Give the employee an opportunity to respond to your feedback. Let them respectfully express their emotions without judgment or justification. Most people are likely to respond with defensiveness, surprise, or frustration. Some may shut down altogether and provide little response. Others may cry. Whatever their reaction, it is theirs to have and not something for the leader to correct, stop or judge as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
End the conversation by asking if there is anything you can do to support their success. This opens an opportunity to discuss training possibilities, mentorships, different responsibilities or maybe even a new job the employee would rather do.
Asa part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Jensen.
Julie Jensen is a dynamic and transformational HR executive and owner of Moxie HR Strategies, a consulting firm that provides smart solutions to growing businesses. She has a proven record as an influential change agent and collaborative business partner in industries ranging from manufacturing to high tech, healthcare to energy, professional services to government agencies. When she is not challenging and inspiring individuals to become stronger, more emotionally intelligent leaders, Julie is a passionate advocate for equity and inclusion and the advancement of women and minorities in business.
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?
Myfirst career was as an exercise physiologist, actually. After 15 years, I decided to pivot into Human Resources, which seems like an odd leap and I wasn’t sure it could be done. However, I saw a lot of similarities and simply had to translate the language of one profession into another. Having designed and facilitated many education programs (including teaching college for a few years), understanding learning styles and deeply understanding motivation and adherence principles of human behavior, being a corporate trainer seemed to be a good entry into Human Resources. Four months later I was hired by an HR Director who took a chance on me, and away I went.
Once ‘in’, I immediately realized there was a whole other discipline of HR called Organizational Development (OD). The framework of OD was innate to me: strategically thinking about current and future business needs and how people systems and programs needed to be designed to support the success of both the company and its employees. I was hooked immediately. Because I am a businesswoman first, who just happens to focus on the people side, I intentionally selected a variety of industries to work in over my career. I wanted exposure to different sized companies and the markets they serve, different leadership styles, and various human capital strategies to craft and implement in support of business objectives. Fast forward 20 years later and I now own my own HR consulting practice where I apply what I’ve learned to help other growing businesses. I get to do what I absolutely love every day!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think there are two things that make Moxie HR Strategies stand out from other consulting firms: self-reliance and brutal (respectful) honesty.
There are lots of consulting companies that, once in the door, will dig up additional work to do to keep money coming into their practice. Or, at least that’s what it felt like when I was the HR leader hiring consultants. At some point during the consulting relationship, I felt it became less about serving me and the business needs, and more about securing another project contract or providing a solution that made my company dependent on them for months or years to come. As a result, when I founded Moxie HR Strategies, it was important that our philosophy be only about getting in and creating solutions to problems and then getting out. I would much rather teach a company or business executive how to fish and to fish really well than to do all the fishing for them. No matter how much money they are willing to pay me.
I once had a business owner, “Laura”, call me because she was having a workplace conflict involving a couple of employees that was also damaging the customer experience, and she didn’t know what to do. After sharing the details with me, Laura essentially asked if I would “come in and fix it” for her. I respectfully told her that, yes, I could try to ‘fix’ it but that I would be less effective as an ‘outsider’ trying to manage relationships with people I had no relationship with. More than anything, I felt conflict management was a skill she needed to acquire as a business owner. So, I told Laura if she wanted to work with me, my recommendation was to help her create solutions for how to communicate and manage the situation. Not only would this cost her less money in fees, but it would also be better for her, in the long run, to be viewed as a strong, effective leader who took on the ‘hard stuff’. On the other hand, if she simply wanted someone to come in and solve the issue without her participation, I was happy to refer her to another company that specializes in mediation and employee relations. She chose the harder option: to do it herself under my watchful counsel. Her leadership confidence grew tremendously as I coached Laura through the situation, and all parties were satisfied with the outcome.
