Traumatized by Feedback? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

Every time I hear the word “feedback” I have a strong, negative response. This comes from a recent experience with a manager. Going into the relationship, I had always been someone who asked for feedback. This manager, however, gave me feedback so often there was no need to ask for it. She seemed to enjoy it—like wielding power over me—and would sometimes mockingly comment “feedback is a gift!” She also would share gossip she had heard about me and call it feedback.

On a couple of occasions, this manager’s feedback about how she felt I was showing up at meetings—the way I sat, the fact that I read from the slides too much—caused me to cry. I am not sure if it was because in the beginning I felt safe to let my guard down, because she was a woman and we had been considered friends before I reported to her, because I was feeling shame, or because it has always been very important to me to show up well. It was likely a combination of all of the above.

A few months ago, this manager was passing along feedback from my skip-level. When I asked for some clarification and suggested that I might talk with him directly, she told me that he didn’t feel comfortable giving me direct feedback because he was afraid it might make me cry. Ouch! He could have known about this only if she had shared it with him. Essentially, my manager had labeled me as a crier. To her boss. Fantastic.

This experience taught me that processing my emotions with this manager wasn’t safe at all—and that she wasn’t as comfortable with my emotions as I thought she was. In that conversation, I told her that never in my 20 years at our large company had anyone given me the kind of harsh feedback she gave. But rather than hearing the feedback I was now giving her, her response was “Wow, you really haven’t received much feedback, have you?” Total deflection on her part.

I have since moved to a new company. I am in a senior role where I am expected to give feedback to my direct reports. Needless to say, I am now gun-shy about giving feedback. In fact, if I were to hear someone ask “May I give you some feedback?” I fear I would run down the hallway, screaming “No thank you!!”

I don’t feel everyone necessarily wants or needs feedback, and I’m looking to find a balance so I am not traumatized by this forever. I want to be a manager who gives helpful feedback, but I don’t want to upset anyone in the process. Also, I want to continue to ask for and receive feedback from my own supervisor in order to continue growing—but what if I cry again and am further humiliated?

What advice can you offer on how I might (1) develop some comfort with giving feedback? and (2) speed this healing process along?

Traumatized by Feedback

Dear Traumatized by Feedback,

Wow. Ken Blanchard does say “Feedback is the breakfast of champions” but this is not what he means.

First, let me say how sorry I am that your former manager was just mean. You aren’t really traumatized by feedback per se; you are traumatized by the fact that your manager used the idea of feedback to bully you. And she masqueraded as a friend and then used your vulnerability against you, which is manipulative and probably a sign of a personality disorder. (Wait, let me get out my DSM-5 for a quick diagnosis! Just kidding, but it is tempting.)

It sounds like you left your former company, so at least you got away from your very nasty manager.

I’m going to share with you our Coach Approach to Feedback. Linda Miller and I developed it as a special add-on to our Coaching Skills course because so many people equate coaching with feedback. (They are not at all the same thing, but that distinction is for another time.) For now, it might be helpful to read Marcus Buckingham’s take on it, which I agree with.

A couple of universal principles to get us started:

Feedback says more about the person giving it than the person receiving it. (I learned this from What Did You Say? by Charles and Edie Seashore—an oldie but goodie.)

The job requirement “give feedback” is not the same as “declare open season to share any personal opinion, no matter how potentially hurtful, that comes into my head.”

It is part of a manager’s job to share observations and information that will help people be as successful as possible.

The best managers always have as their intention “to do no harm.”

The manager must decide exactly what kind of feedback is being given, and the purpose for giving it. The more clear the manager is going in, the more clear the employee will be on what to do with the feedback. There are five distinctly different types of feedback:

  1. Celebration Feedback: Acknowledgment of superior performance or marked improvement on a critical, difficult task.
  2. Positive Feedback: Information about what is going well when performance meets expectations.
  3. Observation Feedback: Information shared without any attachment to change.
  4. Performance Request: Information in proper context with a clear, specific request for change.
  5. Performance Demand: An escalation of a request to a demand for change with clear, specific consequences for lack of compliance.

