managemnet company strategy managemanet When Your Boss Gives You Bad Feedback, Badly

When Your Boss Gives You Bad Feedback, Badly

When Your Boss Gives You Bad Feedback, Badly post thumbnail image

Hearing about what you’re not doing well at work can feel bad. That doesn’t make you “defensive” or “shut down to feedback.” It just means you’re human and that you care about your performance — both good things.

Even when you receive kind, clear feedback from a manager, peer, or employee, it can still be difficult to learn what you could be doing better. Say to yourself: “This is uncomfortable, and that’s okay. My reaction will pass.” And then do something that allows you to sit with the discomfort for a while. Meditate, take a walk, or journal. Remind yourself that the person is giving you feedback because they care about helping you.

But what happens when the person doesn’t care about you, or when the feedback is poorly delivered? What if the person was rude, insensitive, or unclear? Now is not the time to criticize the criticism. But how can you navigate your own emotional responses to different types of feedback? The only way out of feeling bad about critical feedback is through.

Mollie and Liz are experts in emotions at work and Kim is an expert in feedback at work. Kim’s radical candor framework explains the three most common ways people deliver feedback in a way that causes harm and elicits strong emotions: obnoxious aggression, manipulative insincerity, and ruinous empathy. Together, we’ve identified five key steps to take when you get poorly delivered feedback:

  1. Name your emotion. Figure out how you’re feeling and don’t judge yourself.
  2. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Look for something helpful in the feedback even if it wasn’t delivered well.
  3. Reward the candor — even if you disagree. Note that this doesn’t mean pretending to agree. Sometimes the best reward for feedback you disagree with is a respectful explanation of why.
  4. Offer feedback on feedback. Talk to the person about the impact of their delivery.
  5. Fish or cut bait. Figure out if you can continue to improve the relationship or if this is someone you need to avoid.

As with most advice, this is much easier said than done. Here’s how to apply these steps in the face of three common types of poorly delivered feedback.

Obnoxiously Aggressive Feedback

What should you do when someone is yelling or using disparaging language? For example, a person once gave Kim some feedback by jabbing his finger in her face as he yelled, “You are the most aggressive woman I ever met!”

This type of feedback usually makes us feel a mix of anger, fear, defensiveness, and anxiety. In addition to the steps below, if you feel that you’re being bullied or verbally abused at work, it’s important to escalate that to a trusted leader or HR rep if you feel safe doing so. If there’s nobody you feel safe going to at work, it’s a sign to start looking for a new job.

1. Name your emotion.

Give yourself a minute. If you find your emotions are overwhelming, try to create space for yourself or remove yourself from the situation entirely. You might say something like, “I’d like to come back to this later” or “I’m having a strong reaction to your feedback, and I need a moment.” Liz has learned to evaluate her emotions on a scale from 1 (okay) to 10 (enraged or panicking). She aims to wait until she’s settled down to a 3 or 4 before taking action or even responding.

2. Separate the wheat from the chaff.

Once you’re calm, think about what was said, not how it was said. Is there some information, no matter how terribly imparted, that can be useful to you or help you succeed? Some people will never tell you what they’re thinking until they’re so angry that they aren’t able to communicate it well.

It may be the case that you disagree with the content of the feedback as well as the way it was delivered. That’s okay. But challenge yourself to find one thing the person said, or even one aspect of what they said, that you can agree with. There may be a whole bushel of chaff and only one grain of wheat. Find that grain, and use it to your advantage!

3. Reward the candor.

If you agree with any of the feedback, make changes and update the person on what you’re doing differently. If you disagree with it, offer a respectful explanation of why.

4. Offer feedback on feedback.

Is there a way to relay how their words and actions impacted you? In some situations, it may be effective to share how an overly harsh delivery affects your ability to perform well on the job. In a workshop Liz and Mollie led, for example, a participant shared that her boss used to yell at her frequently. One day she finally said to him, “I know that you’re upset right now, but when you yell at me, I’m not able to focus on my work.” Her boss apologized and realized that he was inadvertently hurting her performance. His outbursts became much less frequent.

5. Fish or cut bait.

Of course, sometimes when you talk to the person about how what they said impacted you, you’ll learn the person is trying to upset you. In those cases, telling them how they made you feel won’t work. Why tell them they succeeded in upsetting you?

Instead, limit how much you interact with the person. Once Kim told her boss he was being disrespectful; he replied he was offended that she didn’t genuflect enough, or appreciate how superior he was to her. She quit. As TV writer Elizabeth Craft advises, “If someone handed you a literal glass of poison, you would not drink it — so don’t drink the verbal poison. If someone’s coming at you negatively at work, just don’t ingest.”

Manipulatively Insincere Feedback

When people are worried about their own reputation more than helping you improve, they may say things they don’t really mean. Sometimes people say things to you that feel passive aggressive, or they praise you to your face but criticize you behind your back.

We all do this sometimes. Kim confesses that she had a direct report to whom she gave manipulatively insincere feedback. His work was riddled with careless mistakes. And he was popular and very sensitive. What if he started to cry when she pointed out the mistakes? Worried about her reputation as a leader rather than her direct report’s performance, she’d say something to him along the lines of, “Oh, Alex, this is a great start. You are so incredible. Maybe you can make this a little better.”