At Moxie HR Strategies, we want our clients to be successful so we do not shy away from providing difficult news that other firms might avoid simply to keep the peace. Whether there is a toxic leader that is eroding culture and employee engagement or gaps in organizational communication that’s creating confusion and frustration or even organizational behaviors that are creating illegal inequities, we’ll respectfully call it out and offer up solutions for change. And then help organizational leaders work through change management strategies using existing company talent.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
For me, learning about power structures in business was a real eye-opener. I was responsible for conducting a series of employee engagement forums to pulse the organization on strategy clarity, communication, leadership capabilities and such. I was to present my findings to the CEO along with suggested solutions and interventions that might be needed.
The single largest feedback I received was about “David”, the CEO, and his do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do style. Employees and first-level managers resented the double standard that existed. They did not respect David, as a result, and this was an issue when it came to his leadership credibility and ability to influence others.
I reported the results of my assessment to David, initially leaving out feedback employees had about him. Toward the end of our meeting, David said, “I’m pleasantly surprised there weren’t any comments about me.” I asked what he meant by this. David commented that there had been remarks made in the past and since I had not reported anything this time, he began to pat himself on the back for making improvements to his leadership style. I paused, thinking that David was open to feedback, and said, “Well, actually….” then proceeded to carefully, and honestly, share feedback that employees would like to see David role model this competency or that competency more often. I gave easy-to-implement suggestions and solutions to demonstrate how to further develop his leadership. This was, after all, my job. David was understandably defensive but seemed otherwise ok with our conversation. I concluded our meeting by saying I understand how hard feedback can be sometimes and that my intent for sharing was to help him be the best CEO possible.
I found out a couple of days later that David was not OK. In fact, he was angry…at me…for apparently being too bold in sharing the feedback I had been given by his leadership team and employees. His ego was bruised, and our relationship was strained from that point on. About two months later I was fired for not ‘being a good fit’ for the organization. I had received no previous performance conversations that I was failing to meet the expectations of my job or that I had done anything wrong. Therefore, I could only assume David never got over his upset and that I, the messenger of the feedback, was to blame and punish. Oh well, I did not enjoy working for him either.
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?
I got my first leadership job at age 28. Looking back, I cannot believe I stepped right into a Director-level position responsible for 60 employees working under 5 managers and 4 different facilities. Like many people, I had no official leadership training. I learned on the job under the watchful eye of my boss who was a patient teacher.
One day a complaint came to me from a couple of female employees. They were feeling uncomfortable with how one of their male coworkers, “Bob”, was talking to them. I shared this concern with my boss, “Ginger”. Ginger asked me what I thought we should do. I told her we needed to talk to Bob about his behavior so that interactions did not escalate. Ginger agreed and then asked if I had experience with challenging conversations such as this. I did not. So Ginger walked me through how the dialog needed to unfold, and because there was a concern for how Bob treated females, she assured me she’d be present so that there was a witness to the conversation. Ginger asked if I was comfortable leading the conversation or if I wanted her to do it. I said I was fine driving it. How hard can it be, right?
The next day Bob arrived at my office, with Ginger present. I started the conversation just as I had been instructed. However, when it came time to provide the difficult details of the complaint, my mind went completely blank. I stopped in mid-sentence, felt panic rush through my body, and turned to my boss with the most terrified ‘deer in the headlight’ look that made her equally speechless. After a painful moment of silence from both of us, Ginger picked up where I left off and finished the conversation for me.
When Bob left my office, I was mortified and embarrassed by my performance. I steadied myself for a disappointing speech from Ginger about how unprepared I was. Instead, Ginger burst into laughter and said, “You lasted a lot longer than I did when I had to have my first difficult conversation with an employee. Well done.”
Lesson learned: Be prepared and practice the key messages repeatedly until it feels comfortable and you can maintain ‘control’ of the conversation and its outcome.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Nearly every CEO I’ve worked with over my career has what I call the “people blind spot”. They’re so focused on meeting business targets that they somehow forget that it’s flesh and blood human beings doing the real work every single day. Employees are the ones that foster sales relations, provide customer service, engineer the next new product, provide quality assurance, and supervise the talent that makes it all run. They are the ones that solve the daily problems and make the profits executives and shareholders so richly enjoy. And I’ve never understood why it’s an “either/or” proposition with many leaders: either we sell products/services and make money, or we have happy employees. Why can’t it be both? It’s such a cliché to say, but when people are treated well and know they’re efforts/talents are valued, and share equitably in the financial success of their work, they will work hard for leaders because they know their leaders are also looking out for them.
