When you give honest feedback, you create opportunities for your team to trust one another and, crucially, to take responsibility instead of taking things personally.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenn Lishansky.
Jenn has worked with a thousand plus people to give and receive better feedback, overcome burnout, develop self-confidence, tell their stories, craft their life-vision and mission statements, and find calm and clarity in their careers and lives. Jenn is a career coach and the Chief Engagement Officer for Be Social Change, where she identifies ways to support individuals and organizations in the social impact space by leveraging connection and community. Previously, she served as a youth delegate to the United Nations representing the Federation of Business and Professional Women, worked in the nonprofit sector, and founded her own business, teaching meditation to groups around New York City, including Columbia University, Facebook, the NASDAQ, Journey Meditation, as well as consulting on wellness curricula.
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?
My career has been based both in the nonprofit sector and the entrepreneurial world. I’ve always wanted to make a difference through my career and saw working for nonprofit missions I loved as a way to do so. I also grew up meditating. At the ripe old age of 12, my best friend and I decided to start a meditation group for children. I’ve been teaching ever since and even started my own business teaching in businesses across New York City.
I found Be Social Change when I was feeling frustrated with the dysfunction of the nonprofit sector. I had worked in nonprofits that were beholden to boards, not beneficiaries, and saw too often how nonprofit organizations ignored best business practices or forwent collaboration citing strapped time and money. I wanted to find an organization that would help nonprofit professionals do their work better and inspire business leaders to become mission-driven. And, I was seeking mindfulness and introspection as a key principle of the next organization I worked for.
Be Social Change was just that.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Be Social Change helps people build the skills, insights, and connections necessary to make their greatest impact. We host workshops and events for our community dedicated to helping them grow their skills for impact.
One thing that makes our work stand out is that our unique framework for change-making is in the name! The elements of Be Social Change are:
- be which includes personal development and self-awareness
- social is building collaborative skills and a network of supporters
- change equates to actualizing one’s impact
We keep our membership program, which grants access to all of our personal and professional development webinars and events for free, purposefully affordable. We know that people seeking to make a difference often compromise their pay in order to pursue their purpose. Our model is inexpensive because we believe all people should have the skills, network, and opportunity for impact that we provide.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
That’s a tough one — I could tell you about teaching meditation to a high-powered corporate team during a fire drill, leading a dialogue about religious pluralism with Iraqi teens at the height of the Iraq war, or spending two years living and working communally. There’s been some great adventures, but one that speaks to my motivation for giving and receiving feedback
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?
When it comes to receiving feedback, I learned a valuable lesson early on. During my first job out of college, I was working for a nonprofit whose mission I completely adored. I was excited about our mission and worked hard to show it.
One day, my manager who I was often at odds with, pulled me into his office for an unplanned feedback session. During the conversation, he said verbatim, “your enthusiasm is crippling.” I’ll never forget that, because I was devastated — here I thought it was a great strength I brought to the organization, and somehow, he felt it was a fault. I concealed my disappointment though. Instead, I perked right up, and said in a completely over-the-top, fake enthusiastic tone said, “Thanks so much! That’s such great feedback!” I walked right out of his office with a big smile on my face — and proceeded to the bathroom to cry.
That one small exchange ignited a fire in me to learn more about giving and receiving feedback. How could one person frame a strength as a weakness? And, why do we undermine feedback by making fun of it or rejecting it when it may have something to offer?
I learned that giving feedback needs to be constructive and tied to an instance or situation. My boss failed to give specifics that would help me understand his point. I also didn’t ask questions or meaningfully engage to come to consensus. I made fun of what he said in the moment, and then let the feedback move me to tears later. I learned how important it is to carefully consider feedback and ensure its beneficial — to run it through filters of self-awareness and decide if it’s something I wanted to keep with me.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Burnout and nonprofit work seem to be unfortunately synonymous. One of my biggest objectives with any person I work with — especially in cases of burnout — is to listen to your inner signals. Burnout often forces us to dissociate from our day-to-day experience in order to keep going. If you can ask yourself how you are doing, what you need, and listen to and follow one thing that comes up for you, you’re going to rebuild that relationship with yourself. When you are following your internal knowledge rather than external pressures, you’re more likely to initiate protective boundaries, practice self-care, and pursue that which is healthy.
