You’d think this would be a great question to ask your employees. Surely, I’ve asked this question, as a CEO myself, to my own team countless of times.
Turns out, I’m wrong.
The question, “How can I help you?” hurts employees more than it helps.
Let me explain.
The other week, I ran a workshop. One of the participants — a CEO — was struggling to get feedback from a particularly quiet employee at his company. He asked the other folks in the room for advice about it.
“What if I asked the employee, ‘How can I help you?’ Do you think that’s a good question to ask him to encourage him to speak up?” he pondered.
A few other executives nodded their heads. “Yeah that seems like a good idea,” they said.
Another workshop participant spoke up.
“I hate that question,” she shared candidly (and a bit sheepishly). “When my own direct manager asks me that, I never know what to say.”
Everyone was perplexed — myself included. How could asking to give help ever be a bad thing?
But as she explained, it clicked for me. Despite being well-intentioned, here are three reasons why “How can I help you?” is a terrible question to ask your employees:
When you ask, “How can I help you?” you’re not offering any specific ideas or suggestions for how you can be more helpful. Rather, you’re relying on the employee to do the hard (and delicate) work of figuring out how you need to improve as a leader. Expecting that an employee will tell you what you should be doing better without presenting any thoughts on it yourself is, well, lazy.
It puts pressure on the employee.
Can you imagine how daunting it is to tell your boss what she needs to be doing differently? That’s what you’re doing when you say, “How can I help?” You’re asking for holes to be poked, for flaws to be exposed… And the employee can’t tell if you’re really ready or not to hear it. Anytime you’re speaking truth to power, it’s intimidating. We cannot underestimate as leaders the power dynamic that exists between an employee and an employer. There isn’t any incentive for an employee to critique or say something that might be perceived negatively by their boss. As a result, “How can I help you?” puts pressure on the employee to give a diplomatic response, instead of an honest one.
Now the employee is forced to quickly think through all the potential things that you could provide help with… On what project? On what area of the business? Should they mention communication? Should they talk about about timelines and deliverables? Should they bring up that thing that happened during that meeting last week? Or is the boss asking for something more high-level and strategic? It’s tough to know exactly what you’re asking for as a leader, when you ask the question, “How can I help?”
So what should you ask instead?
If you genuinely do want to know how you can help and support an employee, try this:
Ask about something specific that you can give help on, first.
Point out your own potential flaw, instead of waiting for your employee to point it out. Offer a critique of your own actions, instead waiting to see if it’s something your employee brings up.
The more you go first and share what you think can be better, the more room you’ll give your employee to give you an honest response about what they think could be better.
Here are some examples of specific questions you could ask…
“Do you think I’ve been a little micromanaging with how I’ve been following up on projects?”
“Have I been putting too much on your plate and do you need some breathing room?”
“Am I giving you enough information to do your job well?”
“Could I be doing a better job outlining the vision and direction for where we’re headed?”
“Have I not been as cognizant of reasonable timelines, like I should have?”
“Am I interrupting you too much during the day with meetings and requests?”
I guarantee an employee will feel more encouraged to give you their honest take on how you can help if you ask, “Am I interrupting you too much during the day?” rather than just asking “How can I help you?”
Stop hurting your employees with the wrong question. Start asking the right one.
Telling your employees the truth — even when it’s bad — makes you a better leader. Here’s why…
Sharing bad news is a good thing.
As a leader, you might not think it, at first. But it’s true. Leaders who are honest about the bad — just as much as the good — are better leaders.
But it’s not just me saying this. Research proves this.
In a 2013 study discussed in Forbes, researchers found that leaders who gave honest feedback were rated as five times more effective than ones who do not. In addition, leaders who gave honest feedback had employees who were rated as three times more engaged.
Employees yearn for this honest, corrective feedback. In a study shared in Harvard Business Review, 57% people preferred corrective feedback to purely praise and recognition. When further asked what was most helpful in their careers, 72% employees said they thought their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback.
In other words, people don’t just want to be patted on the back and told, “Good job.” Employees want the truth. They want to know: How can I be better? What can I change or improve?
I call this “The Bad News Advantage.” When you share bad news and honest feedback, you gain three advantages:
You become a better leader.
You engage your team more.
You’re saying what your employees want to hear.
Leaders who understand these benefits of “The Bad News Advantage” have a leg up over others.
However, despite how helpful sharing bad news and honest feedback can be, we as leaders avoid it like the plague.
In two other surveys published in Harvard Business Review, each of nearly 8,000 managers, 44% of managers reported that they found it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback. Twenty-one percent of managers avoided giving negative feedback entirely.