CEOs and other leaders must pay close attention to the topics that repeatedly come up in conversations with HR, other leaders, or employees. If employees are saying or otherwise signally that they are burned out, they are usually well beyond tired when word reaches the top. Pay attention to what is contributing to this. If employees are complaining about rigid schedules, bureaucratic systems, or clunky processes that make it difficult for employees to do their job, do not ignore it simply because it seems of little value or a waste of time. Get curious, dig in and find out where the pain points are and make it a priority to remove barriers that may be hampering employee and company success.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define “leadership” by the behaviors one exhibits, not by title or status. I’ve worked with several influential leaders who were individual contributors and to watch them in action was impressive. They could teach a few executives or senior leaders a few things.
To me, a leader is one who is a visionary and knows how to inspire and empower people to unlock potential, creativity and a sense of purpose. Leaders show humility, not authority, treat employees as autonomous individuals and look to enhance the development of their people. Strong leaders (often called servant leaders) move beyond the operational aspects of management, and instead proactively seek to align an employee’s sense of purpose with the company mission. Working for this type of leader is magical and transformational, not just for the people s/he supports, but for the company, as well.
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?
- I do my homework: prepare by having all the facts in hand, have a general sense of what the other person’s perspective might be and, as a result, I am prepared for the conversion to go in any number of directions so I can respond intelligently.
- I take several slow, deep breaths to clear my head and focus on the desired outcome prior to the start of the conversation.
Before many states had pay equity laws, I worked for a company where I was the only woman on the executive team. As the head of HR, it was for me to know the data on employee qualifications, salary history, and where each person falls on market pay scales for their positions. I knew that I was underpaid not just for my position, but compared to my shared services (IT, Marketing, Finance) peers, and I wanted to correct this. So, I compiled data on my peers, including their education, number of years of experience in their industry, professional certifications, and where they fell on what is called the compa ratio, or market pay, scale. My peers were all around the midpoint in pay, some a tad higher. I, on the other hand, was barely in the 25th percentile. Since the organization was to begin talking about annual pay raises, that seemed a good time to bring up my pay.
During a routine meeting with my CEO, I told him that I was concerned that my pay was significantly lower than my peers. After he tried to give justification to the pay gap, which I predicted he would do, I calmly pulled out the data and showed him the facts: bars and graphs that plotted where each person resided in various categories and where I landed on the same charts. He studied it carefully and made no further comment. I broke the silence and said, “I am the only woman on your executive team and as you can see by the data I’ve presented, I am underpaid as an executive of a critical business function. Furthermore, it seems ironic and contradictory that I’m also the one charged with ensuring equity at this company when I don’t have it myself. As a result, I am asking you to correct this and elevate my salary to at least the midpoint of my pay range”.
A month later my CEO came back with a raise that was a significant percentage-wise. I told him I was grateful, but disappointed that he fell short of my request for equity. He told me it was the most the board would approve. I carefully reminded him of the significant raises given to my peers the year before, compared to what he was offering me now. I thanked him again for the raise and respectfully asked him to go back to the board and correct this matter. I also informed him that I would not be prioritizing further equity programs for the company (which was a board initiative) until the organization demonstrated a true commitment to doing the right thing in actions and deeds. A few weeks later the situation was corrected.
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?
Having difficult and often emotionally charged conversations is constant in HR. So much so that it has become second nature to me. It was not that way in the beginning, of course. Like many people, I would lose sleep fretting over what to say and how to say it. Then lost more sleep thinking about why the conversation didn’t go quite as I had expected, and what I could do better next time. What I learned is that giving honest feedback is hard and uncomfortable for both parties even when done well. Yet it is necessary if you need and expect performance or behaviors to change.
