exercises to describe why we were asking participants to play lively games like “Bunny Bunny” or to shout “Yes, and…”

In working with a large research firm, during the discussion of the improvisational principle of “Yes, and…” associates become especially aware of the difference between a mistake and a failure. While mistakes were less acceptable to clients (implying an error on the part of the organization), failures are understood and were expected in that leading-edge industry. Participants were also quick to acknowledge the impact of negativity on creativity and idea generation. From neuroscience, we know that the “Yes, and” attitude promotes positive emotions and that positive emotions lead to more creativity and open-mindedness.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I think the story of how I connected with Karen Hough, CEO of ImprovEdge is delightful and was certainly life-changing for me.

Years ago, I was in a professional development class with colleagues from all over a large retail organization. From across the room, I spotted someone that I had not yet met but felt an immediate connection to. She exuded a positive energy and I had a hunch that she was someone I should meet. So, Zoe and I ended up chatting during a break and she shared with me that she had recently seen a musical that she loved so much she saw it twice. I laughed out loud when I asked her what she had seen and discovered that my husband was the Music Director and had sung one of the songs she most enjoyed. When I told her about my husband, Theo (pronounced “Tayo”), her jaw dropped because her husband is also named Tayo! Trusting our instincts, discovering what is right in every situation and finding connections is what improvisors do and we sure did that day! That was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship, which also led Zoe to introduce me to Karen Hough. And that’s what happens when you’re open to meeting people and open to sharing stories…improvising!

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?

Two stories come to mind.

Very early in my HR career, before I went to grad school and eventually earned a Master’s degree in HR, I decided to negotiate my salary. However, I made the grave mistake of basing my request on my personal expenses and needs. I had no understanding of salary structure and compensation programs, or making a case for the increase. Fortunately, I had a nurturing boss who did not shame me but used it as an opportunity to educate me on the larger systems at play when making salary decisions — decisions that had nothing to do with the amount of my car payment. I was naive, and inexperienced, and it was my first introduction into the realization that organizational structures and systems are far more complicated than many entry-level employees understand.

Also early in my career, I was promoted to an HR Generalist role and the VP of the department I supported invited me to go to California to attend a trade show as a “thank you” for all of the work I did for them. I shared a taxi with this VP, who was a distinguished leader (read “much older gentlemen”) and I very much wanted to impress him. As I picked up my bag to put it in the taxi, I realized my cat had sprayed all over my bag and all of my clothes and it smelled awful! I was humiliated and I tried to pretend the car didn’t smell, leaving me to feel quite awkward and embarrassed. The lesson learned? If it stinks, name it. If you call out concerns or mistakes and address them, things go far better than when you just ignore the elephant in the room (or cat smell in the car)!

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

First. Don’t take credit for your team’s work. There is great value in building trust by acknowledging people for their strengths, skills, and contributions.

Much of what I know about burnout out stems from the work of Christina Maslach, who describes burnout as physical exhaustion combined with feeling negative about one’s job and being ineffective at executing it.

We use the term “burnout” to describe a variety of responses but the truth is that there is a clear path to burnout with blaring red signs. It starts with being ineffective, followed by feeling over-extended, then being disengaged, and culminating in full-fledged burnout.

When addressing burnout, it’s important to understand where you are on this scale so that you know how to address your real issue.

Usually, it’s not the fault of the person, but rather a loss of sense belonging to a team or something that needs to be addressed in the environment. The train to burnout can often be derailed when we:

  • better distribute our workload
  • reclaim a sense of control or choice in our work
  • receive acknowledgement for good work
  • enjoy trust or collaboration with a team
  • reconnect to our own values and meaning in doing the work

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Good leadership comes from understanding Team Equity — it’s a term we use at ImprovEdge for leveraging diverse talent. Good leaders are like a conductor of an orchestra. You must know the strengths of each individual member and find ways to let them shine — have their solo and their moment in the spotlight. And, then you also need to know when everyone needs to synchronize and support them in feeling equally excited about that.

I love it when a member of my team comes to me with a list of ideas for new projects or ways of working. Even though this also means there is more work ahead to implement the ideas, it shows me that they are invested in the future of the organization and invested in their contribution to it. Their shine is showing!

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?

When I was new to ImprovEdge, I observed training with experienced Facilitators to learn how they do things so I would be prepared. I was driving to one of those trainings on a day that I felt particularly nervous. So I turned on my favorite music and started singing and dancing in my car, acting “as if” I were confident and excited. From neuroscience, we know that building efficacy requires convincing our whole body that we feel great, even if we don’t at first.

If music doesn’t do it for you, walking or any movement does the same thing — it releases endorphins and prevents the amygdala hijack!

I have also learned that before any high stakes meeting, it’s critical to practice out loud and on your feet. Hearing the words outside your head is different from the rehearsal inside your head. And, even improvisors need to practice! In fact, improvisors are some of the most well-rehearsed people out there.