Sound familiar? 🙂 You may have found yourself avoiding giving negative feedback or sugar-coating your words to an employee, at some point. I know I have. Giving honest feedback can feel critical, unnatural and just flat-out uncomfortable.
Des had entered a one-on-one meeting, prepared to give honest feedback to an underperforming employee. In fact, he’d written down notes beforehand of what he wanted to say.
Then, he went into the meeting to deliver the feedback.
Upon leaving the meeting, Des looked back at his notes and realized he’d said the complete opposite to the employee. He’d minced his words, and dramatically softened what was supposed to be pointed feedback.
The employee walked away thinking he didn’t need to change anything he was doing — which was not what Des was thinking.
In that moment, Des, like many of us, had forgotten “The Bad News Advantage.” He’d forgotten that when you give difficult, honest feedback…
You become a better leader.
You engage your team more.
You’re saying what your employees want to hear.
Des is an incredibly self-aware leader to have recognized this himself. He clearly saw the lost opportunity to improve things with an employee, and has since made delivering honest feedback — no matter how bad it is — a priority as a leader.
The smallest action as a leader can have the biggest impact.
“I had no idea it mattered so much.”
A CEO said this to me about a year ago. I’d run into him at a conference. As we sat down at lunch together, he shared something that had happened to him recently…
A few months prior, he had asked his team a question through Know Your Team (they’re a happy customer!). The question was:
“Would you like a new office chair?”
The CEO initially thought the question was a little silly, to be frank. Did office chairs really matter? He doubted anything meaningful would come of the question, but he decided to ask it anyway.
Turns out, every single person in the office (they’re about a 14-person company) responded with, “Yes, I’d like a new office chair.”
Not only that, but many of them wrote lengthy, in-depth responses about how unhappy their chairs were making them — how it hurt their lower backs, how it kept them from concentrating and focusing on their work.
“I was shocked,” the CEO told me. “Something I thought was so small, was actually pretty big.”
So he decided to do something about it. The following day, the CEO asked everyone to pick out their own office chairs via Amazon or another site online. The chairs got shipped to the office the next week. Everyone spent a few hours all together during one afternoon, assembling their new office chair, laughing and joking with one another.
To the CEO’s surprise, it became a bonding event. He described:
“That single moment alone — getting people new offices chairs — boosted morale in the company more than anything else I’ve tried. The energy of the office has completely shifted since then.”
“I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on training programs and all sorts of employee engagement initiatives… and office chairs was the thing that did it?!”
The CEO couldn’t help but laugh. He never expected that acting on something so small would make such a big difference.
But it did. And it makes sense.
Taking action on something small is the single most effective way to increase morale in your company. When you do something that an employee suggests, you’re literally sending the message: “I want things to be as YOU would like them to be.” That’s powerful. Actions truly speak louder than words in this case.
It may sound obvious, but we often forget this as leaders: People share feedback because they want some form of action taken. No one is saying they’d like a new office chair just for the sake of saying it — they’d like the issue addressed somehow. Doing something (even if it is just getting new office chairs) reinforces that you’re listening as a leader, and encourages folks to speak up and be honest with you in the future.
Consider it a “quick win.” No matter how small, it makes a real difference.
Is there something small that was requested by an employee, that you haven’t gotten around to yet? Knock out the quick win.
Is there a decision that you’ve been sitting on, because you didn’t think it was that important? Knock out the quick win.
Employees value responsiveness. They’ll feel encouraged that their words led to action. That momentum will have a positive effect on morale.
Even if it’s office chairs, it’s a quick win. Knock it out.
You can’t just make the call — you’ve got to explain it.
Leadership is about making the call.
Or, at least that’s what we seem to think.
We seem to think leadership is about making the complex decision. As captain of the ship, you survey the seas — what your board is telling you, what your customers are telling you, what the market is telling you, what your employees are telling you — and steer the ship in a certain direction.
Sure, that’s part of leadership.
But the other part is explaining to your crew why you’re headed in that direction in the first place. Making the call is only half the battle — the other half is communicating the call.
We don’t always do this as leaders.
We forget to pull back the curtain and explain why we’re staying the course. We forget to share why we’re not acting on some feedback received. We forget to say how a certain decision came to be.
Leadership is making the call… but explaining the call, too.
Explaining why you’re not doing something — or what I like to call “closing the loop” — is one of the most effective ways to cultivate an open, honest work environment.
You can pose all the questions you want in surveys, have one-on-ones with each of your employees, gather their input at an all-hands meeting… But it’s all moot if you don’t close the loop and say what you’re doing or not doing with it.
