Dear Dan: My Boss Says I’m Off-Putting But I Don’t Agree

Dear Dan,

I am a female professional working in government (I am not a manager but am in a position of influence and leadership).

I have received feedback from my manager that I am “direct” which she states is off-putting. She is unable to provide specifics on what I am saying or doing that is off-putting.

I don’t consider myself rude, blunt, unempathetic, or angry. I don’t yell, raise my voice, name call, cut people down or cut people off. I engage in small talk, active listening, smile, ask others how they are or how I can support them.

I seek clarity when I am confused using phrases such as “help me understand” or “that didn’t feel good so I would like to figure out how to work better together going forward.”

I used to be a fast walker and fast talker but have stopped doing that completely.

I have attended training, am a prolific reader of growth books (in addition to everything else) and watch and try to learn from other leaders in our organization but I just can’t seem to “dial it back.”

I guess this is a long way of asking you to consider doing a blog on how to be direct without being direct LOL or something along those lines.


Perplexed by Negative Feedback

Dear Perplexed,

Thank you for your email. Let me dive right in.

Knowing how others perceive you is necessary in political environments. And whether we like it or not politics is part of organizational life – especially in governments.

There are two options when we receive disconfirming feedback – Lean in or push back. Most of your email is push back. 

The manager:

Your manager failed by giving feedback without examples.

If she doesn’t have examples, she may be a messenger for others. Perhaps she’s receiving complaints about you.

Your manager may be the problem. Perhaps she’s confused or threatened by you. Or, maybe she has an ax to grind.

It’s not useful to approach your manager like she’s the problem.

Own your development:

It won’t hurt you to assume she’s right. It might actually help to believe you’re off-putting but don’t see it.

Disconfirming feedback points to blindspots.

The last line of your email misses the point. You wrote, “… how to be direct without being direct ….”

The issue is being off-putting, not being direct. Direct communication is useful. But being off-putting distracts others and hinders you.

4 ways to get the most from disconfirming feedback:

#1. Ask for IN THE MOMENT feedback.

You might say, “Thanks for your feedback about me being off-putting. I don’t intend to be that way. It would help me if you would pull me aside and let me know when you see me doing something that’s off-putting.”

I’ll never forget being told that I was pushy. I wanted to say, “No, I’m not!”

I judge myself by my positive intentions, not by negative behaviors. When someone pointed it out – in the moment – the lights came on.

#2. Ask a different question.

You want to know what you’re doing wrong but your boss can’t give you examples. Try asking, “What could I do to be more welcoming, approachable, or open?”

Eliminating negative behaviors is part of growth. But in this case, it might be better to turn your attention to positive behaviors.

Whatever behaviors you employee to make things better, they must be different from what you’re already doing.

#3. Seek suggestions from trusted colleagues.

Who are the most open, approachable, and welcoming people you know? Ask them for specific behaviors that project a welcoming spirit, for example.

Friends and family who agree with your frustration aren’t helpful. When someone says, “I can’t believe your manager said that to you,” they strengthen your inclination toward self-justification. (We all have an inclination toward self-justification.)

#4. Read Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry.

#5. Avoid the tendency to use the faults of others as reasons to ignore them.

You seem highly motivated. I’m sure this situation is disappointing and frustrating. My suggestion is to lean in, rather than push back. I’m writing this email from a position of utility, not moral correctness.

You have my best,


What suggestions do you have for Perplexed?

*I relax my 300 word limit on weekends.