Feedback is an explicit tool for learning that removes the guessing game. It is difficult to reinforce positive behaviors or to get better when you don’t have real access to specific details about what’s working or what could be better.
Consistent feedback supports a culture of growth mindset. The best thing we can do for our teams is to promote an environment where learning is normal and expected (with that comes making mistakes). A culture like this also allows for people to feel more in control of their ability to impact their own progress.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Massella Dukuly.
Massella Dukuly is a Coach and Leadership Trainer at LifeLabs Learning. Her background and experience are in Leadership and Organizational Change. Additionally, she’s the Host and Creator of Keeping Score podcast.
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?
I’m Massella Dukuly! I have an MBA from Pepperdine University and I’m a Coach and Leadership Trainer. Currently, I work for an amazing company called LifeLabs Learning. Our specialty is leadership training. We work with over 700 companies. Our goal is to simplify complexity through skills-based training. We see this as an opportunity to make a small behavioral change that leads to big impact. Before LifeLabs, I’ve worked for a couple of fast-growth e-commerce and technology companies, namely, Warby Parker and Squarespace. I’ve always had an interest in understanding engagement at work. Specifically, I’m interested in the relationship between someone’s engagement in their personal life and how it correlates to their work life.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
LifeLabs is truly like no other company I’ve ever worked for. What I appreciate most is that we don’t adhere to the typical role hierarchy that you might find in the average organization. It’s easy to talk to anyone here, top-down, bottom-up, left-right. I remember joining the company, and early on I observed a conversation between our then-Operations Coordinator and our CEO. What stood out was that the dynamic was different. Unlike you might expect, it was our Operations Coordinator guiding, supporting, and advising our CEO on the next steps. That conversation set the signal for me that roles and titles had less to do with impact and that everyone, in any role, was an equal contributor.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There’s been a red thread in my career and, oddly enough, that has been LifeLabs. While working at Warby Parker I participated in several LifeLabs workshops, which were facilitated by LeeAnn Renninger who is our Co-CEO. At the time, I believe she was a one-woman show. Eventually, I started working at Squarespace. LifeLabs followed me there and it all started to make sense, I was hooked on the idea of making it easy for people to be better leaders in any domain. As my time at Squarespace started to wind down, I sent an email with my resume to LeeAnn, who until this point, had known me as a star pupil, and here we are. A friend of mine even remembered me telling them how much I loved the training we were doing and that I said it was my dream job.
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’m having a hard time thinking of a funny mistake! What I can say, though, is that this question is reminding me how quickly mistakes can fade away from our memory, despite feeling like a HUGE deal in the moment. I really try to live like this, by seeing every mistake (funny or not so funny) as a learning opportunity. We should be making mistakes from time-to-time and if we see them as growth moments rather than mistakes, we’ll be better for it. For example, recently, while recording an interview for my podcast, I made the mistake of not clicking “record” until 15 minutes into my conversation (I know, rookie move). There was definitely some panic, but it helped me to create a better prep checklist.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
The reality is that each individual has their own relationship with boundaries, time, and workload, so it’s important to consider that individual conversation will always be important. We can’t assume that everyone just “gets it” or that they know how to support themselves. As leaders, we have to consider what we’re modeling. For example, some of us get that second wind and start sending emails at midnight. This is fine, do what works for you, but also consider how this behavior impacts the rest of the team. An alternative might be to get your emails and requests all set up as you normally would, and schedule them to go out the next morning. From an org level, where we can best support our teams is by promoting a culture of productivity norms (e.g, dark time, communication channels) and open feedback in the event that what is already set in place needs to be adapted.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, it’s about empowering people to utilize the skill sets and knowledge they uniquely bring to the table. As a leader, you empower your team by being honest, sharing feedback when you see that they’re doing something that’s not working, and celebrating and identifying their strengths and wins. Leadership is also about creating opportunities that will allow your team to stretch and grow. Leadership is trusting the members of your team to do what they need to do and acknowledging and being okay with the fact that people make mistakes. The goal, ultimately, is to create partners, people who are just as invested as you are because it is worthwhile for them to be.