If you receive a piece of feedback that isn’t practical or doesn’t align with the company’s direction, tell your employees that. Expose your decision-making process. If you don’t, employees will wonder, “What ever happened to that idea I suggested?” They’ll assume that you’re not open to receiving new ideas, and they’ll hesitate to bring up feedback the next time around.
I remember speaking with a CEO earlier this year, and she told me how she’d hired an external consultant who conducted an culture survey with her team. However, she didn’t tell her employees what she was going to do with the responses, or how it was going to guide any of their leadership team’s decisions. She had the survey deployed. And then, silence on her end as the CEO.
The result wasn’t good. Employees saw weeks go by, and wondered what happened to the survey responses. They felt left in the dark, and confused about what was going on. The CEO eventually heard through the grapevine from an employee that some folks were worried that they were gearing up to fire a bunch of people — which wasn’t true at all!
She had just been so focused on trying to digest the survey results as the CEO and create a plan of action, she’d forgotten to tell her team that’s what she was doing.
Instead, her employees had assumed something completely different when they didn’t hear from her about it.
Not closing the loop was costly for this CEO. She had to do some damage control, and rebuild trust with her team. She had to state clearly: “Here’s how the leadership team is processing the information, here’s how we want to use it, and we’ll let the team know on X date when we move forward.”
Hindsight being 20/20, this CEO wishes she would have better explained her call, instead of just being heads-down and in-the-weeds trying to make the call.
If you’re thinking of going remote, here’s what successful remote leaders do…
Earlier this month, I spoke with a CEO who’s looking to transition her company to become remote in the upcoming year. I could tell she was hesitant — perhaps even nervous about it. She’d never run a remote company before.
She asked me:
“Claire, what do CEOs of remote companies have to do differently?”
“Do I need to shift some of my attitudes or behaviors?” she elaborated. “What do I need to do as a remote leader to make sure we’re as successful as when we were co-located?”
I had to pause and think about her questions for a minute.
Even though I’ve been a CEO of a remote company for the past almost four years, I’d never explicitly thought about the difference between what a remote CEO requires vs. what a co-located CEO requires. But when posed the question, I realized there are certain things I deliberately focus on as a remote leader. And, I’ve noticed other CEOs of remote companies focusing on similar things, too.
This isn’t to say that co-located CEOs are a world apart from remote CEOs — it’s just to say as a remote CEO, you cannot survive without doing certain things. You have to do things a little differently.
Based on what I personally strive to practice and what I’ve observed from other CEOs who lead remote companies, here are 8 things that remote leaders do differently…
Write it, don’t say it.
As a remote CEO, I spend 90% of my day writing. Sure, I’m writing blog posts, notes to prospects and customers etc… But I write a lot to our team. I’ll write up our strategy around business development, how we’re doing financially, or a new experiment we should try with marketing. I’ll riff on a new product concept or critique a customer service approach with a co-worker — all in writing. If we were a co-located company, most of this stuff would happen in the form of meetings or chatting someone up by their desk. Or maybe I’d pick up the phone if the person was on a different floor. But in a remote company? You write it out.
Jason and David, the co-founders of Basecamp, espouse this in their best-selling book, Remote. But being a good writer is not just an essential part of being a good remote worker — it’s required for being a good remote leader as well.
I’ve observed this firsthand in the way that Jason and David both lead Basecamp, as a company. I’m looped into their all-company Basecamp HQ Project, and I remember being floored when I first saw how Jason wrote up a new idea he was introducing. His written message was crystal clear, well thought-out, and succinct. In other companies, I imagine the same message might get communicated at an in-person meeting — more off-the-cuff, haphazardly, a little all over the place. Here, I saw the power of clear writing as a means to get everyone on the same page, articulate a complex thought, and not waste a bunch of people’s time. Great remote leaders understand this, and utilize writing as a tool.
Commit, don’t dip a toe in.
You can’t half-ass running a remote company. I’ve noticed this in watching other CEOs try to transition their company into becoming a remote company… They only let a select few people work remotely, or they don’t make writing things up a priority, or they don’t make what’s going on in the company accessible to their remote team members. That doesn’t cut it. The remote folks get treated like second-class citizens. Over at Help Scout (a Know Your Team customer, no less!), their CEO Nick Francis says exactly this when talking about their remote culture of 60+ employees world-wide:
“A friend and investor in our company, David Cancel, once told me that you have to choose remote culture or office culture and stick to it, because there is no in between… Trying to optimize for both will likely result in remote employees feeling like second-class citizens.” – Nick Francis, CEO of Help Scout
Similarly, Help Scout’s Head of People Ops Becca Van Nederynenshared that, “You can’t dip your toe into remote work, it requires 100% commitment.”
