managemnet company strategy managemanet How to Give — and Receive — Critical Feedback

How to Give — and Receive — Critical Feedback

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HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. Are you struggling to give and receive feedback at work? If you’re a manager, you know that giving good feedback is really about how you deliver it – which, of course, is much harder than it seems. Without useful feedback, how can our teams grow and improve? In this episode, executive coach and organizational consultant Ben Dattner takes questions from managers who are struggling with feedback. He offers his advice for what to do when an employee isn’t making changes based on your feedback AND how to respond when your employee offers you unexpected feedback. This episode originally aired on Dear HBR in February 2019. Here it is.

DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.

ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. We don’t need to let the conflicts get us down.

DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions, look at the research, talk to the experts and help you move forward. Today we’re answering your questions about critical feedback with Ben Dattner. He’s an executive coach and organizational consultant based in New York. Ben, thanks for coming on the show.

BEN DATTNER: Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

ALISON BEARD: So Ben, why is it so difficult to both give and get negative feedback?

BEN DATTNER: Well, when you think about feedback it’s sort of the language or the currency conveying to people, here’s what’s going well, here’s what’s not going well. It often confirms our identity for better or for worse. When giving feedback to someone, it’s often as much about the feedback giver as it is about the feedback receiver.


BEN DATTNER: Well, for example, if a superior says to a subordinate, you don’t follow up enough. The subordinate may well say, you’re micromanaging me. I’ve always been on the ball. I’ve had many bosses in my career. None of them has ever followed up the way that you do. So, this is less about my follow up and it’s more about your need for updates.

ALISON BEARD: Are these conversations difficult even when the boss does a good job of delivering the feedback?

BEN DATTNER: I think it can be challenging and difficult. I think what good bosses do is they let their employees know, they let the people that they are giving the feedback to know the reason I’m giving you this feedback is to help you be more successful. This is not adversarial. This is the two of us together trying to make something better.

ALISON BEARD: Dear HBR: At our company, employees provide upward feedback to managers through a formal system. Through this channel, I recently learned that one of my employees feels strongly that I’m not allowing her to be independent and take ownership of her work streams. I believe she’s an incredible executor when a problem or the goals of a project are clear. For that type of work, which accounts for most of what she does, I’ve been completely hands-off. But for ambiguous projects or tasks, I feel that she has room to grow. She could be more proactive, adapt her approach and create structure. That’s why I need to be more hands-on, to ensure we’re meeting our goals. I feel she needs to show me that she can own this work before I can let it go. She feels that I’m not giving her the chance to do so. By the way, she’s been in her role for a couple of years and is expecting a promotion. But she won’t get it this year due to her need for improvement. I’m struggling to figure out how to approach this conversation. I want to acknowledge her upward feedback and explain what I think of her work without making her feel inadequate. What should I do?

BEN DATTNER: Well, I think starting with the overall context of the relationship, I would be interested to ask the person who’s submitted this question whether this person thinks that this subordinate ultimately could or should be promoted. So, let’s assume for the moment that the boss is supportive. I would certainly suggest approaching this conversation from the perspective of I want to help you get there. You’re not there yet. And let’s think together about how to get you there. And this raises sort of an interesting question when it comes to feedback in general, particularly for employees who want to progress and move up in their careers, which is should the feedback be for the level that the person is currently at, or should it also be for the level above, the level that they want to move to?

DAN MCGINN: It seems like this wouldn’t be a very, very difficult conversation if it weren’t for the fact that there’s this whole promotion dynamic. Is it a mistake when companies very closely tie the feedback delivery system to the compensation and promotion system?

BEN DATTNER: It’s a little bit like the Far Side cartoon where there’s somebody speaking to a cat and what the person says and what the cat hears, and what the cat hears is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, MUFFY, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, MUFFY. And I think the same thing about conversations about performance that also include what the compensation is going to be, which is talking about feedback, what you’re doing well, what you’re not doing well. Here’s the number. And then the rest of the feedback kind of falls by the wayside.