Any feedback should be carefully crafted to meet the following criteria. Feedback must be:

Immediately relevant. All feedback should be grounded in a specific task, goal, or development area. Feedback is most relevant to performance needed for success when individuals:

  • need to move to a new level of performance
  • are new to a task or goal
  • are not delivering on tasks or goals
  • have conduct that is not aligned with policy

Managers may also want to give feedback to support development; for example, when someone is doing well and ready for the next steps or wants to be more fully rounded in their current role.

General or random feedback that is unrelated to the job at hand or the long-term success of the employee is just noise (e.g., the way you’re sitting at a meeting). At best, it can feel inappropriately personal and cause confusion. At worst, it makes the employee feel picked on.

Timely. The manager should take the time they need to think through the purpose and form of the feedback, but not so long that the moment passes and it gets lost in the scrum of the next big project. If the feedback will make a difference to a deliverable coming up soon, the manager should share it in plenty of time so it can be processed.

If you as the manager are angry, resentful, incredulous, or otherwise emotionally lit up, STOP. Stop, breathe, step back, step away, sleep on it, write (but don’t send) an email, don’t pick up the phone. If you are storming off, looking for the offender to give them a piece of your mind, STOP. It takes hundreds of teeny positive interactions to build trust and only one misstep to break it. Make sure you have your facts straight and are totally calm before going into the fray.

Thoughtful. Think long and hard about how important it is to give feedback. Ask yourself: Is this likely to resolve itself on its own? Did my team member already suffer the pain of their error and will probably never make the same mistake again? If the answer is no and the employee is likely to continue or even double down on something that is hurting them, go ahead and take the plunge. If you have to say something really difficult, write out what you want to say and practice with someone neutral. Getting the language right can make all the difference.

Non-judgmental. Feedback needs to be delivered with a neutral tone and behaviors must be separated from the person. When you want to say: “Wow, you were unprepared and under-rehearsed for that presentation—you seemed disjointed and lost credibility,” flip it and say: “In the future, it would be good to spend more time preparing. Run your content outline by me or some other trusted team members to make sure you are covering all the bases. And do a couple of dry runs with a safe audience—you’ll gain confidence with your material, which will vastly enhance the credibility of your presentations.”

Focused on the future. We can’t go back and fix the past; we can only learn and improve in the future.

Specific and descriptive. We tend to think people know how they have fallen short when that is often not the case. The more specific you can be, the better.

Based on personal experience. In our coaching team, our motto is go direct. We all commit to giving each other feedback as it relates to working together or how a colleague might be more effective. It isn’t always possible—it depends a lot on the culture of the team and the organization—but I think it’s unfair to expect a manager to give a direct report someone else’s feedback. If someone comes to you with feedback for one of your direct reports, consider whether the message is important to your person’s success. If you think it will really matter, encourage the source to go direct. Let them practice with you if they want—and you can help them make sure their feedback matches the above criteria.

Under no circumstances should gossip ever be shared as feedback. Gossip is toxic and should be stopped in its tracks. Gossip, fun as it may be, is never good, always bad. The best thing you can do as a manager is become an anti-gossip bulwark.

Finally, if you have any doubt about whether or not you should share an observation, ask yourself, “Do I need to say it, or do they need to hear it?” If you need to say it, stop. If they need to hear it, go. It is fiendishly difficult to keep our opinions to ourselves, but I have found that exercising that discipline has vastly improved my quality of life. At least I have to apologize a lot less.

Stay tuned for next week, where I will tackle your question about how to receive feedback and offer some ideas about how to heal from your experience with the nasty manager. The first step to healing is dedicating yourself to being the polar opposite of the meanie. If you follow the guidelines, you will probably not traumatize any of your people. It does take practice—which will take time—so cut yourself some slack.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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