At Know Your Team, there’s no way we’d be successful as a remote company if it was just something we tried out part-of-the-time, or only allowed some employees to partake in. Someone, at some point, would have been left hanging. I’ve found being 100% committed to remote work from the get-go has been an advantageous choice to make as a CEO.
Respect the quiet.
Effective remote CEOs understand how quality work happens: People need quiet, uninterrupted time to get things done. That’s how people get into a state of “flow,” which is crucial to thinking creatively or building something from scratch. Remote CEOs recognize this, respect this, and encourage this. Paul Farnell, Co-Founder of Litmus (also a wonderful Know Your Team customer), embodied this when he wrote:
This sacred “quiet time” that remote work enables is possibly the biggest reason I personally love being at a remote company, myself. I can’t imagine Know Your Team being co-located and getting even half the amount of stuff we get done today. I attribute the uninterrupted periods of “quiet” time as to why we can be so small as a team (just 2 people!) supporting over 15,000 employees in 25 countries. As a remote CEO, you must embrace and respect the quiet.
Communicate well, communicate often.
Communicating as a remote CEO isn’t just about writing — it’s also about how well and how often you’re communicating. While communication is critical for CEOs who have co-located companies, the importance of communicating well is amplified in a remote company. As Jeff Robbins, founder of Lullabot (another fantastic Know Your Team customer), has said:
In other words, if you don’t say or explicitly communicate something as a remote CEO, your team has absolutely no idea what you’re thinking. Unlike co-located CEOs who might rely on small talk or one-off conversations to gage the pulse of an employee or relay an idea to, remote CEOs must be much more intentional about communicating.
Relatedly, communicating your company’s values becomes even more significant in a remote company. As a remote CEO, you can’t rely on your body language, tone of voice, or physical office relics to communicate values. You have to explicitly state them over, and over, and over. Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier has highlighted this, saying: “You really need to set the values of what your company is going to look like. The high-level things that you care about.”
This sometimes means over-communicating. In her research, Mandy Brown, co-founder and CEO of Editorially and an editor of STET, found that, “Perhaps the most persistent bit of advice I gathered — and in some ways the most counterintuitive — is the need for remote teams to over-communicate.”
As a remote CEO, I definitely default to over-communication. If I’m unsure of something, I ask questions about it. If I’m wondering if a team member understands what I mean, I share greater detail and context. This isn’t to belabor the point or to create extra work for myself or others. Rather, communication is the oil of the machine in a remote company. Without it, things simply won’t run.
Know exactly who to hire: Self-directed, highly-empathetic people.
Jason and David of Basecamp have famously talked about hiring “managers of one.” Other leaders of remote companies advocate for the importance of self-driven folks. Becca of Help Scout has made clear that remote leaders should hire people who are “are mature enough to work well without a ton of structure.” Jeff of Lullabot echoes this in saying, “We need people who capable of thinking about the big picture and self-managing to some extent.”
Here at Know Your Team, we not only seek out self-directed people when we hire — we look for folks with high degree of empathy. People who don’t take things personally, genuinely care about others, and have a deep, intrinsic desire to help. Wade of Zapier describes this necessary empathy well:
“We like folks who have a lot of empathy and are really good, just helpful people because you’re working in Slack and in text all day. You need to be able to empathize when maybe a sentence doesn’t come off quite right, or whatever, you’d be like, oh, I trust that they had good intentions here, this wasn’t meant to be, you know, harsh to me or whatever right. Those are important values that we have that lend themselves well to remote environments.” — Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier
While c0-located companies may value self-direction and empathy in new hires, at remote companies they are an absolute must. As a remote CEO, it’s imperative to discern for these two characteristics while hiring.
Trust your employees… for real.
As a remote CEO, I couldn’t operate day-to-day if I didn’t trust my employees. If someone goes out and runs to the grocery store in the middle of the day… so what? If someone takes the afternoon off to go watch their kid’s school play… so what? In fact, it’s great that they get to do those things, live their life, and get work done too. It doesn’t matter how many hours are being put into the work or when the work is being put in. All that matters are the results — and I trust our employees find a way to make the results happen.
Leon Barnard, a UX Designer and Writer at Balsamiq (another Know Your Team customer we are proud to serve), talked about how their CEO trusts their employees:
“Our founder and CEO, Peldi Guilizzoni, shows a lot of confidence and trust in us. I would guess that we all actually work more effectively than we did in previous jobs where the most important thing was “looking busy” for the boss… Being so distributed, we couldn’t function without valuing trust and autonomy. Peldi doesn’t micromanage. At this point he couldn’t, even if he wanted to.” — Leon Barnard, UX Designer and Writer at Balsamiq
Paul of Litmus put it succinctly: “Trust your team… Work only gets done when you allow people to make mistakes.”