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?
If a leader cannot give honest and direct feedback, he is simply not doing their job. The only way companies and employees can improve performance is to be provided with clear expectations and respectful advice. Unfortunately, many leaders tend to hold the belief that being honest is synonymous with being mean and hurtful. That couldn’t be further from the truth and this approach is toxic to culture. Instead, leaders need to learn to be skilled and more confident in giving tough feedback delivered thoughtfully and with good intent to the receiver. Like any new skill, it takes practice and gets easier over time. When done well, while the feedback might sting a little, many employees say they’d rather have honest feedback delivered in a kind, firm manner than little to no meaningful feedback at all. Worse yet, be surprised by negative feedback during their annual performance review.
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.
To give constructive feedback, leaders need to:
- Suspend any personal judgments or conclusions they may have about the situation. You want to be open and curious about the fact that your perception of what’s going on may be 100% accurate.
- Have specific details about performance or behaviors that need to be corrected, such as feedback from customers or collaborative team members, something you’ve witnessed or the like.
- State what you want; what “success” or “improvement” looks like. You may not think you need to spell it out, but you do. Otherwise, you leave the employee guessing what you are asking them to do new or differently going forward.
- Give the employee an opportunity to respond to your feedback. Let them respectfully express their emotions without judgment or justification. Most people are likely to respond with defensiveness, surprise, or frustration. Some may shut down altogether and provide little response. Others may cry. Whatever their reaction, it is theirs to have and not something for the leader to correct, stop or judge as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
- End the conversation by asking if there is anything you can do to support their success. This opens an opportunity to discuss training possibilities, mentorships, different responsibilities or maybe even a new job the employee would rather do.
I had an employee, “Ann”, who was a predictably solid performer; someone you could count on to consistently deliver good work. However, her attention to detail was starting to wane and meeting deadlines was becoming a challenge.
In a regular 1:1 meeting with Ann, I stated my observations — that lately, she seems frazzled and impatient (her behavior). Additionally, I was concerned that Ann had missed a key deadline on an organizational assessment because of data errors that needed to be corrected (her performance), and that I could no longer stall on delivering the report to the CEO (the impact). I asked her if there were challenges with the project that I was unaware of and if there was something I could do to support the completion of this project by the end of the week.
Ann’s initial reaction was frustration and disappointment. Ann said she knew how important the project was and initially she was excited to take on a larger role and use her analytic skills more. However, once the project started, Ann became overwhelmed with the learning curve required to crunch the data properly. Because she has always been self-sufficient, Ann was embarrassed that she was struggling as much as she was. The extra time spent trying to get things right meant she had less time to work on other projects, which were also falling behind schedule. The two of us discussed Ann’s skill gaps and the implications of other projects falling short of expectations, as well. We reprioritized Ann’s work so that she could focus solely on the organizational assessment for the next few days and I could present it to the CEO by Friday. Ann also agreed to partner with another team member who had the bandwidth to not only help on the project but also teach Ann the analytical skills she was hoping to acquire. At the end of our conversation, I thanked Ann for being honest about her challenges, stated that positioning her for success was important, and asked that in the future she come to me sooner when she has issues so that we can work together on a solution.
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?
I’ll give minor feedback in email because it’s quick, but only for small things. For example, if I have feedback on a communications draft or a suggestion for a process change, stating it in the email seems acceptable. However, if the receiver responds in a manner that implies confusion, frustration, or the like, I will immediately pick up the phone to make sure we are aligned in my intent or expectations.
One caveat: I do not use email to give even small feedback to new employees. That is because the first 90 days new employees are still trying to figure out how things get done within a department or company, how their leader operates and communicates and the like. If I provide feedback in an email that is misinterpreted or lands poorly, it could jeopardize the formation of a trusting relationship between us, and I’d hate for that to happen. Therefore, I give feedback during routine integration meetings.
