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Dr. Irina Cozma: “Provide the feedback as soon as you become aware of it”

Provide the feedback as soon as you become aware of it: Don’t postpone it. That will make the conversation harder and the damage bigger.Provide the constructive feedback 1:1 voice to voice (never in an email or with other people present): This will help the receiver of the feedback to be less defensive and allows for […]

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Provide the feedback as soon as you become aware of it: Don’t postpone it. That will make the conversation harder and the damage bigger.

Provide the constructive feedback 1:1 voice to voice (never in an email or with other people present): This will help the receiver of the feedback to be less defensive and allows for non-verbals to help the message.

Use self-esteem: Don’t just hammer the person! Point the value they bring and the skills they have. The fact that they are receiving constructive feedback now doesn’t diminish them as professionals.


Asa part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Irina Cozma. She is an organizational psychologist who is guiding human beings to be happy, productive, and aware of their personal and professional life through the practice of action-oriented coaching. In the last decade, Irina had the joy of coaching thousands of individuals across the world from Fortune 500 executives to girls and women from different NGOs. She was featured in Business Insider, Fast Company, Thrive Global, and Glassdoor.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Iam a very lucky person. I discovered my career path early in life and I had fun ever since. My background is in organizational psychology (I have two M.A. and a PhD. in this field) and a decade ago I fell in love with coaching.

I grew up in a small mountain town in Romania from where I left when I was 18 years old and kept moving around ever since: Bucharest (Romania), Barcelona (Spain), Chisinau (Republic of Moldova), Salamanca (Spain), and since 2007 many places in U.S. There were several pivotal moments in my life as I lived, worked, and studied in four different countries. Each of these moments taught me that action is superior to inaction and if you stay open to experiences there is always a way to achieve your next goal. I highly enjoy intellectual conversations and debating ideas but nothing is as beautiful as making a decision and acting on it. I find it extremely frustrating to want something, to have an idea, to have a goal, and not giving it all to make it happen. Many years ago I promised myself that I will never just want or speak about something without acting on it and that was (and still is) a very useful standard in my life. I am a big fan of action!

However, when I look around me I see many people who have amazing ideas but many times they cannot push those ideas into execution. That is so sad to see for themselves first of all but also for all of us who could benefit if those ideas would become a reality. That is why I opened my coaching business. If more people will put in action their ideas, they will be happier and more engaged in their lives and, as a bonus, the society will benefit from that.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I am all about action. My purpose is to guide human beings to be happy, productive, and aware of their personal and professional life through the practice of action-oriented coaching.

Setting goals will give you a direction but the action is what will turn the invisible into the visible. My objective is to empower people to show up for themselves and become better at what they do. I want them to feel the joy of focusing on a goal, acting on it, and embracing their achievements.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

During one of my coaching engagement, I did something that surprised me (I am usually more predictable for myself :))

This is a two parts story.

First part: I had a call to debrief a candidate’s assessment with the hiring manager and HR team. The assessment results were above average, actually top 20% from what I saw in the past with that particular assessment. However, the three people in the call were not impressed and kept giving me silly examples of why this (internal) candidate is not ready for this new job. It’s not my role to recommend them to hire or not the candidate, however, their examples had nothing to do with competence but more with the hiring manager’s ego. In this context I decided to ask a question I never asked before in a call like this:

“If this candidate would have been a man, would you still have these concerns?” The candidate was a woman and the three people in the call were men. They pushed back of course but I am still happy I decided to ask the question — one question at the time.

Second part: I got to debrief the results with the candidate herself too. Soon after our conversation started I learned that this was a story about an abusive manager with multiple examples of sabotaging this direct report. Finding more about the situation validated my reaction and my question to the manager. I learned that next time a surprising question comes to my mind I should go for it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During my career, I did 1,000+ coaching sessions across all organizational levels. I don’t remember all these clients but those few with whom I had the most difficult conversations did stick in my memory. I still remember a gentleman from many years ago who insisted to focus our conversation only on his strengths instead of acknowledging and working on his main weakness, a personality trait — arrogance (as pointed by multiple of his colleagues in a 360 report). I did waste a lot of time trying to reason with him and pointing out that this personality trait will impede his career growth but nothing resonated with him. The more I tried the more he pushed back.

Now I would approach that differently. I would focus on the value I can bring even if that would not be in the most impactful area for him. Despite the fact that I think both strengths and development areas need to be addressed, I would let go to the ideal approach and I would focus on any minimum value he can get from our conversation.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Remember that at the end of the day we are all humans. We all want to wake up and go to a job where we can contribute, feel heard, and be acknowledged. We are employees but before all we are humans. Yes revenue and numbers are important, yes stakeholders and clients are important, but as a business leader, you should lead by prioritizing humanity for your employees.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

When I think about a leader there are five characteristics that come to mind:

Humility: As a leader, you are only as successful as your team is. Don’t take the entire spotlight! Set up your team for success and find opportunities for them to shine.

Empathy: As a leader, you need to be able to read the emotions of those in the room and adjust your message accordingly. People are employees but before all they are people.