Have a strong, hands-on onboarding process.
Remote CEOs readily acknowledge a key challenge when hiring folks who aren’t all in the same physical place: Getting up to speed as a new employee is key. This means giving new hires the exposure, resources and support they need to be successful. To do this, remote CEOs often focus on having a strong, hands-on onboarding process that’s often partially in-person. Wade of Zapier, explains how they onboard new hires:
“AirBnOnboarding, which when we hire folks within the first month, we actually do like to have them spend a week in person out here in the Bay Area. So we’ll rent an Airbnb, we’ll bring their manager out here, them out here and then spend a week working alongside them.” — Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier
At Help Scout, they give the new hire a buddy — or a new “work best friend” as they like to call it. You can read a wonderful in-depth write up of how they onboard folks here.
Find ways for people to interact who usually don’t interact.
Fostering a sense of connection across the company is a vital part of your role as a CEO — whether you are remote or not. There is literally no one else whose job it is in the company to unite people and ensure they feel they’re heading in the same direction. Doing this in a remote company is admittedly more challenging than in a co-located company where everyone is physically in the same place, bumping into each other, or at the very least, seeing each others’ faces.
Paul of Litmus emphasizes the importance of finding ways to “make time for socialization.” He describes at Litmus how “a few times a year, we have company get-togethers and smaller teams meet in-person more often. Week to week, we get Coworker Coffees, drink beers on Skype, and play video games online. And we invite local employees to the office every Thursday.”
Most remote companies host some sort of yearly or a few-times-a-year meet-up. At Know Your Team, we try to get together at least twice a year in-person. Balsamiq is known for their all-team retreats that focus getting everyone together to have a good time. In addition to in-person meet-ups, Buffer has helped people get to know each other through personality tests, and Help Scout organizes 15–30 minute coffee breaks between randomly assigned team members called Fikas.
Now, there are plenty of CEOs who are not remote that do many of the things above…which is great! However, when you’re a remote CEO, these 8 things become do-or-die. Don’t do them, and it’s likely your company won’t last as a remote one.
When you’re a remote CEO, you can’t afford to not be a good writer. You can’t afford to not know exactly who to hire. You can’t afford to not trust your employees.
If anything, being a remote leader tests you as a leader in all the right ways: It forces you to respect the quiet, uninterrupted periods of time, communicate well, and have a strong onboarding process in your company.
If you’re are considering the leap to become a remote company, keep these 8 things in mind as a leader. I know I’ll be sending this post over to the CEO who’s thinking about going remote, myself 😊
The idea is that you should positively reinforce the behaviors you want to see in your team. Want employees to hit their sales goals? Recognize those who do. Want employees to be more creative in the work they deliver? Recognize those who do.
However, when it comes to cultivating and open and honest culture, what we often forget (or conveniently avoid) as leaders is to positively reinforce one particular behavior: We rarely encourage our team to tell the truth.
How often do we publicly and graciously recognize employees for being a voice of dissent? For asking tough questions? For calling out mistakes? For being flat-out honest in our organizations?
And, how often do we do it well?
A few years ago, I was inspired by a fellow CEO in Chicago who shared with me something she does at every all-hands meeting…
Prior to the meeting, she reflects on the feedback she’s gotten (through Know Your Team, no less — she’s a happy customer 😊). Then, at every all-hands meeting, she will publicly thank a specific person who offered a critical opinion, or asked a tough question, or brought up a new idea. She’ll recognize that one person by name, and with genuine sincerity. She’ll thank them for speaking up and being honest… even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with his or her viewpoint.
This CEO immediately noticed the difference her actions made after the first time she did this. At the next all-hands meeting, there were more hands raised, more questions asked, more ideas offered.
Her simple, earnest “thank you” went a long way when it comes to acting on feedback. She didn’t implement the person’s idea. Nor did she even agree sometimes with the person’s perspective. But she did truly listen, and appreciate what the person had to say.
This isn’t to say you should never act on feedback or implement someone’s suggestion. This is just to say that cultivating a more open, honest work environment starts by recognizing the messenger.
Most of the time, when an employee gives feedback, they are merely looking for this recognition: Acknowledgement that they have been heard. Validation that you are listening. Gratitude for weighing in. Sometimes that recognition is all they are looking for.
