How Feedback Can Free You
Mandy has a way of always getting under Evalyn’s skin at work. She’s not outright rude, not most of the time at least… but she disguises her passive aggressiveness through biz-speak. The subtext always feels the same to Evalyn, it always seems as though Mandy is holier than though and assuming Evalyn doesn’t know how to do her job. Sometimes it even feels like a micro aggression. Evalyn never speaks up because she doesn’t want to cause drama, but inwardly she is fuming and she talks her partners’ ear off about the situation. When her partners asks, “Well, what are you going to do about it?!” Evalyn is stumped.
Johnny and Ethan have been in the same band for two years. Ethan has ideas on how they could change the music and improve production, but Johnny always shuts them down with a sarcastic comment. In response, Ethan has started getting increasingly quiet. He is looking for a new band to play with despite loving their music because he’s over this sh*t. He just can’t deal with Johnny’s behavior anymore. He always leaves band practice so frustrated and doesn’t talk to anyone about it.
Carlos loves his job working at a non profit. They’re making a big difference in the world. However, this one gal Tyra is always picking on him. Even worse, she addresses issues she has with Carlos (usually petty and non important) to the entire staff or to his boss and never to him directly. She’s a loud A type. Carlos is a B type who “doesn’t want to cause trouble.” He loves his job so much, but dealing with Tyra’s continued behavior is making him consider leaving.
Shahindra’s boss has been doing some things that make make them feel uncomfortable. They’ve cut them out of crucial meetings, taken projects away from them repeatedly without explanation and made them feel as though they don’t want them to succeed. Shahindra wonders if they’re missing some crucial feedback from their boss regarding their abilities or performance or if their boss really doesn’t want them to succeed. However, they’re afraid to speak up. What if their boss doesn’t like them afterwards? What if they get fired? What if what if what if…
These stories probably sound familiar to you one way or another. You’ve probably got some of your own. For a lot of us, we mistake “professionalism” or being a peacemaker as being synonymous with keeping quiet. I want to turn that idea on its head for you, however.
Keeping quiet does not promote growth and very rarely does it make bad situations better. You’re actually doing a disservice to yourself and to your colleagues or bandmates or partners when you keep quiet. That doesn’t mean I want you to go full volcano on someone. But, I do want you to see how giving feedback is a critical part of developing as a professional, as a leader, as a human and as an effective creative. In my career, one of the harshest realizations I have had is that I am not helping other people evolve and become their best, when I don’t respectfully tell them my truth.
So, how do we do it?
Just Say No To The Volcano
First step… whatever you do, do not volcano.
If you’re so upset with someone that you’re ready to blow your top, it is not the time to give feedback. It’s time to go for a walk, get your self together, call a trusted source and cool down. Volcanoes burn themselves. Nobody wants to be around a volcano, they’re fun to watch… but not too fun to be next to.
Similarly, if you’re so filled with anxiety over the situation that you can not deliver the feedback in a measured way, hold off until you can speak calmly so that your message is effective. This could mean practice giving your feedback to a neutral party, like your manager or spouse, and having them role play the other person and/or help you with editing your message so that it is direct and not emotional.
Keep The Focus On Yourself
Second step, focus on what you can control vs. what you can’t.
You can’t control how someone will take feedback.
You can only control how you give feedback and how long you put up with their behavior.
You can also control inserting a pause between when something occurs and when you deliver feedback. You might decide next week is a better time to discuss this. Don’t view a pause as weakness, view it as strategy.
Let’s start with compassion.
People who pick on other people are motivated by a variety of things. It could be that someone is picking on them elsewhere or they feel they have little agency so they’re looking to scape goat in order to gain some control. It could also be that they’re threatened by you. It could be that they’re just unhappy and this is all they know. Whatever the reason, the subtext of the behavior will often tell you more than the message.
Similarly, look at your part. How have you been treating this person. Do you have a history of being defensive? Perhaps, these situations trigger something from your childhood and it makes you shut down instead of speaking up? Are you over reacting? Giving yourself space to observe the situation from multiple sides will help you decode the messages within.
So, what to do?
Pretend you’re a detective or an anthropologist. Move your personal feelings out of the way and look at the facts of the situation. Is this person unhappy in other parts of their life? Are you? How is their career going? How is yours? Do they always seem to be negative? Do you? Do they have something to prove because they’re feeling insecure in a new situation? Are you burnt out and over reacting? By taking some time to neutralize the situation and looking at it like a detective, you will give yourself crucial insight in to how to better frame your feedback. You may also feel more compassion and empathy for this person. You might also have a perspective shift and realize this wasn’t about them at all!
Tell A Story, Not A Soap Opera
One of the most crucial aspects of delivering feedback is to focus on succinct story telling and not dramatic re-enactment. This is where a lot of women in particular can get tripped up at work. I, myself, have been a victim of this. Women in business are already judged unfairly as being “too emotional” (if you’re a person of color, multiply that by 1000), so neutral feedback delivery is crucial.
First off, gather your facts, detective. Get examples, get facts and get succinct. Also, consider both sides of the coin. There’s a very real possibility that the person who is bothering you may have no idea how destructive their behavior is. It might be a blind spot. There’s also a chance that you’re reading it wrong. So, try to view the situation from all sides.
Consider the first example with Mandy and Evalyn. Let’s say Evalyn has looked at this situation from all sides and determined, “Yep. You know what, I really do think this is an issue and I would like to give some feedback.”