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 experience levels of this almost every day. At LifeLabs, we’re working with so many new groups of people. It can be hard to know what you’re walking into sometimes, even with tons of prep. It may be a group of execs who want you to prove yourself, or perhaps a team who is simply tired or stressed. The compounding effect of this kind of daily uncertainty can be draining and anxiety-provoking. I remember about a year or so into my role at LifeLabs I shared with our Co-Ceo, Tania Luna, that I was feeling exhausted by wanting to be sure I was doing an amazing job with each and every group. She coached me through this challenge, and what stuck with me from our conversation was the reminder that it was not my job to perform. Instead, it was my job to add value. I think at the core, that’s what we all want to do. These days, when I’m feeling anxious or stressed in these high stakes situations I articulate out loud or even write down what value I’m attempting to bring to the table. Then, I name three actions or behaviors that I will do during that time to ensure that happens. Identifying what I can control in the situation is a gamechanger.
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?
For about the past 10 years I’ve worked not only as a manager but also as a leadership coach, someone who supports managers. Early in my career I certainly felt more hesitant when it came to giving constructive feedback. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. The irony was that I could see how deeply my team wanted support, even if they didn’t explicitly ask for it in the form of feedback. Feedback, in my work, has served as a tool for recognition when things are going well and also as a tool for progress, growth, and a sense of certainty.
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?
This is such an important question! I think that so many people neglect giving feedback — and are resistant to receive feedback — because they don’t understand its real value. Here are the three most important reasons from my perspective:
- Feedback is an explicit tool for learning that removes the guessing game. It is difficult to reinforce positive behaviors or to get better when you don’t have real access to specific details about what’s working or what could be better.
- Consistent feedback supports a culture of growth mindset. The best thing we can do for our teams is to promote an environment where learning is normal and expected (with that comes making mistakes). A culture like this also allows for people to feel more in control of their ability to impact their own progress.
- Regular feedback expresses our care for those around us and helps to perpetuate a culture of accountability and growth. No one is motivated by or enjoys working at an organization where doing your best is optional.
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.
As leaders, our approach with remote employees is relatively the same as it would be with in-person employees. We’ll just need to be more deliberate. That being said, I highly recommend that you do your best to give remote employees feedback face-to-face (video chat).
- Clarify the purpose of feedback. So often people are not aligned when it comes to our intent. Before you ever have to give feedback, establish how it supports the person or team. This is particularly true for remote employees because they can miss out on those physical feedback cues. For example, I’ve seen companies that we work with explain to new hires in their 1–1s, as well as reiterate constantly, that the purpose of feedback is to learn and grow. Saying that normalizes the feedback experience, as opposed to seeing it as a tool that may threaten someone’s employment.
- Normalize feedback cadence. This helps to eliminate the surprise element that can throw people off. For example, have a standing feedback agenda item in each 1–1. There might be a week where you don’t have anything major, that’s ok, but be sure it exists and do your best to highlight small wins and areas of improvement (10% better is valid enough). Pro-tip: Particularly for remote employees, it’s critical that there’s also a relationship outside of the feedback you share. Giving feedback should not be the only component of your interactions. Sounds easier said than done, but this is where that intentionality comes into place.
- Regularly ask for feedback. Feedback shouldn’t only be top-down. Feedback should come from all angles. As leaders, one of the best things we can do to signal this is by asking for it. But, we need to be mindful of how we’re asking. So many leaders have told me they ask for feedback and get nothing useful. I ask what they’re asking and they say things like “Any feedback for me?”. It’s a closed question, which doesn’t leave much room for anything meaningful. Instead, 1. Give people time to think ahead. 2. Let them know you want feedback so that you can learn and grow. 3. Ask open-ended questions. They allow for better answers, instead of just yes or no. 4. Get specific. Vague requests for feedback can be hard to respond to. E.g., How do you think I handled that client meeting? What did you like? What could I have done 10% better? 5. My favorite feedback tool is the scaling question — what could I have done 10% better or on a scale of 1–10 how well did I do on X task? What could I do to move that up a point? This gets you tangible, easy-to-act-on feedback, and also makes it psychologically safe for the person you’re asking.
- Be sure to come with specific examples! Blurry, nonspecific language is a fast-track way to put people on the defensive.
Instead of “Wow, don’t you think that comment was a little aggressive?”, you can try “I noticed in the meeting that when Matt shared the client’s feedback you said ‘That’s a joke!’ The goal here is to be clear. It makes it easier for the other person to engage and makes the behavior easier to address.