This CEO’s practice of intentionally recognizing a person publicly for giving honest feedback is powerful also in how she does it. Notice two things:
The recognition is specific. She didn’t say “Big thanks to my leadership team” or “Great job, support team”. It wasn’t vague, it wasn’t generalized. She specifically recognizes the person by name, giving them respect and individualized attention for doing something that she believes is important to the company. Other employees who are watching and observing this won’t easily forget that.
The recognition is heartfelt. She never faked the “thank you.” She never recognized someone just for show. People will see right through you when you’re doing something to just check the box and appear to be “doing all the correct things as a leader.” There are few things are worse as a saying something and not meaning it. Going through the motions of a “thank you” is one of the worst actions of insincerity.
Personally, I’ve taken a page out of this CEO’s book. I try to make my recognition toward my team specific and heartfelt. And, I do this not only in all-company meetings, but in the moment — during a one-on-one conversation, in an email or a group chat.
Give it a shot. Who do you need to thank in your company for telling the truth?
If there’s only one thing you do as a leader, let it be this.
It’s not what you say that matters — it’s what you do.
I observed the truth of this old adage, firsthand, about six years ago.
At the time, I wasn’t CEO of Know Your Team. I was an employee at another company.
As an employee, I remember making a suggestion to our CEO about how we should market a new program…
I’ll never forget how casually it was brushed aside.
I remember asking our CEO a question via email about a new idea I had, and if it was something he’d be open to…
I’ll never forget that he never responded to my email.
I remember pitching a new approach to thinking about our website to our CEO…
I’ll never forget how defensive he got about why things were the way things were.
The dismissal, inaction, and defensiveness said to me loud and clear:
I don’t want your feedback. I don’t plan to do anything with it.
We often forget as leaders how much our actions say — or don’t say.
Suffice to say, I never spoke up and offered honest feedback after those instances, going forward.
Studies have found that the biggest reason for why people don’t speak up at work is because they believe it is futile. Employees don’t think anything will happen with their feedback… so they don’t give it.
I am living proof of that statistic.
If you want honest feedback, you must act on the feedback you’ve gotten in some way. Prove to employees it’s worth their effort to be honest with you.
How to handle the most-frustrating types of feedback we hear.
The feedback we receive can sometimes feel like bullshit.
I recently spoke with a CEO who told me she received feedback from an employee who proclaimed, “This company doesn’t care about parents.” The employee then proceeded to gripe about the lack of maternity and paternity benefits.
Admittedly, the CEO agreed that the company’s maternity and paternity leave policies could be improved… But she was livid about the broad accusation that “this company doesn’t care about parents.” What an unfair generalization. The CEO was a parent, herself!
The CEO was conflicted about how to react to the feedback: She didn’t want to come off as being defensive to her employee. But she also didn’t want sweeping, inflammatory remarks to be seen as well-received by the employee. How was she supposed to take this feedback? It felt like bullshit.
Bullshit feedback usually comes in one of three forms…
The feedback is true — but the delivery is off.
(This is case of the CEO’s situation I just described). The other person complains and makes it a bitch-session. Or she or he is overly snappy, harsh, and rude.
The feedback is flat-out untrue.
The other person doesn’t have the full picture or was misinformed about something. Or she or he may even be lying.
You can’t tell if the feedback is true or not .
The feedback is vague, unclear or supremely subjective. There aren’t any examples or specifics to back up what she or he is saying.
These three types of bullshit feedback —the poorly delivered, the untrue, and the unclear — are insanely frustrating to be on the receiving end. How in the world are you supposed to possibly receive them well?
Given that how you receive feedback as a leader sets the tone of openness and honesty in your company, this is especially challenging. If you dismiss the feedback too readily or respond negatively to it, you’re likely to discourage that person (and the rest of your team) from ever voicing their honest opinion to you again. But, if the feedback goes completely unchecked, then untrue, rude, or vague feedback could become normalized, accepted behavior in your company.
What should you do?
Here’s exactly how you can receive each type of bullshit feedback well as a leader, and still encourage an open, honest company environment…
If the feedback is flat-out untrue, say this:
“Thank you for letting me know. Can I think on what you shared, and get back to you?”
When we receive feedback that is inaccurate, misinformed (or even a straight-up lie), it’s important to not just blurt out, “I think you’re wrong.” Such a knee-jerk response — even if you are in the right — will come across as defensive to the other person.
Instead, take a little time (be it 30 minutes, or a day or two) to verify that the feedback is indeed false, before letting that other person know. This way, you can first make sure you do have your facts straight, and more calmly point out and share why you think their feedback is untrue.
You may also want to acknowledge your own role in why they may have been misinformed, and how you could have contributed to the issue. Rarely does an employee independently give incorrect feedback (unless they are maliciously lying). Usually, as leaders, we haven’t done our role well enough to shine a light on something — hence their misinformed feedback.