DAN MCGINN: And the same’s true for promotions as well?

BEN DATTNER: Definitely. So, what the employees hear is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, YOU’RE GOING TO GET PROMOTED. Or da, da, da, da, da, YOU’RE NOT GOING TO GET PROMOTED.

ALISON BEARD: I think our letter writer needs to take a step back and ask herself, what specific things she wants this employee to do and give her really, really specific feedback about exactly what she needs to do to get to the point where she can handle these ambiguous parts of projects. And maybe they’re development courses she can take. Maybe our letter writer needs to do a bit more hands-on training.

BEN DATTNER: Yeah. I think the more specific that this boss can be with the employee about what does it mean to be proactive? What does it mean to be entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial, or taking ownership? What does that look like? What does not being that way look like? And sort of helping the individual internalize this is what it means to be proactive. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a catch-22. I don’t have the confidence to be proactive, so I’m not being proactive. I’m getting this negative feedback and then my confidence is further undermined in a way. It’s not exactly set-up-to-fail syndrome. It’s not-set-up-to-succeed syndrome.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Sabina Nawaz who’s an executive coach who writes for us, she talks about a delegation dial that goes from: do it yourself, to tell the employee how to do it, to teach the employee to ask her questions to help her figure it out herself, to then delegating with support. But the support never goes away. And so, I think that’s another important conversation to have with this employee. Until you’re the boss, I’m always going to be here looking over your shoulder to some degree to make sure you’re doing this the right way.

DAN MCGINN: It seems to me that the boss in this situation, the manager, has a very clear line between the two kinds of projects that the subordinate is doing. I wonder if the subordinate understands that framework and distinction and whether simply explaining that, look, I see the world full of two kinds of projects, A and B. You’re fantastic at A. That’s most of your work. I’m really happy about that. Every once in a while project B comes along. When it comes along we’re going to recognize that it’s type B and we’re going to work more closely in order to grow you to the point where you can do those on your own as well. Sometimes, she may be assuming that the subordinate sees this black and white division when she really doesn’t.

ALISON BEARD: I feel like that’s a perfect script for what she should say on the conversation. Because it starts with I really value you. I think you’re doing great work in this area. This is why I’m a little reluctant to hand it off to you totally. I think that’s awesome.

DAN MCGINN: Well, I mean I’m just basically repeating what’s in the letter, but it seems like the subordinate is saying, you’re micromanaging everything.

ALISON BEARD: Well, so that brings me to a point that I wanted to address. This letter starts with negative feedback coming to our letter writer. Our letter writer is told that she’s a micromanager. So, and I don’t know that she’s received it very well.

BEN DATTNER: Yeah, definitely. If the boss is feeling defensive about it, if the boss is feeling angry about it, she has to kind of work through that to get to a constructive place.

DAN MCGINN: So, some of this is in sort of the mental preparation of the person in order to give effective feedback in the first place.

BEN DATTNER: Exactly. And to contextualize it for yourself. Have I ever gotten this feedback before? Or, is this unique to this one particular employee at this particular time? If I’ve gotten this feedback before it’s a pretty safe bet this is more about me than it is about them.

ALISON BEARD: Even if she hasn’t gotten the feedback before, it may be the case that she is micromanaging. I’ve definitely been accused of holding on too tight to work at times. And it’s really hard when you think that your job is to put out a great product or a great service, or complete a project, well it’s very, very hard to let it go in a different way than you would do it. So, how does she help herself to let go?

BEN DATTNER: Well that’s one of the diagnostic characteristics of micromanagement which is you don’t just tell me what to do, you tell me how to do it. And if I’m a bold, self-possessed subordinate, I’m going to say to you, Alison, please let me do it my own way and then judge the work product. Don’t tell me both what to do and how to do it because I might take a different path to get to the same destination.

