Ramona Shaw: Giving Feedback; How to Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
14 min readJul 8, 2020

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Ideally, feedback is given shortly after an incident, but here are two caveats to this rule of thumb: First, do not provide feedback in public. If you have no time to share the feedback in private, then wait until you have the opportunity to speak to the person one-on-one. Second, do not provide feedback while you or the other person is emotionally charged. If emotions run high, then either you won’t communicate your feedback as well as you could or the other person won’t be able to listen and take it as well as they could if they were in a calm emotional state. This scenario means you may have to wait a few hours, or even a day or two until both of you are ready to discuss the feedback.

I also suggest you make it part of your regular one-on-one meetings to think about any pending feedback and praise that should have been shared and to catch up on that.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ramona Shaw.

Ramona Shaw is on a mission to develop confident high-performing leaders and teams people love to work for. Through coaching and training, she helps new leaders embrace leadership behaviors, skills, and habits to develop increased productivity, impact, confidence, and success.

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?

Back in April of 2011, I sat on a plane crossing the Atlantic Ocean. My one-way ticket took me from Zurich to San Francisco. It was the start of my journey as an ex-pat and as a first-time manager of a new team in one of our company’s satellite offices.

I vividly remember staring out the window, observing the beautiful, puffy clouds and thinking to myself, “What are you doing? How the heck do you think you can lead a team of people when they’re all more talented than you?”

I’d never led a team up until that first day in April when I was officially promoted to ‘Team Head.’ I’d had a lot of success in my life up until that point, so I swallowed my worries and kept telling myself that I could do this. I was proud to have been given this great opportunity, and I kept affirming to myself that I would figure it all out.

Oh, was I wrong. My first two years as a new manager were painful. I was stressed, frustrated, and often pushed to my limits.

Looking back, I really did not understand what it meant to lead a team. I tried to push for results; I expected everyone to work and act the way I would, and I made more leadership mistakes than I can count.

Luckily, I managed a group of awesome people, and from the outside, it appeared as though our team was performing well. I think that I hardly shared my inner feelings and struggles with anyone. In fact, I don’t even think I was ‘woke’ enough to recognize what was going on and what I was doing wrong at that point.

Then one day a direct report and I bumped heads over deadlines and expectations, and I gave him a “tough” lesson on what it meant to work in this job. As you might have guessed, the conversation didn’t go well, and it was my fault.

I went home that night and called a friend. She listened and empathized but didn’t give me much advice. However, at the end of the call, she asked if I ever worked with a coach. I said, “No, what do you mean by that?” She described to me what leadership coaching is and gave me a couple of referrals.

That moment marked the start of my passion for leadership development. I hired a coach, soaked up a bunch of leadership books, and finally invested in myself and my personal and professional growth as a leader.

I realized how short-sighted I was to think that I could figure it all out on my own. Leadership is not an abstract concept. Actual leadership principles, tools, and methods have been tested and proven for decades, if not centuries. It simply makes no sense to reinvent the wheel when we can learn from those who have gone before us and invested thousands of hours to create solutions for the common mistakes many managers make.

After years of continuous learning and applying these tools and frameworks myself, I shifted my career and dedicated myself to helping managers become confident, competent leaders for whom people love to work.

But my mission goes way beyond that. I firmly believe that when managers lead with their heads and their hearts, workplaces become more inclusive, innovative, inspiring, and engaging. People thrive in environments like that.

And when we thrive at work, the likelihood for us to thrive at home and in our communities with our partners, families, and friends increases substantially.

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

Our company stands out because we specifically focus on closing the knowing/doing gap. We believe that leaders don’t need more information to become more effective. Instead, they need more self-reflection, courage, and commitment to action to see an improvement in outcomes.

It’s similar to going to the gym. Talking about going to the gym and the benefits of working out doesn’t make you any healthier. You have to actually pack your gym bag, drive to the gym, and work your muscles to see any results. In everything we do, we focus on helping people get inspired, take courageous action, and execute with competence and confidence.

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

I’m not sure if this is the most interesting story, but here is an event that I often recall. One regular, long day at work, a senior leader in the organization walked up to my desk at around 7 pm. He asked me for help, as he had encountered a significant technical bug that had to be resolved that night.