If the feedback is true, but poorly delivered, say this:
“Thank you for sharing what you think and feel. This is helpful for me, and I’m going to think on and act on it right away. Also, not to detract from the merit of what you’re saying — in the future, it may be worth considering that you came across as ____ when delivering your feedback to me.”
When someone blows up at you or goes on a complaining rant, no matter how true the content of what their feedback may be to you — you’ll want to make aware to the other person that their delivery was off. Again, to make sure you don’t come across as defensive, you don’t want to say: “You’re a complainer” or “That was rude.” Instead, use this as an opportunity to coach them. Show you’re not resentful by saying, “not to detract from the merit of what you’re saying,” and be forward-looking by saying “in the future” or “next time.” You want this person to continue to speak up and give you their candid perspective… just not in how they delivered it. Communicate this to them calmly, kindly, and directly.
If you can’t tell whether or not the feedback is true, ask these questions:
“Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about, just so I can better understand and improve for the future?”
“Going forward, what’s the one thing you’d like to see done differently?”
“Was there a specific moment or occurrence that triggered what you’re describing?”
“What would success look like to you in this situation?”
Unclear feedback is perhaps the most frustrating type of feedback to receive because it can feel like a waste of your time to try to unpack. Asking questions is the key to learning and getting to the truth of the feedback. Questions can also serve as guideposts to your employee, encouraging them to give you more clear, specific manner next time.
Handling these three types of untrue, rude, and vague feedback require a bit of patience and self-discipline. Our natural reaction in our inner monologue (for instance, “WTF?!”) must be quelled and placed aside.
How you handle bullshit feedback is a test for you as a leader. Handle it well, and you’ll set an important precedent for your team.
The other week, I interviewed Jason Fried, CEO and co-founder of Basecamp. I asked him what he wish he would’ve learned earlier as a leader.
His response? Worry less.
I smiled when he said this. Oh, how I could relate!
Over the past few years, I’ve noticed how many CEOs (myself included) are stressed out and worried about something. They’re worried about employees leaving, internal team conflict, growing fast enough, their product failing, the market changing, the competition beating them, running out of money, hiring great people…
The list of worries seemingly has no end.
But how do we put an end to it? Personally, I know I’d like to worry less. I think more clearly, act more intentionally, and enjoy life a hell of a lot more when I’m less worried.
In an effort to worry less as a leader, I decided to write out what works for me. Here are five things I try to keep in mind to worry less:
Ask yourself: “What’s the most I can do with what I have right now?”
Most of my worry stems from feeling a lack of control over a situation. I want something to turn out a certain way. So I start to feel overwhelmed and worried when I don’t believe I have the agency to influence that outcome. Here’s the funny thing, though: We have more control than we think. We can control ourselves — our actions, reactions, decisions, and beliefs. What we can’t control are other people and external events. And if that’s the case, well, why bother worrying about them?
Let’s choose to focus on the former: The things we can control.
To do this, a helpful question I like to ask myself is, “What’s the most I can do with what I have right now?” This question re-focuses my energy on what I am in control of right now. Instead of idling in indecision and mulling over every possible path and course of action, the question “What’s the most I can do with what I have right now?” forces your hand. You must deal with the cards in front of you. And once you do, you’ll clear a path to move forward within the constraints you have. Now you can focus on what you can control.
Remind yourself that the present is real — the future isn’t.
My worry also comes from my mind operating too much in the future. I think, “What if…” or “That could happen…” and brace myself for a future scenario, trying to strategize two steps ahead of it. While in some ways that can be beneficial for thinking through certain complex decisions, it is enormously distracting, for the most-part. The only thing that’s real is what is happening now. The present is real. The future isn’t real yet. It hasn’t happened. Remembering that always lightens the load of my worries.
Realize how good you have it.
When I stop for a minute and look at my life, I realize how goddamn lucky I am. Lucky that I was born in this country, to have the parents that I have, to go to the schools that I did, to meet the people I have across my career… I hope I’m not the only person who feels this way. So many of us, even in our worst, most pained, stressed, and worried work moments, live lives that 99% of the world would trade places with in an instant.
Of course, it’s tough to remember when we fall victim to our own worry-ridden train of thought. To combat this, at the end of every day, I try to think of three specific moments earlier that day when I felt joy or gratitude. (Studies have shown that in fact writing down daily what you’re grateful for significantly reduces stress in people.) I realize that I’ve got it good — and so many of us do.
Share your worries.