Visionary: As a leader, you need to think strategically and see broad and far. Your company or business unit will not survive if they are not ahead of the curve. Find new innovative ways to venture your business and/or your team.

Influencer: As a leader, you need to get things done through others; therefore you will need to apply strategic influencing techniques in many of your interactions. You need to energize others and motivate them to go where you envision them to go.

Courage: As a leader, you need to take risks regarding your business and your people. The rewards come from hard decisions.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

A good night’s sleep is crucial. Then keep your routines. Don’t go for new drinks, new foods, or new clothes on the day of your big meeting. Keep it casual. And remember that the success of a high stake meeting or a decision starts way before the actual meeting or decision. The prep you will do, the allies you will get, the information you will collect, all will help decrease the stress and increase the odds of success.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

I manage a team of six people and I am deeply involved in their development. This means I am continuously providing them feedback for success and feedback for improvement.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

Delaying a thought message will not do any good to anybody. The person will not be aware and cannot correct his behavior and as a result, the team, the company, and the clients will keep encountering that behavior. However, delivering a direct message might be hard to do for some leaders. They might have personality traits or previous experiences that will hinder their effectiveness when dealing with these types of situations. I often coach leaders who, reflecting back, acknowledge that they should have spoken up sooner, should have fired an employee sooner or should have made a hard decision sooner. Being aware of this shortcoming is the first step. Then they should build around them an infrastructure that will push them to action sooner next time around.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Provide the feedback as soon as you become aware of it: Don’t postpone it. That will make the conversation harder and the damage bigger.

2. Provide the constructive feedback 1:1 voice to voice (never in an email or with other people present): This will help the receiver of the feedback to be less defensive and allows for non-verbals to help the message.

3. Use self-esteem: Don’t just hammer the person! Point the value they bring and the skills they have. The fact that they are receiving constructive feedback now doesn’t diminish them as professionals.

4. Use empathy: Making a mistake or delivering less than a good result will make people cringe. In those moments they need to hear others acknowledging their feelings and make them feel understood. Make the feedback about the task, not about the person.

5. List the suboptimal actions and suggest alternative actions: A mishap, a mistake, a failure are great opportunities for learning. After you attended to the personal needs of the receiver, make sure to address the actions that were taken, point out why they might have not been the best and suggest alternative steps that could be taken now or in the future.

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

If for whatever reason you need to give constructive feedback via email make sure you take time to craft a balanced text. Once you write it, take 24 hours before you send it.

The mechanism of constructive feedback is the same regardless of the person receiving the feedback or the particular feedback you need to give: 1) describe the situation, 2) describe the actions taken, 3) describe the results and then 4) suggest better actions that could have been taken and 5) which could have led to a better result.

Here is an example of constructive feedback addressed to a direct report: I know you had to finish three tasks for the integration project by the end of last week. I understand that you asked other departments for input but they did not respond on time, therefore you completed just one of the tasks. Because the other two tasks were not completed, the other team members could not move ahead with their work and the entire project is delayed. Another way to approach this would have been to escalate to me the lack of response from the other departments and I could have intervened. That would have helped us to keep the project on time. Please let me know when and how I can support you.

And here is an example of constructive feedback for a peer: The conference last week was a lot of fun! I made sure to attend your presentation as I am very interested in your work. I noticed that you had a lot of useful information to cover in a short amount of time. BTW some of your slides were very wordy and you had to rush to cover them. I think you lost the audience at times. If you don’t mind, a potential suggestion for the future would be to do a dry run of the presentation (happy to help). That will give you the opportunity to trim down the slides and words and will also help with the timing of the presentation. I am sure the audience will benefit even more from your session.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

Definitely as soon as possible. That will allow for the information to be fresh in everybody’s mind. Of course, if it’s an emotional situation allow 24 hours to pass before you regroup and talk. The most you postpone the conversation, the less the probability that you will actually have that conversation and the more you wait, the lower the impact will be.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

It all starts with motivation. You would be surprised how many leaders are out there that do not enjoy managing people. They do it because of the status, or the money, or because they were told to. It’s hard to be a great boss if you don’t understand and enjoy the people side of your job. Assuming you are motivated to lead people, your main focus should be on them. What do they want for their career? What do they enjoy (or not) doing? How do they prefer to learn? What opportunities can you facilitate for them? Do you have regular 1:1 with them and make the most out of that time? As a people leader, these are the questions you should ask yourself every day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We as a species made great progress throughout history. Imagine how much faster progress we can make if all the great ideas humans have could be put in practice. We are consuming a huge amount of intellectual power talking and debating about better or new ways of doing things but we don’t always take the next step to actually implement those ideas. My wish is that when we hear ourselves talking and complaining about something that could be different or better, we can also take the next step and do something about it. Action is superior to inaction.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Take the first step. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” Martin Luther King

Life is short, complex, and random. It does not need us to complicate it even more. If you have a goal, if you want something, just start making the first steps into that direction. It might be hard, and lonely, and not always successful. But trying is always better than doing nothing. As I mentioned at the beginning, I am a big fan of action!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me at Irina Cozma Consulting LLC or on LinkedIn and Facebook. Please reach out and say hi!

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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