My senior year of high school, I became the editor-in-chief of our school newspaper. For a variety of reasons, I had a huge chip on my shoulder about it. Most of the founders of the paper had graduated, and very few of my classmates were active participants, leaving me with an inexperienced staff. Furthermore, the previous editor-in-chief had publicly declared that he did not think we would be successful.
Unfortunately, for the first few months of my tenure, I was proving him right. I was a horrible manager, and that chip on my shoulder made me ten times worse. No one was living up to my expectations, and I made that brutally clear to everyone. I knew that people didn’t like hearing from me, but I didn’t care, because I felt justified in how I was feeling.
One day, a classmate contributed an article that I didn’t like. I can’t remember exactly what I said to him, but it was something along the lines of, “This article sucks,” only meaner and less constructive.
My friend — who had never dealt with me in this context before — blew up at me. He said, “If you want people to contribute to the paper, you can’t treat people that way.” Then he stormed out of the room.
This all happened over 20 years ago, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was a defining moment for me, because I realized that I was being a total asshole, that being an asshole was not a measure of good leadership, and that I generally did not like the feeling of being an asshole.
I apologized to a lot of people that day, starting with that friend. If I could do it all over again, I also would have thanked him. Without his clear and specific feedback, I would not have had the self-awareness to turn things around. It put me on a path to becoming a better leader.
It also made me empathetic toward people who behaved like I had. People who behave like assholes might not realize it or might not be doing it on purpose, and they might appreciate getting that feedback so that they can work on correcting it. I’ve met a lot of leaders who are honestly surprised to receive this kind of feedback, because no one has ever offered it to them before.
It’s risky to be on the other side of that, because it’s safer to assume that someone behaving like an asshole already realizes it and doesn’t particularly care either way. If that’s the case, then offering that feedback might have negative consequences. But if you stay silent, then no one wins. No one has any chance of improving, and the situation will likely perpetuate itself.
A friend of mine who works in tech recently related a story where she felt slighted by another member of her team. It’s possible that it was unintentional, and it’s also possible that it reflected a pervasive culture of sexism. Regardless, I encouraged her to have a conversation with that teammate and to explain how his actions made her feel. I encouraged her to be specific and non-accusational (e.g. “Your action made me feel slighted because of this”). I explained that if I were in the position of her teammate, that I would want that kind of feedback.
I also understand that offering that feedback puts her at risk. Her teammate might not care, or worse, might ridicule her. It might affect their long-term working relationship.
Not saying anything only guarantees that the working relationship will remain damaged, and it increases the likelihood that these incidents will happen again. Furthermore, this particular friend is both strong and relational. I know she’ll find a way to communicate this clearly and compassionately.
That said, it’s easy for me to offer this advice to someone else. It’s a lot harder to do. It requires a lot of courage.
As a leader (especially one who can be intimidating to others), how do you make it safe for your teammates to give you this kind of feedback?
First, make it an explicit team norm. Whenever I form a new team, I make time to discuss how we want to work together and to come up with a set of shared groundrules. If the team makes it a shared goal to give this kind of feedback to each other, it becomes about enforcing shared norms rather than being some kind of personal beef.
Second, invite feedback. If you’re not constantly asking for feedback and making it clear that you welcome it, don’t expect to get it.
My recent forays into photography have really underlined this point for me. Before, when I would share pictures, most of the feedback I got was superficial — “great photos!” or perhaps a like on Facebook. Now, I make it clear that I’m trying to get better and that I want feedback, especially critical. When I get positive feedback, I also ask people to get specific, so that they’re not just telling me they like something, they’re telling me why they like something.
It’s been an incredible process. I’ve gotten feedback I never would have gotten otherwise, which has made me a better photographer. I’ve discovered that most of my friends are actually quite sophisticated in evaluating pictures. And, some of my friends have discovered the same thing about themselves, which has been a cool revelation for them! I’ve had friends say to me, “I’ve never really talked about photography in that way before… and I like it!”
Third, model giving and receiving constructive feedback. This is always the hardest thing to do. I’m pretty good at choosing my words carefully, so that I’m describing what I’m seeing and feeling as opposed to projecting. I’m not good at managing my emotions through my body language. If I’m frustrated or angry, I may use safe language, but my body language often sends a different message. It requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness and centering practice to master those emotions so that you can communicate more effectively.
As for receiving feedback, here’s how I see it. I know that I am sexist, racist, and prejudiced in a thousand other ways. We all are, even if that’s not our intention. I work hard to treat people fairly, but I am not going to be successful all the time. So the best I can do is to be clear about my aspirations, recognize that I will make mistakes, be accountable and compassionate when I make them, and try my best to improve.