By Ellie Hearne
It was my first "real" job and I was excited about it. My job search had felt interminable (as they all do), and with the requirement to also gain sponsorship for a work visa, my new role had been hard-won.
Armed with a master's degree, that elusive work visa, and all the excitement of a recent graduate who'd wanted to live in New York City from a very young age, I felt like I had finally arrived.
So 6 or so months in, my first performance review took me by surprise. "Your work is stellar, you take the initiative at just the right moments, and I feel like I can depend on you in all situations. Moreover, everyone here really likes you - I keep getting complimented for having hired you."
Great, I said, as I began to feel relieved and happy. "You are doing really well. But I want you know that if anything you're too confident." Oh? I was visibly taken aback. "Yes, you're too... Confident." Ok, I said, as I tried to process what that meant.
I was crushed. Like many people receiving feedback, I latched on only to the negative. But what the heck did "too confident" mean? And what was I to do about it?
I'd like to tell you that I calmly asked for specific examples and set about changing my confident ways. But I can't tell you that, because instead, after I thanked my boss and walked out of the meeting with as much dignity as I could muster, I indulged in what might charitably be described as "falling apart."
Sure, I kept doing my (apparently good?) work and met every deadline with professionalism. But I was devastated. At home, I cried. I felt hurt.
And worst of all, I wasn't sure what to do about it.
For his part, my manager avoided me for a few days. It was, quite simply, weird. A few days later he gave me a Christmas present. Given that this wasn't really his way (he wasn't really a gift-giver and didn't celebrate Christmas), it was clearly really an "I guess I overstepped and commented on something that bothers me about you personally, rather than something that's professionally concerning, so if you're hurt by that - which I guess you are because there's a weird vibe now - then I'm sorry" present.
But looking back, and with approximately a decade more professional experience under my belt (working with managers and the managed alike, both as a leader and otherwise), I can see a lot of things more clearly:
1. No manager should give vague feedback. Give people something actionable and useful. If you're itching to tell someone you don't like what they're doing, make sure it's relevant, changeable, and going to help the company, the team, or the individual in some way. Was is it that I had misplaced confidence when it came to executing a particular task? If so, tell me that. That I can work with.
2. Always ask yourself, "Is this the same feedback I'd offer to someone else who displayed the exact same traits and behaviors?" If not, keep it to yourself. No man at that particular company (regardless of capability or merit) was ever told to dial back his confidence. While women are often told they're too loud, too assertive, too forward - I rarely encounter men who are told the same. (And I work with a lot of people in a lot of industries.)
Later in my career a (different) manager came down hard on me and a colleague who'd decided to work from home one day. We were on the newer side at a company that shunned policies and promised flexibility. And we'd seen every other employee on our small team do the same in similar circumstances. Given that we were going through a very busy period, we recognized that we'd get more work done by spending our commute-time at our computers.
The boss didn't see it that way. And rather than openly addressing the matter she passive-aggressively lashed out. We were annoyed at the double standard, but since she hadn't clearly mentioned the issue or opened a dialogue, none of us had the chance to deal with it. The next day, she breezed into the office and gave us each a novelty pencil.
Again, weird. Which brings me to lesson number 3.
3. If you feel like you've wronged someone at work and are considering giving them a gift to even the score, stop. Step away from the novelty pencil. Own your behavior. Apologize or explain - and move on. Giving a gift won't fix anything; it's simply a way for you to feel better about yourself. But being open about your error acknowledging that your feedback didn't land well will garner you better results in the long run and more respect from the get-go.
Feedback, whichever end of it you're on, is personal. Give it directly, thoughtfully, and with consideration of the individual you're dealing with. Receive it with an open mind, regardless of how it's delivered.
For more guidance on having better conversations around feedback, talk to us. Or not. But please don't buy your colleague a gift instead.
Ellie Hearne is a leadership-communications expert and founder of Pencil or Ink. She has worked with Apple, Google, Kate Spade, Marriott, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, Pfizer, Piaget, Spotify, Starbucks, and Twitter, among others, and has coached numerous individuals and teams. Ellie can be reached here, here, and here.