DAN MCGINN: Do you think this supervisor’s tendency to get a little too detailed oriented with this person is fixable?

BEN DATTNER: I do. Because in some, to some extent the boss is the letter writer, is too detailed or too focused. In another sense, she might not be specific or detailed enough. So, the distinction that you mentioned before about project type A and project type B, if the boss is able to be more specific and more articulate in terms of differentiating about those things and giving feedback where it’s necessary, they might both live happily ever after.

DAN MCGINN: What does she do with this promotion expectation? It’s harder to hear the message you thought you were going to be promoted next month. That’s not going to happen. How does she communicate that message in a way that doesn’t undermine the rest of the feedback she’s trying to give?

BEN DATTNER: Well, I think first of all get clear in her own head about is she actually an advocate or not of the subordinate getting promoted? Often, some of the biggest questions people have both intellectual and emotional is, is my boss really an advocate or not? But if you trust your boss and he or she says, I’m advocating for your promotion, but we’re just not promoting that many people this year, or I’ve got to work my magic politically to advocate for you because some people are skeptical about you. If you really believe that you’re going to kind of approach this discussion and this situation in one frame. If you see, hey wait a minute, my boss really isn’t advocating for me, and really isn’t supportive, and behind the scenes is not lobbying on my behalf, you’re going to feel very differently about it.

ALISON BEARD: And I feel like in this case, the employee thinks that the boss probably isn’t. And so, how should our letter writer develop trust with her when she in effect is blocking her promotion this year?

BEN DATTNER: Well, what I would coach this boss, this letter writer to do is to try to articulate what this subordinate would have to do in order for you to legitimately want to support the subordinate getting a promotion, and then try to get the subordinate to achieve those things.

DAN MCGINN: Yeah, I agree with that. Alison, I read it the same way you did, which is that whether this person gets promoted or not is largely in control of the boss, the person who wrote us the letter. To spin it as a positive, that’s advantageous as opposed to situations, a lot of times we get letters from people where the promotion situation seems like the used car salesman, where oh, I have to go check with my manager and it seems like HR plays a big role and it’s this very bureaucratic politicized decision where the supervisor doesn’t have as much control over as they might. I think this is a more optimal situation where the person who wrote us the letter says, you do X, you do Y, you handle a few of these ambiguous projects in a successful way, in a way that I feel like I don’t need to be super involved, then I’ll have what I need to promote you.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. That makes sense.

DAN MCGINN: So, with that said, Alison, what are we telling this listener?

ALISON BEARD: So, we think that she should start by doing a little bit of introspection. She should consider the feedback that she’s received and whether there’s any truth in it. Is she micromanaging too much? She could consider why she’s not willing to delegate and what exactly the employee can do in order to be able to take on these more ambiguous projects. And then, when she’s delivering feedback to the employee, she should begin by showing her that she really wants to help her succeed. The best thing to do would be to decouple a conversation about the promotion from delivering this feedback. But emphasize that that is the ultimate goal for both of you and outline exactly what she needs to do to get there. She should explain the distinction that she sees between the two types of projects and emphasize that she thinks the employee is doing fantastic work, they’re on the same team and hopefully moving towards the same goal.

DAN MCGINN: Dear HBR: How should you give performance feedback when you have real issues with the quality of the employees work, but these issues have already been elevated with no change? Here’s the situation. I’m asked each year for feedback on an employee in another department. This person is personally pleasant, but her work is just not up to par. I don’t feel like I can decline their request. At the same time, I don’t want to point out that I’m just repeating the same concerns over and over. Is there anything I can do?

