Should Feedback Ever Be Public?

A surprising leadership lesson from Jenna Lyons

Suzan Bond
Apr 14 · 5 min read

Former J.Crew boss Jenna Lyons has a devout following for her distinctive and enviable style. Her reality show, , promised a glimpse into her world. That legendary style was on full display. The revelation was her leadership chops, especially in episode six — “Open House and Broken Hearts.”

In this episode, following a flood, the five remaining candidates were tasked with restoring Jenna’s formerly musty farmhouse for sale. There was a tight timeline. The candidates were all trying to prove themselves in hopes of landing a coveted spot. The house was a reminder of Jenna’s failed relationship, inching the stakes higher for her. That’s a lot of pressure.

Organized into two teams, they worked tirelessly — selecting items from local stores, dangling branches just so, adjusting rugs at the perfect angle, etc. All were focused on making sure the place looked ready for potential buyers. It was a design challenge after all. Finally, it was ready for Jenna’s walk-through.

There was a clear winner, one team nailed the design. However, the collaboration was dismal — especially from the leader of the team whose aggressive focus on completing the task made him overly competitive. His behavior did not create a positive environment. As you might imagine, the other team was not happy with his approach. As they debriefed on how the collaboration went, the leader became defensive and dismissive of other’s feelings. He brushed off feedback from a member of the other team, placing the blame on them rather than his approach.

Jenna stopped the conversation.

Instead of listening and asking questions to understand the impact of his behavior, he defended himself — twice. Jenna stayed calm, restating her concern then said, “You’re not hearing me.”

Eventually, he stopped and listened as she delivered the final piece of feedback.

Jenna’s feedback to someone acting as a team leader was incredibly important. When you feel responsible for the team, it’s easy to become narrowly focused on getting the job done and ignore how the goal is achieved. Leaders set the tone for the team, they set an example for what’s expected. A focus on goals at any cost can crush a culture. Balancing goals and the “people bits” of work are some of the hardest, most essential parts of a leader’s role.

Rather than pull the leader aside, Jenna gave the feedback purposely — her words were a message of what she expected. She set the tone about the kind of culture she was creating. She demonstrated an incredibly difficult leadership skill: calling out toxic behavior in public while allowing the person to maintain their dignity.

In a few seconds, Jenna upended the old adage, “praise in public, criticize in private.” I’ll bet she struggled with her decision to give strong feedback in front of the team. The cameras might have influenced her decision. I don’t know whether it made her more like or less likely to share the feedback publicly. I wonder if she would have made the same choice if not on camera.

Public feedback is hard to get right. Finding the right tone, message, and moment to deliver it requires mastery. The situation is also brimming with potential drama, something leaders don’t often want to encourage. While the case for public feedback is limited, there are lessons to take away from Jenna’s example.

Don’t let toxic behavior fester

Address it immediately, especially when it comes from someone in a position of authority. Toxic behavior undermines the team and will become an obstacle to creating the kind of culture you seek. His behavior was toxic because it was against the kind of culture Jenna sought to create. Had she let it go, it would send the message that it’s ok for leaders to be dismissive of other’s concerns in favor of getting the job done.

Remove emotion from the feedback

The more emotional you are, the more likely it is to turn into drama. Making the conversation more objective is especially critical when choosing to be more public in the feedback. When addressing the undesired behavior, Jenna was firm but not harsh. It was a way to set a boundary about expected behavior without breaking the trust she had developed.

Work on your fight or flight response

Even though Jenna mentioned that she was upset at her behavior, she didn’t display it. The best leaders learn to manage their emotions. Giving feedback can feel like a conflict. Conflict is hard for most of us. Our protective instincts kick in. Understand your normal response to conflict and work on finding more equilibrium with it. If you tend to fight, slow yourself down. If you tend to leave, try to stay longer to build up your strength with the discomfort. Working on your conflict response will help you stay calm and responsive in difficult conversations.

Give the person a chance to absorb it

Once the leader acknowledged the feedback, Jenna dropped it. Give the feedback and then back off once it’s acknowledged. There’s no need to belabor it with a long speech. Everyone responds differently to feedback. Pushing for a response other than acknowledgment of what was said might make the situation explosive. While essential in public, this goes for the private feedback too.

Have a clear reason for giving public feedback

Pay attention to your motivations for making this conversation public rather than behind closed doors. In Jenna’s case, I suspect the audience wasn’t just the leader, it was the entire team. She wanted to send a message about how she expects leaders to behave. Wondering whether to take it public? Here are a few questions ask yourself. What’s at stake here? What’s the message I want to send about this behavior? Who needs to hear it? How would it help to share this in public? What are the potential repercussions?

In this case, doing it publicly seemed like it was the better choice, or at least not a negative one. Though I’ve never done it, I might have, depending on the strength of my values and what I thought was at stake.

These are the calculations leaders have to make all the time. Sometimes we make the right choice, other times it’s the wrong one.

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