What can you do if someone is giving you praise that feels more like an ego salve than something real? How can you encourage them to say what they really think?

1. Name your emotion.

When confronted with this behavior, it’s easy to feel confused. If you find out the person is saying nice things to your face and bad things behind your back, you may feel angry, betrayed, or mistrustful. Take a deep breath. Figure out how you’re feeling.

2. Separate the wheat from the chaff.

Remember, you’re trying to get feedback that will help you grow. Try asking the person making the comment to clarify what they meant. You might say, “Can you share a bit more about what you mean by that?” or “What would you recommend I do differently?” By asking for more detail, you help prevent miscommunication and give yourself an opportunity to address any underlying issues.

It might be that the person is simply conflict avoidant. You might make them feel more comfortable sharing if you say something like: “I feel like you have valuable feedback for me, but I’m not sure what you’re trying to communicate. Can you tell me what you’re thinking more directly?”

Another tactic is to tell the person that you’re working on improving something, and ask them to help you: “I’ve been told I interrupt a lot. Can you help me by passing me this pen if you notice me interrupting someone during the meeting?”

3. Reward the candor.

When a well-intentioned person has a hard time giving feedback, it’s especially important to prove to them that not only is it safe to give you feedback, but that they’ll be rewarded richly if they do. When their feedback results in your action, the risk they took has paid off. Saying thanks is never enough — you need to fix the problem.

But when a person praises you to your face and criticizes you behind your back, it’s really hard to reward that kind of passive aggression because you’re not supposed to know what they think. You could ask: “Is there something I could do differently so next time you can tell me what you really think? You told me you thought the presentation went well, but I heard you told others it was terrible. I promise not to bite your head off if you tell me when I’m not hitting the mark. In fact, I’ll be grateful because your feedback is exactly what I need in order to do better.”

4. Offer feedback on feedback.

Now that you’re talking, you can ask the person if they can commit to talking to you directly rather than behind your back in the future.

5. Fish or cut bait.

If the person apologizes and seems sincere, you can begin to rebuild trust. But if they respond in a way that erodes trust further, aim to regulate your emotions so that their behavior affects you less. Try an imaginary time-travel technique called temporal distancing. “Imagine it is a day, a week, or a year later,” says Bob Sutton, author of books including The No Asshole Rule. “And you are looking back on it, and it really didn’t last that long or wasn’t nearly as bad as it seemed at the time.”

Ruinously Empathetic Feedback

Sometimes you get the sense the person is so worried about hurting your feelings or offending you that they won’t tell you what they really think. They care, but they’re not challenging you.

The part of Kim that was reluctant to tell her popular and sensitive employee Alex when his work wasn’t good enough because of her concern for her reputation as a leader was manipulative insincerity; the “too nice” part of her that was reluctant to tell Alex what he needed to know because she was afraid of hurting his feelings was ruinous empathy.

1. Name your emotion.

When someone is overly nice about their feedback, you may feel unsure about their intentions, or frustrated that they’re not telling you what you need to know to improve. You may wonder if they think you can’t handle the feedback. Maybe that makes you angry. Maybe their ruinous empathy makes them seem weak to you, and maybe that makes you feel disgusted. Emotional responses to ruinous empathy vary widely.

2. Separate the wheat from the chaff.

You might say, “While I appreciate that you think I’m doing a great job, I know that there is always room for improvement. When I repeatedly don’t get any constructive feedback from you, it makes me feel like you’re holding back. The only way I can improve is if you give me candid feedback.”

You may then need to sit through the other person’s discomfort. Many people who give overly nice feedback will try to wriggle out of saying anything critical. They might repeat, “No really, you’re doing great.” Their discomfort might make you feel that you should let them off the hook.

Push back against this instinct and stick with the conversation until you get a genuine response. One technique Kim recommends is to count to six before saying anything else. This forces the other person to endure the silence. After six seconds, if they still can’t come up with anything else in the moment, suggest finding a time to meet again.

3. Reward the candor.

This is really important if you ever want to get more feedback from the person. Be effusive in your thanks. If you agree with the feedback, fix the issue, and then ask if you over or under-corrected. If you disagree, first look for something they said that you can agree with. Then, respectfully explain why you disagree with the rest. If possible, agree to do it their way — even if you disagree. Maybe they’re right and you’re wrong. Even so, explaining your reasoning and still deferring to them is a sign of respect.

4. Offer feedback on feedback.

Having demonstrated how helpful their feedback was, tell them you’ll be asking for more. Let them know that while you appreciate their concern for your feelings, when they fail to tell you things that would help you do better work, it hurts your ability to succeed, and it doesn’t improve your relationship. Reassure them that you really do want them to be candid with you, and that you not only can take it, but will appreciate it.

5. Fish or cut bait.

Encouraging others to give you feedback often demands patience and takes work. But not everyone will offer it to you. If you’ve taken all the steps suggested above, and the person still will not share any direct feedback, look to others for candor. If your boss seems constitutionally unable to give real performance feedback and their boss is not holding them accountable, start looking for a new boss.

. . .

It’s difficult to manage your feelings when getting feedback that feels too harsh, overly nice, or somehow dishonest. We all struggle with feedback, so extend a little grace to yourself for having strong emotions, and to the other person for initiating a difficult conversation.

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