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’ve been managing teams for 20 years and I’ve often had to make the move from peer to leader, which can be hard. In addition, I’ve worked in many different industries including retail, government, healthcare, and in community organizations. Sometimes, I find most challenging is to give feedback to volunteers where there’s not a financial incentive to change behavior. However, I then remember that people often volunteer because of a shared sense of meaning and purpose. They are there because they love the organization and share a goal and/or personal value and I am able to tap into that.

In paid leadership positions, I’ve had hundreds of hours of “feedback” conversations. However, many years ago I shifted those to “feedforward” conversations, focusing on what I’d like to see more of and how we can collaborate to make that happen.

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?

I assume that people want to do their best. We have honest conversations because they may not know what I think is their best. Or, they simply didn’t know the expectation or how to accomplish a certain task.

If you go back to the idea of being an orchestra conductor, the music will not be nearly as beautiful if you aren’t able to look at the whole picture and encourage them to bring their best playing.

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. Be “them” Focused. Acknowledge that I am bringing my own perspective and I need to know that it is mine so that I can invite empathy. Consider what they may be experiencing, feeling or needing. Particularly in our new way of working remotely, ask “What am I not considering about their at-home remote work environment?”
  2. Don’t Turn Fiction into Fact. Ask yourself, “What are some of the assumptions I’m making?” There is a difference between making an observation (of measurable data) and making an evaluation (the conclusions we jump to based upon the data). Reflect on what are facts and measurable observations. And, what have you turned into fact that truly isn’t? It’s also helpful to pause and consider how someone else, perhaps someone you would consider to be a wise role model, would interpret this situation? And, of course, our interpretations are also always clouded by our views and perceptions of the person.
  3. Let Go Of Your Ego. Make a shift from wanting to be “right” to wanting to be in “relationship” with the other person. Be willing to let go of getting that person to see it your way and instead aim for learning more and gaining understanding. This requires you to let go of ego and the assumption that you are the only one with the answer.
  4. What are The Real Needs? Bad or unhealthy behavior is often a result of someone not having their needs met. Be in conversation to discover what is it that could have led them to make that choice. What were they trying to accomplish? In remote work, we so often don’t have the full picture of that person’s life and we can have fewer opportunities to tune into pain points. This is when we have to more intentionally ask and more robustly assume good intent.
  5. Experiment! This is critical in improvisation! I like to think of designing “experiments” with someone instead of setting goals. This way you can together explore ways to improve and dig into what it takes to be successful. Ask questions like, “What do you need to have in place to have a successful experiment?” In a remote environment, particularly if this is a new way of working, they may need to think more carefully about the structures needed to support their success and enact additional reminders for establishing a new habit.

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?

Don’t do it! There is absolutely nothing good that can come from this. We see what happens in social media — very defensive behavior, absent of empathy or consideration for the other. Email is not a tool for disseminating this kind of information because, from behind a keyboard, everyone feels disconnected and it’s too easy to misinterpret tone and meaning. It’s a recipe for forgetting everything I just listed above. You’re more than likely responding in fear and living in your ego.

In a virtual work setting, it’s critical to use the tools that are readily available to us, like Zoom, so you can still see each other and have a real conversation.

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 it’s an emergency, do it immediately. If you’re supervising a new surgeon, or someone putting on a tire incorrectly at Jiffy Lube, that’s an emergency. However, most of us aren’t working in “emergency” environments.

In most situations, I suggest always pausing until your system has cleared from any adrenaline, amygdala high-jacking and ego. Give yourself the grace of a new day and to gain perspective so that you can bring your best self to the conversation. And, always tell the person what you want to talk about rather than leaving them to catastrophize as they guess what the topic could be, thus contributing their own unhealthy adrenaline to the conversation.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

A great boss has positive regard for the members of their team. They intentionally name the strengths of team members publicly, giving credit and being specific about what they did (and why it matters) so they can repeat the behavior.

Assume that your employee is trying their best, even when they are not.

Lastly, don’t make every conversation about business. It’s Ok to know your team beyond the walls, whether virtual or not. Keep space every meeting to get to know your people — talk about something that humanizes the team.

In my large team meetings, I include time for conversations that invite connection, playfulness and laughter in discussions ranging from their favorite ice cream to their best summertime memory.

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. :-)

My life’s mission is to create a world in which we can have civil conversation about areas of disagreement and create spaces where people can tell their life stories, the milestones along the way, that led them to believe what they do about a subject. I’ve been working in my own community to organize opportunities for these kinds of conversations, particularly among those with “opposing” viewpoints on tough topics.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

From inspirational photographer and storyteller, Dewitt Jones, “Stop pushing to be the best in the world and allow yourself to be the best for the world.”

I don’t think the spirit of being the best and succeeding at all costs is serving our country or humanity. At this time, when we are collectively experiencing the pain and fear of a novel virus coupled with the awakening to the depths of inequity, we have the opportunity to take a look at how we can use our strengths to serve the greater good.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.



Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated
Authority Magazine

Entrepreneur, angel investor and syndicated columnist, as well as a yoga, holistic health, breathwork and meditation enthusiast. Unlock the deepest powers