Evalyn has two options here: she can go directly to Mandy first or she can pause and discuss with her own manager (read: Evalyn’s manager not Mandy’s). Either is acceptable but oftentimes, the latter feels more comfortable. Evalyn’s manager might have some insight on the situation that she doesn’t have. By gathering her facts first, Evalyn could gain more understanding and view the situation completely differently.
A simple way to deliver this feedback to her manager might be, “Hey, I wanted to bring something up. I am having an issue with Mandy’s communication. I am not looking to complain or gossip and I might be misinterpreting her motives, so I would really value your input here. I feel sometimes as though the way Mandy raises issues to me comes across as having a bit of ego or assumes I don’t know how to do my job. We’re all important team members here and I want us all to win. I could be reading this wrong, but I’m not sure. Here are some examples [fill in the blank] that I observed. What do you suggest I do?”
This feedback is constructive in a few ways:
- It allows Evalyn to escalate the situation to her manager but in a neutral fashion. She is not manipulating a situation, gossiping or trying to throw Mandy under the bus. She is looking for a better understanding of the situation and also admits she could be reading it wrong.
- This feedback also allows Evalyn to grow her relationship with her manager. By raising an issue to her manager in a constructive way, Evalyn allows her manager to be of service to her and to help guide her career and give her feedback.
- Focusing on the “team player mentality” illustrates that Evalyn wants every one to win and doesn’t view this as a her vs. me situation. This is especially critical for women in business as we are often docked for having individual contributor mindset vs. a team player mindset.
Stay Out of The Results
Now, here’s the hard part of feedback giving. You have to stay out of the results. If you’re a people pleaser, it’s going to be very hard to learn this part, but it’s crucial. After delivering feedback, it’s normal to immediately feel, “Oh my goodness, what if she shares that feedback and I look bad” or “What if he doesn’t like me after I say this?” However, consider the alternatives. In every example I listed up top, nearly every single person wanted to quit their situation or was burning with anger over suffering through perceived bad behavior on a regular basis. By giving constructive feedback, you have an opportunity to potentially radically improve your situation. You are taking your power back in the area where you do have control: yourself.
If it doesn’t work, you will have peace of mind knowing that you’ve done all you can and you don’t have to have resentment or practice giving those, “I’m telling you off!” imaginary speeches in your bathroom mirror anymore. (Lol.) That’s the worst case scenario, however. The reality is, things will most likely improve with feedback.
I’ll tell you truth. I have never felt bad about giving feedback in a timely manner. However, I have always felt bad about not giving feedback or waiting until it was too late. Withholding feedback turns you into a very disruptive volcano and the only person that it burns is you.
Feedback in Action
Here’s an example of feedback I gave this week.
On Wednesday, I spoke to a 9th grade STEAM class in an under-served commmunity.
I was there to discuss Marketing strategy and how people of color can advance their careers. There was one student up front who was not really paying attention. He thought he was a tough guy and was being disruptive. I caught him saying something loudly under his breath at one point and I said, “Hey, did you want to say something? Don’t be afraid to speak up!” He immediately looked away.
I didn’t let it rest. I walked up to him and I said, “Hi, it sounded like you had something to say. What was your idea for this marketing plan?” He turned his head from me. I knelt down next to him and kept on, “Can you look me in the eye?” He shook his head. “Why can’t you look me in the eye?” He continued to turn his head away from me and wouldn’t talk.
I stood up and said to the class, “Hey, we’re all working on business plans for marketing, right? Let me tell you something really important, when you pitch your business plan, look every single person in the eye. I have been doing that today with all of you. I have looked across the room and at every eye. It is a sign of respect and professionalism.”
Bold move, but guess what happened?
He turned around and began to look me in the eye. He paid attention and stayed quiet for the rest of the presentation. I bet you that when he goes to present his biz strategy one day, he will not forget to look everyone in the eye.
Now, this result was favorable, but the bottom line was, regardless whether or not this student’s behavior changed — my feedback helped me set a boundary, helped him learn a lesson and helped the class focus on the presentation. It’s worth noting that I felt comfortable giving this student feedback because I used to work at a school in Compton. I saw how in my early days, not giving feedback and trying to “be nice” led to increased bad behavior. When I finally drew boundaries, my students improved and so did I. As you give feedback more often, your confidence will increase.
What Feedback Should and Should Not Be
Feedback should be constructive
Feedback should be non-emotional, fact driven with a curiousity to understand.
Feedback should focus on the team and not just yourself i.e. “We are all a team, and I’d like us to respect one another so we can work more effectively” vs. “I just can’t do my job when she behaves like a bratty diva.”
Feedback should come from a place of Love and not Fear. Drawing a boundary is love. Worried that someone is going to take something from you is fear.
Feedback should not be slander, gossip, ad hominem / character attacks or delivered in an overly negative way.
Feedback should be timely, but not rushed. Delivered too soon and it may come off as emotional or unprepared, delivered too late and you may be too angry. Be a detective and then deliver your findings in a timely fashion.
Feedback should be considered positive. Let’s face it — nobody likes giving feedback and nobody likes receiving it — but without it, nobody gets promoted, relationships don’t get better and problems don’t get solved. View feedback as your way to change things for the better, to take your power back and you will feel more agency and more free.