One thing to note is that there’s most definitely a huge amount of privilege in being able to create personal boundaries, reduce workload, etc. It’s all the more reason that business leaders, who have a high degree of privilege, need to be vigilant and receptive to the experience of their employees. Having open conversations with staff, and being receptive to their feedback, is critical for any conscious leader to pursue.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the ability to bring people from one point to a better one. This simple definition, for me, is freeing. A lot of the time, we see one archetype of leadership only and forget that there’s so many qualities that can make someone a good leader.
I think a lot about a topic we’ve explored in depth in workshops at Be Social Change: healthy gender balanced leadership. Our expert instructor, Sean Harvey, walked us through the qualities most people associate with feminine and masculine leadership styles, and then evaluate what’s celebrated and what’s rejected. When people begin to realize that they can integrate both qualities of leadership, or complement their styles with that of the others, it transforms the dialogue around traditional leadership models.
Receptivity is a quality often associated with feminine leadership, but that all people can practice. I think the best examples of leadership I’ve seen have to do with leaders who have honed their capacity for receptive conversations. When a leader can learn about the experience of their team and receive feedback, they can best equip and course-correct on their journey from point A to point B.
Ben & Jerry’s stands out to me as an extraordinarily well-led organization. They notoriously listen to the requests and interests of their team and then work collaboratively to literally build out product (ice cream) offerings based on the feedback. They are also a B Corp to boot, which means they live up to specific environmental, social, and governance standards.
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?
Yes! So glad this is something you speak about. Our nervous system, which evolved to protect us, has the capacity to hijack us at times to think that the meeting we’re walking into holds the same threat as sabertooth tiger. It doesn’t. There are many important hacks to bring us into a state of equanimity — or back to our parasympathetic nervous system, which keeps us calm in the midst of stressful situations.
The main one is to breathe! And, breathe purposefully. When you allow your exhalation to be longer than your inhalation, you slow the pumping of cortisol, stress hormones, through your body and signal to yourself that you are safe. You can also mentally imagine your happy-place, hug yourself, and sigh a few times with the same effect. This will help you hold all your faculties when you enter the meeting.
Especially in feedback settings, this is crucial. It’s easy to feel attacked or aggressive in some feedback conversations. If you can feel your feet on the ground and breathe deeply throughout, the outcome will be better for both parties, guaranteed.
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?
As I mentioned, I’ve worked in and around conflict settings my whole career. Working with people from war zones, giving and receiving feedback is a crucial skill for building toward peace. Building skills around feedback has also been fundamental to the work I do at Be Social Change. With partners, our team, or instructors, providing feedback is how we hone and grow our offerings.
Following each event we host, we do a debrief where our team shares their feedback to improve for the next go-around. I’ll share a story about why the timing of feedback is an art.
After one event in particular, there was one thing I was keen to change. Out of eagerness, I shared it hastily with our Events Manager as soon as we had waved goodbye to the last attendee. I saw her face fall and she was crestfallen as we cleaned up, because I hadn’t followed best feedback practices.
Feedback should be timed so that the person is receptive. For that reason, it’s important to wait a little while right after a situation requiring feedback has occurred, so things don’t feel so immediate and people are in a more-rested state to grok what you have to share. And, feedback should be given in a timely manner. Don’t wait weeks or months to bring something up: this will erode trust between you and your teammates, as they question “what else is this person not telling me?”
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?
I wish this was intuitive to more people! Honest and skillful feedback has the power to craft the culture of a team. It’s essential to growing and retaining talent, and being more successful in any team mission. Millennials and Gen Zers prioritize growth in their careers over loyalty to an organization and the cost of replacing an employee can be three times the cost of retaining one.
When you give honest feedback, you create opportunities for your team to trust one another and, crucially, to take responsibility instead of taking things personally. This fundamental building-block of team dynamics is a make-or-break for many organizational cultures too. So, leaders have a choice if they will promote frequent, honest, kind feedback or forsake a primary part of their culture.
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.