BEN DATTNER: Well, I guess you have the choice. Do you cut and paste from last year? Do you cut and paste from two years ago, including that you cut and pasted multiple times before, or do you try to take some other path? Perhaps to the person who asked for the feedback? Perhaps give feedback to the boss, to the team, to the department, to the entire organization and try to do something different. The definition of insanity as we’ve heard is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

ALISON BEARD: When I read this letter I didn’t get the sense that the person felt in crisis. They were just annoyed that they kept having to repeat the same thing. I would say, how much does it matter to your work? Is this person impeding you from succeeding? And if they are, then that’s definitely a cause to elevate, but if they aren’t, I’m not sure it’s worth it. Dan, what do you think?

DAN MCGINN: Yeah, I think it depends a little bit on the consequences and is this a situation where someone’s being asked for feedback on another person, but they’re not going to have to deliver it to the person face to face? It’s almost, it’s not quite anonymous, but it’s kind of more in that vein. What’re the consequences of giving negative feedback? What’s the potential for improvement? I mean if there’s not a lot of upside and you don’t see a lot of downside, cutting and pasting it would be one way to do it. There’s probably not a lot of return on trying to do a more elaborate delivery here.

BEN DATTNER: You know, perhaps there’s a more articulate way to be very specific, not just about the person’s performance, but about the way that that performance is not up to par. And perhaps what the downstream consequences of that work, not being up to par may be.

ALISON BEARD: So, you’re saying there’s a subtle way that she could elevate it just by changing the language that she uses. So, not cutting and pasting, —

DAN MCGINN: [LAUGHTER] Use a thesaurus in other words, right?

ALISON BEARD: Just indicating that this situation is more dire because clients are not being served, or profits are not being made, something that just raises a red flag a little bit more than what’s been raised before.

BEN DATTNER: Right. And I would also ask this letter writer if there’s a general sense in which this organization doesn’t have sufficient urgency around employee performance, and what that may mean.

DAN MCGINN: Right. That seems super pertinent here. Is this a culture in which some degree of underperformance, her work is not up to par and it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot. There are organizations where that’s totally fine and people are just going to coast along for quite a while. There are organizations where that person’s on the verge of being cut loose.

BEN DATTNER: My sister works for a large public hospital and when you ask her, how many people work at your hospital? She always answers, about half. [LAUGHTER]

ALISON BEARD: So, it’s OK. So, our letter writer shouldn’t worry that her colleague is coasting.

BEN DATTNER: It depends on the situation.

ALISON BEARD: If this woman wants to create a better, higher performance culture, does she have a responsibility to do something about this woman, even if it’s not directly impacting her work?

BEN DATTNER: You know, it’s sort of hard to draw the line between what’s a responsibility which has kind of like an ethical or moral connotation versus what would be helpful and beneficial for the writer and for the organization. I would be interested to know, what’s the culture? Are other people aware that the person’s work is not up to par? What do people attribute the not par-ness to? Perhaps that person’s work isn’t up to par, maybe that person has a special arrangement. Maybe they’re contributing in some way that’s not visible to you. Maybe they have extra role behavior. Maybe they’re not good at doing their job, but they’re excellent at recruiting and attracting new people to join the organization. So, there may be part of the story that you don’t know. So, I would caution people to sort of rush to judgment and say, this person’s work isn’t up to par. It’s never been up to par. I fully understand what par is and what par isn’t and I have complete visibility into what the work is that they’re doing. Of course, in some cases, you may, but often you don’t.

ALISON BEARD: That’s a really interesting point, Ben. Our letter writer doesn’t want to insert herself into a tricky political situation unknowingly. So, I think that’s great advice to do a little bit of due diligence before deciding on what to do.

ALISON BEARD: Assuming she does that audit and that due diligence, what’s the next step?

BEN DATTNER: Well, the next step might be to talk to the boss. The next step might be to come up with a kind of team evaluation. So, rather than saying, this one individual isn’t doing their job, let’s look at the overall department and its performance and how is that affecting its internal customers or clients or constituencies?

DAN MCGINN: All right, I’m going to put Alison on the spot. Would you copy and paste last year’s note, or would you jump through hoops to do something more elaborate?

