Dear Dan: My Boss Says I’m Off-Putting But I Don’t Agree
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
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.
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.
Dan, thanks again for helping clarify the issue and targeting that. It helps us all to remember to go through that exercise to help get to the real problem and through the distractions.
Thanks spectregadget. It’s so easy to chase our distractions. We all do it. Have a great weekend. Cheers
Dan and Perplexed, it sounds like there’s been growth already. Let’s expand that.
Perplexed, you said you were once a “fast talker” which you’ve curbed. 1) Could this feedback be related? I wonder if what you’ve learned in that shift could be helpful here. 2) What if you also asked your boss to highlight examples of when you’ve been direct yet not off-putting? The same question can be asked of trusted colleagues to get a balanced set of examples. 3) Be transparent with your intent and how you know and appreciate yourself. This will help others understand both your inner drive and how you seek to be known. Maybe this sounds like, “my intention is always to honour people’s time by getting to the heart of the matter. I see myself as someone who is respectful, trustworthy and honest in her communication” followed up with acknowledging the gist of what you’re hearing her say. Even when it’s hard to hear.
Thanks so much, Kelly. You’ve added so much. Love “be transparent with your intent.” It’s so easy to focus on externals and forget why we do things. That’s powerful and energizing.
She might say, “I intend to xyz. What am I doing that works? What could I do better?”
This sounds like the typical response that strong women leaders receive in the workplace. The thing to ask is whether this individual’s behavior would be offputting if she were male.
Wow! Thanks so much for stopping in, Grace. So true. An aggressive male is being strong. An aggressive female is being a bitch.
This idea feels affirming for Perplexed, but it doesn’t help much if she wants to get ahead with her female manager.
Did you tell your boss something that was true that she didn’t want to hear? Especially in government there is a vast gulf between the truth/facts/evidence and the “right answer”.
Thanks Mitch. It’s not just bosses. Most of us don’t like hearing things we don’t want to hear. Hmmm, that seems like a self-confirming statement like we don’t like things we don’t like. Cheers
Her boss is a woman…she is possibly feeling threatened by a great employee.
Thanks James & Andrew. That may be the case. The question, if your observation is true, is what’s next.
It has nothing to do with male-female stereotypes. It has to do with the culture of a bureaucracy (and it happens in the private sector too). For most of your co-workers, there is no penalty for failure, so the general attitude is “cooperate and graduate”. The idea is to keep picking up a paycheck for many years to come, and it’s best to not rock the boat.
You seem to be under the impression that you are there to do your assigned job and make things happen. If you are focused on doing what you were supposedly hired to do, but it requires support from your co-workers, you haven’t provided any incentive for them to get involved. Saying “we” instead of “I”, as in “we need to do this”, is equally meaningless; actually, they don’t need to do it, because nothing will happen if they don’t. The question you have to solve is why they should bestir themselves from their familiar routine to do whatever it is that you think they should do. My own first book, “Let It Simmer”, was born out of a career of such frustration and finally working out a way of dealing with it.
My guess is that your boss either (A) can’t find a way to say without sounding silly that you should stop trying so hard to do your job or (B), more likely, she doesn’t really know what this problem is, and hasn’t really tried to find out any details or consider how to fix it; all she knows is that some of the other employees are griping about your overly “can-do” attitude and she wants the gripes to go away. So you get some vague feedback and now she can say she has counselled you.
The simple fact that they are complaining that you are too direct tells you that this organization isn’t likely to start being open and honest with you now. Actually, you are lucky even to have that much to go on; performance feedback is pretty vague and useless in almost every organization I have known directly or heard about from others. But “too direct” means “You are rocking the boat”. You can (A) conform to the norm of smiling and nodding while getting very little done, or (B) adopt a low-key approach of successive collaborative solutions, as indicated in Let it Simmer, or (C) you can find another line of work that values hard-chargers who put everything on the table, There are some places like that, but not in a big bureaucracy.
If you have a true friend in the agency you may be able to get some honest feedback but be wary; most of these “friends” will smile and nod and then run off to the water-cooler with more gossip. As Harry Truman said, if you want a friend in DC, get a dog. You may want to look for friends and mentors outside the agency who can give you some perspective; they won’t know what exactly your co-workers are seeing and saying, but they may be able to give you some sage advice about surviving a career in a large organization. They may also be able to let you know whether the grass is really any greener in their organization; the odds are that it’s not.
Thanks Douglas. I really feel your passion. Your assessment of organizational life for large political institutions has some truth to it. I’ve also worked with highly motivated and deeply committed people in the political sector.
It’s too wide a stroke to put everyone in the same bucket.
Having said that, I always enjoy reading comments that come from a clear point of view. Cheers
Thanks for your perspective and your counsel. Very practical, very wise encouragements for all of us.
I too have been told that I have come across as blunt and confrontational at times. My first reaction was similar, one of defensiveness and self justification.
