Traumatized by Feedback? Ask Madeleine (PART 2)

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

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Dear Traumatized,

I hope you found my response to your first question useful. For anyone who might have missed it, in the last post I addressed how to develop some comfort with giving feedback. In this (Part 2) post, I will address your second question: How do you speed the healing process of wounds received by a psycho manager so you can ask for feedback in the future? Clearly, you once trusted others to provide useful input to help you grow. So how can you find your way back to that?

“Why bother?” you might ask. Well, that’s a good question. After all, you have risen to a senior position in a new organization. You could just try powering through with a bulletproof protective shell.

But here’s the thing: research shows that feedback becomes less frequent and less consistent the higher people go. So if you aren’t actively seeking feedback, you’re probably not going to get much. The only problem with this is that if you’re doing things that aren’t effective, you might not know until it’s too late. You could end up being surprised in a bad way. It won’t serve you to live in a vacuum—and no (wo)man is an island.

First, take some time to heal. Shame, regret, and humiliation feel poisonous—and once you get a negative thought loop in your brain, it can be hard to interrupt that pattern. As neuroscientists say: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” That’s why it takes so much repetition to build and embed a habit.

Here are a couple of excellent techniques that have been shown to be effective at interrupting negative neural patterns.

Labeling: There is a misconception that talking about a difficult experience will only rub salt in the wound, but this is only true if you ruminate—revisit events with no tools to transform their impact. One way to change your response to past experience is to articulate how events made you feel, and then label the emotions. You can do this with a therapist, a sympathetic HR professional, or a friend who is a good listener. You’ve already started doing it by writing your letter. That’s a good first step.

The more detailed you can get and the more specifically you can label how you felt, the less sting you will feel over time. It might sound something like this: “In my last job, I had a manager who I thought was a friend. She started belittling me by saying mean things about my looks, body language, and competence. I was really hurt—but even worse, I felt betrayed and abandoned.” You can loosen the grip you experience instead of feeling like it has power over you.

Distancing techniques: Another tool to diminish the emotional turmoil you’re dealing with is to tell yourself the story of the events that happened but do it in the third person, as if it happened to someone else. For example, you might start the story with “I once knew this person who was badly bullied by her manager. Because she thought they were friends, she didn’t really know what was happening until it was too late and the damage was done. Here’s what happened…” It may sound hokey, but it really works to help you not only get some perspective but also rewire the circuits in your brain.

Reappraisal or reframing: Right now you’re still seeing yourself as the person who had an inappropriate emotional reaction. It’s really important to get your head wrapped around the fact that in the circumstances you described, anyone would have had that reaction. In fact, your emotional reaction was entirely appropriate. So in this case, I would encourage you to take your newfound labels—and your little bit of distance—and use them to look at your situation and see how you might reframe your interpretation of events. Consider how your nasty manager contributed to the situation, set you up to be vulnerable, and manipulated you.

These techniques, by the way, are useful for dealing with all kinds of deeply felt negative emotions that get in your way. Do not skip this step. This step puts you back on an even keel and sets you up to take charge of how you ask for feedback in the future and what you do with it. I guarantee it will not include tears or running down the hallway screaming “No thank you.”

Once you have done some processing, find your people. Identify those in your new workplace who will be on Team No Longer Traumatized, Now Healed. Find people you respect who have a stake in your success and who share your interests—the ones you like and feel you can trust. Click here for some information on our Trust Model – it may be my all-time favorite—that makes something layered and complex stunningly simple. Make a pact with these folks that they will come to you with input—and that when you ask for feedback they will give it to you straight, when it matters.

Ask your boss to give you very specific feedback having to do with how you are progressing on your goals and how to be most successful at influencing in the organization. If and only if you think you can trust her, share your negative experience with feedback. Ask her to be especially kind but not hold back when it’s something she believes will make a real impact on your success.

Encourage your direct report team to give you feedback, especially when it comes to creating an environment that brings out their best. You can make an explicit request of each person that you expect them to tell you if you have done something that has had a negative impact on them.

As a senior leader, you can create the feedback culture in your department—so it’s up to you to be clear about what is expected and what is out of bounds. Go back to last week’s post, write up your own rules concerning feedback, and share them with your team. Examples might be:

  • Go direct: Give each other feedback. Don’t complain to others or go to the boss until you have tried to have a conversation.
  • Ask yourself: Do I need to say it? Do they really need to hear it?

The thing you couldn’t do in your last job was set boundaries. It’s time for you to be ready to push back when someone crosses the line. When someone says something mean, you are allowed to say: “That’s mean, and my feelings are hurt.” If you get feedback that hurts from someone you trust, sit with your feelings about it, ask yourself “What if this were true,” and then take what you can and move on.

Finally, never forget that feedback says more about the person giving it than anything else. Take it all with a grain of salt. When in doubt, check it out with your people, then take what you can and let the rest go.

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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