If I need to provide feedback on something more significant, such as repeated low performance, a critical deadline that was missed or inappropriate behavior, as examples, I would do this face-to-face if the person was geographically located near me, or by video conferencing of the individual is remote, so that all parties can hear the words and read the corresponding body language. The telephone would be the next two-way options, even though body language will be lost. Using a one-way platform, like email, to provide critical feedback is fraught with peril because it leaves the interpretation of tone and intent up to the receiver, who usually assigns different meanings to both, which just creates more issues to correct and can permanently strain relationships.
I cannot tell you how many times I have recommended to executives and managers not to communicate difficult news or feedback in an email. But because it feels safer or saves some time, they do it anyway. It rarely works out well and almost always requires more time and energy to correct.
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?
I believe leaders and managers need to be coaches and provide routine feedback. Timing is critical. If you were a baseball player, for example, you would want your coach to give constructive feedback on how to throw or bat better so that you can be a successful athlete. Ideally, feedback would come at the moment when you’re out on the field doing your job and focusing on skill proficiency. And it would be specific so that you can put that feedback to work the next time you pitch or hit. If the coach provides feedback a week or two later after the team has lost a few games, that’s not so helpful now, is it? As a leader, when you see it, say it — whether you are reinforcing a desired behavior and outcome or giving critical feedback to improve performance.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss is acutely aware of how his/her behavior is perceived by others and the impact this may have and can empathize with other people’s experiences and perspectives. They embody a growth mindset which creates curiosity, opens the door for transparent two-way communication, promotes creativity and diversity of thought, serves as advocates for employee development, and is a positive change agent.
I’ve worked for a dozen companies over my career and I’ve only worked for two truly great bosses during this time. Great bosses are, unfortunately, rare these days. Both were women. I admired their business sense, their confidence, and their humility. Both knew how to command a room, inspired greatness in our work, and routinely recognized individual and collective efforts. Most of all, I was always impressed with how open-minded they were compared to other leaders I had worked for. If one of these women received less than ideal feedback on one of their employees, they didn’t publicly play judge and jury. They had the employees “back’ and privately managed issues respectfully and honestly, producing results that were for the greater good of everyone.
Transparency worked both ways. Both women were open to direct feedback about their leadership, department strategy, or organizational problem. They actively participated in discussions as an equal, not as an authority figure. As a result, the culture they created was transformational to me, as well as my career. I had two female role models that showed what is possible when a person in power appreciates and fosters the individual strengths of employees in order to build a unified and high performing team.
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. 🙂
I would love to see a world that is more just and equitable. Less of an “us vs them” world comprised of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. I do not understand the mentality of rich or powerful people who abuse their privilege and power or hoard resources and success for themselves. I get that we live in a capitalist society and this is often a byproduct of it. However, the notion of authentically appreciating and giving back to the people, employees, or communities that have supported a person’s success seems to be lost on many these days. I don’t believe this kind of selfishness has served our society well. We’ve recently seen the effects play out in important movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter and it’s forcing changes. But it is not enough and it’s happening too slowly for many.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is from American writer, Bernard Edmonds: “To dream anything you want to dream, that is the beauty of the human mind. To do anything you want to do, that is the strength of the human will. To trust yourself to test your limits, that is the courage to succeed.”
This quote was given to me by a coworker when I was in my early 20’s. I had quit my first post-college job after only 2 years because I found the culture to be unappreciative and soul-sucking. I did not have another job lined up. In fact, I had no idea what was in store for me next, but I knew I would figure it out somehow. My coworker thought that was a bold thing to do and on my final day, she handed me a card with this quote written inside. I have kept it with me all these years and find myself reciting it when I have no idea what to do next or if I start to doubt my own capabilities. It reminds me to be bold and brave and take chances or reinvent myself if I want; that I’m in control of my destiny.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can follow my blogs at www.moxiehrstrategies.com or on LinkedIn (either my personal or company profile)
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.