- Prepare for the conversation as much as possible
Even for casual feedback conversations, prepare by jotting down the things you want to address and consider if the recipient will be open to the wording you’re using. For more intense feedback meetings, prepare by visualizing the conversation and positive outcome. Visualizing successful outcomes has been shown to improve performance in sports, arts, and yes — the work environment.
For example: before a debrief meeting, write down your ideas and comments and look them over. Is there anything that is “blaming” rather than constructive in your notes?
- Remember the common goal you are working toward
Whenever you are working with a person, you are working toward a goal together. Rather than giving feedback with the intention to change the person you are working with, give feedback with the intention to better achieve your common goal.
Here’s a practical everyday example: if your colleague or employee keeps showing up late to zoom meetings, rather than attacking their personal punctuality practices, call their attention to the goal of making meetings more productive and how they can contribute to this by showing up on time.
- Be invitational in your feedback
Invite your employees or teammates into a feedback conversation. This gives them time to mentally prepare to be receptive to your comments, and truthfully no one likes being bombarded with criticism, no matter how constructive it is.
Example: if something needs to be addressed, asked the recipient if and when they would be amenable to a feedback conversation on the subject.
- Remain kind, no matter what
Especially when tensions are high, this can be so difficult. And, that makes it all the more important. Even if the recipient is spewing anger or criticism, it’s important that the feedback giver remains open and kind. Otherwise, the conversation loses it’s purpose and people walk away feeling attacked, rather than inspired to grow. And, being passive aggressive, no matter how much you smile while doing it, is not kindness. Check your passive-aggressive thoughts before they escape your tongue.
Kindness includes holding the best in the other person. If you can’t hold in your awareness one positive thing about the person you shouldn’t be working together or you need to adjust your filter.
Example: If a conversation devolves, rather than counter-attacking, remind the person of the purpose of the conversation and extend them the grace of coming back to it at a later date if needed.
- Make it a dialogue
Credit to Nita Baum of b*free who shared the awesome insight that feedback contains the words “feed” and “back” so at its best, it should be nourishing. If you are truly holding the best outcome for the common goal you share with the individual, then allow the feedback session to be a dialogue. They may have ideas or insights into how to improve for the next go-around. If the person begins to go into excuses or blaming, redirect them to the common goal and the purpose of the conversation.
Example: Feel free to ask open-ended questions such as, “what do you think we could change for the next time?” or “What activities would be most supportive in achieving success on this project next time?”
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?
One word: don’t. It’s a fatal error to rely on sending feedback over email. You can contribute ideas, positive feedback, and acknowledgement over email. For constructive feedback, schedule a time to talk with the person. Feedback relies on rapport and email strips relational rapport too easily.
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?
Depending on how heated a situation is, it’s good to host a feedback session as close to the event as possible while still giving all parties time to cool down and decompress as needed. You do not want to enter a feedback conversation when the event or situation is still pressing or upsetting for either party — it’s an invitation for people to react from a place of stress, not clarity.
That said, it’s beneficial to hold feedback sessions soon after an instance. Otherwise, the topic can stay looming in the back of people’s minds, or worse, catch someone off guard.
Feedback is most effective when it’s a team norm — that means coming to an agreement as a team about how often people will share feedback with one another. The more frequent and natural, the better! If your team is only hosting feedback/review sessions twice a year, that isn’t enough. You can come together to discuss the new expectations around giving feedback more frequently and responsively, for example, as a part of the debrief for any major project.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss is a stakeholder in their employees growth — knowing that each individuals growth and success contributes to the team’s shared mission. A great boss takes interest in their team members and measures their own performance in their team’s successes and ascendancies.
I think of one of my favorite partners to work with at Be Social Change. She has encouraged her team to challenge themselves to grow into greater and greater positions of influence, even if that means they leave her team. Because of this, she is deeply beloved within her organization and the best talent flocks to work with her.
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. 🙂
It would be exactly what we’re doing at Be Social Change: growing the movement for every job to be a social impact job, every organization to be mission-led, and all lifestyles to be sustainable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mentor offered me the great saying, “when in doubt, take it as a compliment.” This has transformed my sense of taking things personally and allowed me to glide through ambivalent situations and feedback unscathed.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Check out www.besocialchange.com to check out our upcoming events, coaching, and Social Impact Career Change Accelerator online course.