ALISON BEARD: I would copy and paste last year’s note.

DAN MCGINN: Really? [LAUGHTER] I thought you would be the more elaborate, I’m going to change the world type. I would totally copy and paste last year’s note. Ben?

BEN DATTNER: I would try to, I mean coach’s credo. You have to try to give feedback. You have to try to be a catalyst. You have to try to get things to be better. So, I would probably try to figure out a way to either talk to the employee directly, come up with a different set of criteria, or in some ways move this drama forward.

ALISON BEARD: Should her goal be to let the organization know that this review system doesn’t seem to be working very well?

BEN DATTNER: That would be very helpful. What great organizations do is they get feedback about the feedback system. And if our goal is really to use this feedback system for there to be consequences, for there to be carrots and sticks for people to take the feedback, learn from it, grow from it. Are we achieving that with the system as we have it currently configured? A colleague of mine likes to say, every organization is perfectly configured for the results that it’s currently achieving. And the same thing is true about review systems. So, what I would counsel this writer to inquire about and to try to learn about which is, does she have colleagues who are also frustrated, who feel like the review system doesn’t lead to positive change? Because if this isn’t the only case where that’s happening, perhaps there’s an opportunity for the organization to make a more robust, more actionable, more catalytic review system for everyone’s benefit.

ALISON BEARD: And that way she’s elevating it without singling out this particular person.


ALISON BEARD: Dan, what are we telling her?

DAN MCGINN: Well, she faces a choice here. She can either do the same old thing and give the critical feedback the same way she has, with no expectation that anything’s going to change. Or, she can escalate and try to do something more elaborate to communicate more loudly that this person is underperforming. Which one of those she actually takes depends partly on her level of frustration with the current situation, what the impact is on her own work, what the impact is on the organization and her expectation that anything is really going to change if she does that. We also think the listener needs to take a hard look at whether the criteria by which she’s judging this colleague to be underperforming really represent the full picture. Maybe she has a narrow scope. Maybe she has a little bit of an ax to grind. Maybe there’s more to the story. The larger issue here, beyond this one employee, is whether this company’s feedback system is really working. Are there consequences? Are there carrots? Are there sticks? It seems like that system is kind of dysfunctional today and she might want to try to speak up and urge them to create a system that is a little bit more effective.

ALISON BEARD: Dear HBR: Please help me manage a micromanaging faculty member. I work for the administration of a university. In my work, I support eight faculty members, overseeing eight postgraduate programs. The faculty member I’m having issues with is neither my colleague nor my reporting officer. He’s also not my boss who praises my work performance. But he constantly demands my attention on his program. He categorizes every task as important and urgent. His emails to me are filled with phrases like, I am disappointed, serious errors, and stuff like you are a unit manager, yet your direct report understood my instruction. This treatment has caused me to feel suffocated. My creativity, morale, self-esteem, and productivity have all gone south. What can I do?

BEN DATTNER: Well, I think it’s important to try to figure out what actually matters to your listener which is, is this person’s judgment important? Is it part of larger organizational goals? And setting aside for a moment this person’s tone, what about the sort of content and what are the incentives to actually kind of try to meet and exceed this person’s expectations versus ignoring them?

ALISON BEARD: I think the thing she’s struggling with though is that there are no actual or real incentives. He’s not deciding whether she gets promoted. He’s not deciding on her pay. He’s not the person doing her performance reviews, but at the same time, it’s making her feel terrible.

BEN DATTNER: Ever her using words like, that she feels suffocated. If I was coaching her, what I would try to do is first help her develop some self-awareness which is, why is this bothering her so much? Is she taking it too personally? Does this person, does he do it to other people as well? What buttons is this pushing for her? And sort of to separate the emotion of the stylistic aspects of it from kind of the rational substantive reasons for her to pay attention to his requests or not. In the workplace, our hopes about ourselves or our fears about ourselves are constantly being dynamically confirmed and disconfirmed. And sadly, it seems what’s happening in this situation, is he is confirming her fears about herself, about her performance, about her worth, about her status and it’s creating a negative self-fulfilling cycle which she and or he would both benefit by breaking out of.