I jumped on it and helped him fix the bug for the next several hours. I did not think about it any further, but the next day when I walked into the office, my boss and my boss’s boss had left a beautiful flower bouquet on my desk with a card to thank me for the effort I had put in to help the senior leader.

This gesture left a big impression on me. On one hand, I felt valued and appreciated, which motivated me to work even harder. On the other hand, I noticed the importance of recognition. It was a small gesture, but the positive effect it had on me and my relationship with my boss and with the company lasted for years.

This story is one of the many reasons why I put a lot of emphasis on employee recognition and praise with my work leaders.

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?

When I first started out working as a coach and facilitator, I went through some rigorous training to hone my skills. Once I had to memorize several 5-minute sequences verbatim and then present one sequence at a time to a group of about 20 people. The goal was that I would not only present effectively but that I would also memorize every single word from the script.

Leading up to the presentation, I practiced speaking to the pillows on my couch, to stuffed animals, and to my kids, who quickly got sleepy faces.

I felt like I was pretty good at it, and I was ready to present. But the moment I stood up in front of the group, I couldn’t by any means remember the first word … or the second … or the third.

It was funny and embarrassing at the same time.

After I was done, my coach asked me how prepared I felt. I said that I felt 90–100% prepared. She looked at me and said, “This is exactly the issue. You need to be 120% prepared at home so that you can deliver at 100% in front of the group.”

This lesson stuck with me. When other people present, we don’t see how much effort goes into the preparation, so we make our own assumptions. I underestimated how much practice it took to ace a presentation in front of a large group.

These days, I always over-prepare and get 120% ready so that I have the extra buffer to gracefully deal with any unexpected circumstances or stressful situations.

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

When leaders put people first and result second everything changes. Back in the day, people used to check themselves at the door, clock in, and execute their job until it was time to leave. This model doesn’t work anymore. Most professions no longer have a clear boundary between professional and personal life. Time commitments overlap and social media blur the lines. As we climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (once the foundational psychological and safety needs are met), we begin looking for love, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. These needs can’t be checked at the door. This is the reason why successful leaders who build cultures and environments in which employees thrive in a sustainable way take their employees’ needs seriously and prioritize them accordingly. Delivering staggering business results is a natural outcome of employing a happy, thriving, and engaged workforce.

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

Leadership, in the business context, includes both leading and managing. Demonstrating leadership means consistently communicating the WHY and the WHAT, demonstrating trustworthiness, and extending trust to others. It means caring for those you lead and acknowledging your privileges and rights as much as you acknowledge your duties and obligations as a leader.

In my view, being a leader in the business setting is different than being a spiritual leader, for example, in that it means that you need to manage things. You need to solve problems, execute tasks, coordinate projects, and manage risks, to name a few of the types of responsibilities that fall under the scope of managing.

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 live and breathe the Think-Feel-Act model. This model explains that our thoughts trigger our feelings and our feelings trigger or influence our actions. Because of this chain reaction, the best way to influence an outcome or a desired state of feeling is to start with our thoughts. So, if I have a high-stakes meeting coming up, I first listen to my thoughts. Typically, these would be thoughts such as, “Wow, I’m nervous,” or “I’m not sure I’m ready,” or “What if I mess this up?” Now, all these thoughts will naturally create more anxiety and negative stress. However, if I pause and change the narrative in my mind, then I can turn this negative sensation into a positive boost of energy. For example, I might start telling myself, “I got this. I’m excited about this. This is going to be fun and exhilarating. I love doing this type of work.” When I change the narrative in my head, I change my state from feeling negative stress to feeling positive excitement. That positive excitement will provide me with the mental focus and energy I’ll need to perform well during an important meeting or while making a tough decision.

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 my former career as a VP of private equity, I managed a team of five to eight people. Giving feedback didn’t come naturally to me; I had to learn this skill the hard way. I made numerous mistakes, such as sugarcoating feedback, being vague, or pushing the conversation off entirely.

I realized that this approach was comfortable, but not effective. So I started to give feedback (and praise!) as a regular practice, and I learned specific frameworks to do it more effectively.

Today, I lead a small team, and feedback and praise are built into our regular communication. They are things we value a lot.

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?

Here is what’s possible when you give caring, honest, and direct feedback as a leader:

  • You establish trust because people see that you care about them and their performance.
  • You motivate people by believing in them and challenging them at the same time.
  • You establish an open information flow that creates alignment and therefore better results and fewer miscommunications.
  • You help your team members prevent repetitive mistakes.
  • You help your team members grow professionally and personally as they uncover their blind spots or grow new skills based on your feedback.