Following one of those Times where someone accused me of being confrontational, I, in a “moment of weakness”, told someone who I work with and who I trusted what had happened, and asked then in the future if they felt like I was being confrontational to pull me aside and point it out. I say a quote moment of weakness“, but in truth I really did want to know if there was any substance to those accusations.
My trusted friend did not let me down. It wasn’t long before I gave him an example to point out how both my tone and my body language made the content of what I was saying come across as confrontational. That perspective, coming from a trusted friend and purposefully invited by me, impacted me in such a way that it has helped me grow in this area.
I think taking a proactive approach by asking someone you trust to point those weaknesses out when they see them is incredibly beneficial. That becomes an invited evaluation, not just a criticism of someone we can write off.
Thanks Page. It seems like you fortunate in the same way that I was fortunate. It’s powerful and eye opening to have the opportunity to see ourselves in action.
Frankly, I think we are often foggy about how others perceive us. That makes all the EQ resources we have available all the more valuable. Cheers
Thank you Perplexed, and thank you Dan. Whether or not the perception of the other person(s) is correct or not matters little when you get defensive. The problem with becoming defensive is that healthy communication shuts down. You dig in with denial, and they dig in with thier perception. Little is solved. A good way to diffuse the matter is to come along side of them with active listening. You will show your boss, in a very concrete way, that you are on her side to help her do a better job by actively listening and seeking to take positive steps toward workable solutions.
It looks like you seek to practice active listening, so it might have more to do with the way you come across or possibly her own ability to effectively communicate. I recenlty purchased Conversational Intelligence by Judith E. Glaser: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. Judith writes, “Conversations are multidimensional, not linear. What we think, what we say, what we mean, what others hear, and how we feel about it afterward are the key dimensions behind Conversational Intelligence. . . .When we are having a good convseration, even if it’s a difficult one, we feel good. We feel connected to the other person in a deep way and we feel we can trust him. In good convserations, we know where we stand with others- we feel safe” (3 and 4).
Trust and humility are key issues when it comes to handling constructive criticism. She may not have earned your trust, but you can still be gracious and seek to build trust. You might even become her right hand go to person.
If it’s not the delivery that’s too “direct”, then maybe it’s the content.
I’m just going to roll out some phrases, see if any of them trigger a response: would you rather be right or happy? somebody on the internet is wrong. praise in public, criticise in private. you have to pick your battles.
As with all your blogs, thought provoking. Some like the direct approach, some like the not so direct approach, however something may have been said. As with many things, it may come down to knowing when to talk when not to talk. Although this could turn into being afraid to talk for some people, which shouldn’t be the case. Maybe talk less, listen more, give consideration more although, it sounds like this already being done. Ahhh human nature.
I will add, not directly related to this blog but your blogs overall something that came to mind which I think they highlight. You are not on your own, there are others possibly thinking only (afraid to speak out), thinking & saying what you are. They could also be related to other scenario’s, non-leadership scenarios, non-professional scenarios.
If I wore a hat (which I don’t), I would raise it to you.
I think a lot on this subject, as I appreciate honest people, you know where you stand with them. But I’ve encountered some women that are so blunt and direct that this quality actually pushes people away, thats true. Will draw on my hairdressing training here, as we used to have so many clients come in with impossible to create hairstyles. Why were they impossible? Because they were not born with the hair colour, texture, facial shape to make that look possible. They basically wanted to be someone else. Soo, then the honesty of saying, ‘We can’t achieve that’ is not a criticism, its just an honest assessment. So that then has to be followed up with ‘But what would really suit you is….. have you thought about that?” So, its not about positive or negative, its about honest assessment which lets you know where you stand, and the discussion involved helps both parties know what they are going to achieve next… But the key ingredient is the communication that you are working together to create something great. Then its a win-win. And to be honest, have found the last five years after working in a variety of places, that workplace dynamics can be an nightmare. If you have a great team, value them, because it is becoming increasingly rarer in an age of competition. The nature of competition itself is divisive.
I agree with Ben above. Perhaps being direct about things that should be left unsaid, or at least said differently or at a different time or place. I had a manager who was frustrated at people who were disengaging during meetings to read e-mails or have side conversations. His “direct” approach was off-putting. Still, the boss in this case failed by not providing examples.
Thank you Dan for posting this. So much great feedback and all the suggested reading has been added to my reading list. I definitely agree I need to lean in and find a way to make this work. I think there is truth to some of the comments above but like Dan follow-ups with, so “what’s next?” I have tried #1 and the response was “It’s up to you to figure all this out and make it work” so I will be moving on to 2-5 to find a way to not push back and I am going to work on “knowing when to talk when not to talk.” Thank you.
In the workplace, “too direct” is much like “strong personality” — it’s a popular and much more polite-sounding euphemism for “bitch”.
My advice is to transfer to another department, or to find a new job elsewhere. Find a boss who GETS you, who likes you, and who wants you to succeed.