ALISON BEARD: So, how do you shift your mindset?

BEN DATTNER: Well, to try to take a bigger picture view. To look at what proportion of the feedback is this that you’re getting? Are you being tough on yourself? Is he being tough on you in a way that you’re already tough on yourself? And maybe, you can’t control him as much, but perhaps you can control your own kind of self-talk, or self-criticism, or self-evaluation.

ALISON BEARD: And maybe try to solicit positive feedback from elsewhere if you need external validation.

DAN MCGINN: What was the Stuart Smalley quote from SNL years ago? I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and gosh darn it, people like me. Say that in the mirror every morning.

ALISON BEARD: It reminded me of the Christine Porath article on inoculating yourself against incivility. [LAUGHTER]

DAN MCGINN: I go to SNL you go to HBR.


DAN MCGINN: I wonder if it would be at all helpful to her if we tried to normalize the situation and this is not a super unique problem. Universities have a hierarchy and there’s the faculty and the staff are, tend to be very different culturally. So, it might make her feel at least a little bit better if she became more aware that this is a common problem. She probably has colleagues that feel the same way. This happens at lots of universities to a certain extent. There’s only so much we can do about it.

BEN DATTNER: Well, he had said quote, you are a unit manager, yet your direct report understood my instruction. One response might be, I’m very glad my direct report understood your instructions. Please communicate going forward with my direct report.

ALISON BEARD: That’s a workaround. Just push off the bad guy to your subordinate.

BEN DATTNER: Maybe the guy and my subordinate get along well.

DAN MCGINN: I think also, some of this goes back to, we talked about high performing cultures and low performing cultures in the last question, and in most of the world, faculty members have tenure and there’re limited consequences to people in a system where they have employment for as long as they want. And when we think about her power and her ability to effect change here, the faculty member in a university is very different than a middle manager in a private company. Don’t you think?

BEN DATTNER: Yes, although the line between academic institutions and corporations is increasingly blurred. I teach at New York University and we have to learn from our customers. We have to get feedback. We have to deliver. We’re competing with Columbia. We’re competing with other schools and how do we win in that? And what a lot of research and experience shows is that organizations which are cohesive and where there are positive cultures behind the scenes are much better able to offer a positive experience to their customers, or clients, or students, or whatever it may be. So, to the extent that this individual listener, the letter writer could sort of link this faculty member’s behavior with bad outcomes as far as meeting and exceeding student expectations, or creating the right experience for students. That might be a powerful bit of leverage.

ALISON BEARD: Who does she talk to about that?

BEN DATTNER: Well, most universities have deans of students, perhaps marketing people, perhaps public relations people, communications people.

ALISON BEARD: So, not her direct boss?

BEN DATTNER: It depends. It sort of depends who the direct boss is and what his or her priorities are.

DAN MCGINN: It seems to me this is a classic problem where she’s supporting and devoting her time to these eight faculty members and they all want more of her and it turns into a little bit of a competition, where the loudest or most demanding of them seems like he or she is more likely to get more of those resources.

BEN DATTNER: Well, it seems a little bit more complicated than that because it seems like he’s not satisfied with kind of the quantity of service that he’ getting, or the timeliness of service that he’s getting, but he’s also complaining about the quality of the service that he’s getting. That there are errors and that thing are misunderstood.

ALISON BEARD: Should she take a step back and ask whether those complaints are legitimate and maybe she does need to improve?

BEN DATTNER: Certainly worth doing. The person might have a right to be disappointed.

DAN MCGINN: Ben, based on what you heard here, does this faculty member really sound like a micromanager?