These benefits translate into better relationships at work, more engaged team members, and ultimately higher quality work and better business results.

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. Let them know that you’re giving some feedback so that they are not caught off guard. For example, you could say, “I’d like to give you some feedback,” or, “I have some feedback for you on the presentation this morning.”
  2. Then share your intentions. This is important and often gets overlooked. It may seem obvious to you why you would give feedback, but it may not be so obvious to the other person. Plus, sharing your intention puts the other person more at ease, especially when you’re remote and it’s hard to pick up any body language. You could say, “I’m sharing this with you because I had to learn it the hard way and I don’t want that for you,” or, “I’m sharing this with you because I want to help you be successful in this job.”
  3. Start your feedback by describing the situation without making any interpretations or assumptions. Think about what a camera would capture in a video or a picture and focus on that first. For example, “When you heard about the technical issues from our vendors yesterday, you didn’t inform me right away.”
  4. Then, and only then, lead to the impact this action or behavior had on you or other people. For example, “Because of that, I couldn’t react quickly enough and now the issue is worse.”
  5. The last suggestion is to give the other person space and time to respond to your feedback. You could ask, “How did you experience this?” or, “What made you act that way?” It’s important to see feedback as a two-way dialogue. Also, use this time to figure out solutions collaboratively. Unless the other person feels heard as well and commits to making a change, your feedback may not lead to any change, and that’s the last thing you want.

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?

My suggestion is to avoid giving feedback over email as much as possible. The risk for it to cause more harm than good is too high. This is especially the case when you’re working remotely and dealing with lots of stress and uncertainty already. Schedule a video call, pick up the phone, or send a voice message instead.

If you have no choice but to send urgent feedback over email, emphasize your intentions regarding why you’re giving this feedback, and repeat it twice. Plus, end your email with a statement that shows your trust and your belief in them.

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?

Ideally, feedback is given shortly after an incident, but here are two caveats to this rule of thumb: First, do not provide feedback in public. If you have no time to share the feedback in private, then wait until you have the opportunity to speak to the person one-on-one. Second, do not provide feedback while you or the other person is emotionally charged. If emotions run high, then either you won’t communicate your feedback as well as you could or the other person won’t be able to listen and take it as well as they could if they were in a calm emotional state. This scenario means you may have to wait a few hours, or even a day or two until both of you are ready to discuss the feedback.

I also suggest you make it part of your regular one-on-one meetings to think about any pending feedback and praise that should have been shared and to catch up on that.

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

A lot of factors go into being a great boss; there is no one “right way” to do it since we are all different human beings with different strengths and preferences. However, when I ask my clients what their best boss was like, 99% of the time I hear them say that their favorite boss really cared about them personally.

This quality is what I found to be the common denominator of “great bosses.” They take the time to truly get to know each person on their team; they listen to their people attentively; they adapt their style to better match their team’s preferences, and then they support their employees in achieving their goals, even if this means moving them from the team and into a new role. Great bosses are champions of the people on their team; they see their own success as the success of those they lead.

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. :-)

If I could spread a movement that would bring the most good to the most people, it would be a movement about gratitude. Countless studies have shown that gratitude increases our happiness and mental wellbeing. Plus, in a society where we tend to put all our attention on the things we don’t yet have, gratitude shifts our perspective to the things and the people we already have in our lives. This shift is important because gratitude fuels us physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Plus, a practice of gratitude is free and takes little time, which is why this movement could reach every single person on this planet.

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

This is a tough one. A mantra I go by is to be the energy you want to attract. This is what guides me when I talk to strangers when I speak with clients when I meet new people, or even when I’m on the line with a customer support person about an issue I’m having. I do my best to show up with the energy that I’d like to attract in my life. It helps me be respectful, friendly, kind, honest, and caring.

A quote I like a lot and see as a “life lesson quote” is, “Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude” (William James). Our attitude plays a significant role in the outcomes we create. Having a growth mindset and being driven by curiosity and a desire to learn and grow can shift how we experience conflict and challenges in our lives.

The more aware we are of our attitude and the more we take charge of it and own it, the more effective we will be in creating a life that we love.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Here are a few links:

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

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