Tell other people what your worries are. It does no good to suffer in silence. Often times, when I say my worries aloud to another person, it becomes immediately apparent how stupid that worry is, how pointless it is… and the worry evaporates. If it doesn’t, at the very least, you now have a confidant, a pal, who you can think things through with and discuss a plan of action around. Don’t keep worries to yourself. Share ‘em.
Step away, move your body, get some sleep.
My worries become exacerbated when I don’t take care of my mind and my body. When I’m in a particularly stressful or worrisome situation, usually the best thing is to take a step back, get my body moving, and go do something different. Go for a walk. Get on a bike. Breathe some fresh air. Go surround yourself with greenery, or good music. Talk to a sibling, parent, friend, boyfriend, or spouse about something completely non-work related. And get some sleep. Rest the mind, rest the body. The break is needed. I always return feeling clearer and fresher on what matters.
I hope these tactics may be as helpful to you as they’ve been for me.
If anything, as I shared with Jason during our interview, do keep in mind what a friend once told me:
Receive feedback well, and you‘ll get more honest feedback in the future. Here’s how.
They’re watching you.
I don’t mean to sound creepy. But it’s something to come to terms with as a leader: Your team is watching you.
As a leader, your actions set the example – especially, when it comes to creating an open, honest environment in the workplace.
Your employees are taking note: When someone offers a dissenting opinion, do you come off as annoyed and brush it aside? Or do you calmly listen and say, “Thank you, I’ll consider that”?
How you receive feedback — especially negative feedback — sets the precedent for how welcome honest, forthcoming perspectives are in your company. Dismiss feedback on a whim or become overly defensive, and you’re not likely to hear critical feedback from that person again.
So how do you receive feedback well? Here are five things you can do…
Make empathy your mission.
“How could they be saying that?” “I’m not sure that’s true…” Ever catch yourself thinking that while someone is giving you negative feedback? One of the most common, immediate reactions to feedback is to evaluate what the other person is saying… often before the other person is even finished talking! How can we truly listen to feedback and take in the parts that may be valuable, if we’re not completely listening to what’s being said?
To avoid this tendency to pre-judge feedback, make empathy your mission. Decide that your role in receiving feedback is simply to try to understand the other person. You don’t need to obey or agree with them in that moment — just understand. Once you make empathy your mission, you’ll be able to hear feedback for what it is: An opportunity to learn something, in some way. (I also talk about the importance of making empathy your mission when having a one-on-one with an employee.)
Sit in silence for 3–4 seconds.
To further mitigate your knee-jerk reaction to want to respond right away and offer a counterpoint, sit in silence for a few seconds after someone gives you a piece of feedback. While it might seem or feel unnatural initially, doing so gives you the space to digest what is being said, instead of superficially reacting to it.
Write it down.
Whether or not you are an avid note-taker by habit, bring a notebook the next time you’re in a one-on-one meeting. Having a notebook or sheet of paper in front of you, ready to take notes, physically demonstrates to the other person that you’re attentive to what they’re saying. You’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next — you’re intentionally trying to take in what they’re saying, and process it thoughtfully.
Assume positive intent.
Don’t get defensive. Getting defensive is the surest way to discourage someone from ever telling you their honest opinions in the future. The minute we become defensive is when we permanently dissuade the other person from ever bringing up feedback again. To overcome defensiveness, assume positive intent. The reason why we often become defensive is we think that the person giving us feedback doesn’t have our best intentions in mind — they’re out to “get us” or have a separate agenda. When we choose to assume positive intent in the other person, that urge to become defensive melts away. We stop questioning the “why” behind the feedback, and become more receptive to what’s being said.
The more talking you’re doing, the less listening you’re doing. So talk less. Talking less is the best way to show you’re listening to the feedback you’re receiving. Be conscious of your temptation to launch into full-on rebuttal mode, or to share your side of things. If you do feel compelled to say something, tell the other person, “Thank you — I’m going to think on what you said. Do you mind if I get back to you by X date?” That way you give yourself more time to think about what you do want to say, and you’re showing that you’re listening by saying fewer things.
Of course, writing about “talking less” is much easier to do than actually “talking less” in practice. Particularly, in the heat of the moment, when someone is telling you something you don’t want to hear, it is not easy to just shut up and listen to them 🙂
To internalize these tactics, just try one. No need to go after all five. Pick one. Perhaps you try bringing a notebook to your next one-on-one meeting. Or remind yourself to assume positive intent the next time you read an email from an employee that contains some criticism.
Regardless of which tactic you choose to try first, merely choosing to try to receive feedback well in the first place is a significant, positive step toward building an open, honest company culture.
Your reaction to feedback is a test for you as a leader. What example will you set for your team of how critical or dissenting views will be handled?