BEN DATTNER: Sort of sounds more like a micro scrutinizer, or a macro critiquer rather than a micromanager. If he’s not being clear and specific enough about his expectations to the point where she’s misunderstanding his instructions, it may be that he’s much more hands-off, rather than hands on.

ALISON BEARD: Should she have a direct conversation with this professor?

BEN DATTNER: Well, it might be worthwhile for her to try to set expectations with him to say, based on our recent correspondence, it seems like there’s an opportunity for us to collaborate more efficiently and effectively, and for us to set clearer expectations around the quantity, quality, and timeliness of work. And if he’s mindful, he should realize that because he’s not in her formal chain of command that he’s going to get more with honey than he would get with vinegar.

ALISON BEARD: I do wonder though given this professor’s personality, whether he’ll see a direct conversation about expectations, et cetera, as an affront. We publish pieces about social dominance theory and the advice when people are narcissistic, are domineering, is that it doesn’t help to confront them.

BEN DATTNER: Right. Unless you confront them in a way that they don’t even know it’s confrontational. So, to say, I’m very sorry you’ve been disappointed. I’m very sorry that there have been errors. Please know that I’m committed to doing a good job. I’ve always worked very hard to deliver quality work on a timely basis. If you do have the time and inclination, I would really welcome a conversation about how we hand off work and how we organize our work so that I can meet and exceed your expectations.

DAN MCGINN: Is there a more radical question we should ask here which is, whether she would be better off if she were in a role where she didn’t have to support eight different people? I mean that’s sort of a very matrix-y kind of structure. I think there’s probably personality types that do better in that kind of multi-stakeholder kind of world, and some who are much better in a hierarchal, I just need to please my boss and that’s the end of it kind of situation.

BEN DATTNER: Yes, that’s a great question. Is she in the right career? Is her drama and being upset with this one individual part of a larger kind of conundrum or questioning, do I even want to do this at all?

ALISON BEARD: So, we’ve talked about her having a conversation with this professor. We talked about her maybe going to her immediate boss. Would there be any benefit in bringing all eight faculty members together to talk about how everyone’s working and how they think she is doing a good job? And almost subtlety give some advice for how to better work with her.

DAN MCGINN: That could work. [LAUGHTER] That would require some behind the scenes orchestration. We’re going to have this meeting and you seven are going to talk about how great I am and what you do to make me be great.

BEN DATTNER: Yeah, it could be we need to come up with a prioritization system. I’m overwhelmed in trying to support all eight of you. And I don’t think it’s within my authority to determine what is and isn’t most important, what the top priorities are. So, this is a problem that we could most beneficially solve together, which is how do we sequence and prioritize my work so that I can continue to deliver on a timely basis and high-quality work.

DAN MCGINN: Alison, what are we telling this listener?

ALISON BEARD: So, first we want her to think a little bit more about the context that she’s working in. Is she getting good feedback from all of her other bosses? Is this professor someone who has tenure and feels entitled to behave this way? Does he use this tone with everyone? Can she figure out a way to separate sort of her rational concerns about how he might affect her progress at work from her emotional reaction? Can she start to take this a little bit less personally? Also, she should realize that if she’s someone that will always react emotionally to negative feedback, it might be easier for her to work in a role where she doesn’t have multiple bosses and only really needs to focus on building trust and a good relationship with one. She could consider whether there are workarounds. Maybe linking him directly to the direct report that he seems to like. We think it might be worthwhile to have a conversation with him, to set expectations. This shouldn’t be confrontational. It should just be a frank discussion about the quantity, quality, and timeliness of the work. And also, consider whether she should pull all of the professors together and just talk about best practices for getting the most done.

HANNAH BATES: That was executive coach and organizational consultant Ben Dattner – in conversation with Alison Beard and Dan McGinn on Dear HBR. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, find it all at HBR dot org. This episode was produced by Curt Nickisch, Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Rene Barger for his notes and his support. And thanks, as always, to Rob Eckhardt, Adam Buchholz, Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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