- Share the impact. Essentially, why does it matter? I think that one of the biggest barriers to receiving feedback is that we often don’t understand why it’s being shared with us, and so we take a stance of protection and assume, at best, it’s neutral, but more often, that it’s an attack. An example here would be a continuation of the example above: “I noticed in the meeting that when Matt shared the client’s feedback you said ‘That’s a joke.’ I’m bringing it up because it felt like we didn’t pause to ask questions or better understand the situation before making a conclusion.”
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?
In a perfect world, I would still highly recommend having critical feedback conversations face-to-face. Use video chat! It’s a muscle that we have to strengthen as a society. Additionally, this allows for conversations, where the other person can truly engage, ask questions, and share their insights and ideas for moving forward.
If you must give feedback via email, start by stating upfront that you are about to share feedback. In the next line, share the impact ( why you’re giving it), next go into the specifics and the data about the situation along with another impact statement (why it matters), and after that, open it up for questions/thoughts. I’d also recommend following up by video chat, even if it’s only for 10 minutes to make sure the recipient has a chance to share anything else they want to add.
Here’s an example:
It was nice to see you yesterday!
I wanted to share some feedback with you about the meeting that we had with Y client yesterday afternoon.
I wanted to bring it up because I think it’s an opportunity for us to better support them and one another in these meetings going forward.
I noticed that on the call they mentioned they thought that our idea was too conservative and you responded by asking “Are you kidding?”
I share this because I’m worried the client might have perceived that you were frustrated. I want to make sure that first, you feel supported, and second, that we maintain a positive relationship with them.
How did it go from your perspective? What are your thoughts?
Would you want to hop on a 10-minute video chat to talk about it?
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?
The best time to give feedback is relatively immediately. By immediate, it doesn’t need to be right at the moment, especially if it is in front of other people or could potentially be embarrassing. Immediate is as close as possible to the event, I’d say no more than a week, and in private. I prefer in-person (video-chat included). It gives us more grace than written feedback. Feedback should be a dialogue.
Additionally, one of the most important things we can do is normalize feedback by making it a regular occurrence. For each relationship, this looks different, but it could be once a week in a standing meeting or 1–1. It might be something like having a “Feedback” section in your agenda. Ideally, we want to ensure that people expect feedback and that it’s never a surprise. You want to see the feedback you share, particularly regular, positive feedback, as deposits that you’re making into people. It helps tremendously! When you do have to make a withdrawal (or share critical feedback), people see it as a growth and learning opportunity and not a risk to their certainty.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss is an ally! This is someone who genuinely has your back. A great boss not only supports your work at your current organization but is someone who supports and advocates for your growth as a person in general.
Tania is one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. There are so many examples I can recount. Recently, she has been one of the biggest supporters of my podcast, Keeping Score. This is my personal thing, yet she has dedicated after-work hours to helping me brainstorm and troubleshoot, to share feedback. She is extremely busy, and still, whenever I launch an episode, she’ll follow up at some point telling me what she liked with specific details. She’s invested in who I am as a person, deeply, and not only for the benefit of LifeLabs. I’ve been challenged, supported, and held accountable by this funding and I’m so grateful for it.
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 love this question! It really makes me think about the possibility of what I can inspire, even if in just one person. For me, it would be a movement of unlearning. We’ve been fed, consciously and unconsciously, so much information about how we should think, feel, behave as humans. It’s quite stifling. I’ve learned that I’m my best when I’m myself and to be myself I’ve had to reflect on why I believe certain things about who I am, about who other people are, and why things are the way they are. We are constantly exposed to information and voices that unfortunately make our beliefs more rigid. While it takes time, work, and a lot of reframing, it’s so freeing to unlearn the things that no longer serve you. It’s ok for us to change our minds, it’s ok to disagree, it’s ok to be whoever you want to be.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be deliberate with everything that you do.” I first heard this quote from Neil Blumental, Co-CEO and Co-Founder at Warby Parker. I worked there early in my career. At the time, Warby Parker was much smaller than it is today. I remember the words resonated deeply for me. It’s not enough to rely on being a good person, intending to be a good leader, or even wanting to be a good friend. We have to live life with intention and so when I care about something I do my best to create intentional behaviors. Actions speak louder than words.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow me on Linkedin: Massella Dukuly
Check out my podcast, Keeping Score, on all major streaming platforms.
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.