How Not To Respond To Style-Related Feedback

Harvard Business Review’s September cover kind of says it all. It shows a profile of a woman and three phrases in bold letters:

“Bossy”
“Emotional”
“Too nice”

If you’re a woman in the workplace, you have probably noticed that you’re a lot more likely than your male colleagues to get stylistic criticism. Like it or not, organizations still tend to pay as much attention to how women behave as to what they accomplish.

I think stylistic feedback is the hardest kind of feedback to deal with. It’s one thing to hear that your data was wrong or that your marketing strategy was weak. But stylistic feedback is about you. Whether or not it’s justified or accurate, it’s personal. To make matters worse, people often deliver this kind of feedback quite badly. So it’s hard to hear, hard to decipher and hard to address.

Here are the five most common mistakes I see women make in dealing with stylistic feedback:

1. Denial. This is an understandable and automatic response. If someone says we’re too emotional, we’re likely to respond with, “No I’m not.” Whether or not you feel the feedback is valid, dismissing it out of hand could come back to bite you.

2. Blame. I had one client tell me, “I wouldn’t have to be so demanding if the people around me weren’t such idiots.” Even if every member of your team is woefully inadequate – as long you’re blaming others for your reactions, you’re not learning and the situation will not improve.

3. Intensification. This seems counterintuitive, but I see it happen a lot. Someone gets feedback that what she’s doing isn’t working. Her initial reaction? To do what she’s been doing, but do it harder, longer, faster, more. One client told me, “No matter how much I support my team, they still aren’t delivering. I guess I need to be even more supportive.” In other words, in times of stress we tend to draw more heavily on what we already know and are good at. But when that isn’t getting results, doing more of it usually doesn’t help.

4. Abandonment. This is the opposite response from intensification. The internal message here is, “They say I’m bossy. I guess I’ll just have to start beating around the bush and start sugar-coating everything.” Not a great strategy. You probably won’t be very good at it, and you definitely can’t sustain it long term. Most importantly, no one else is buying it.

5. Style ‘whack a mole.’ Some women I’ve worked with try to suss out each situation and behave as they think others want them to act. I’m not talking about appropriate situational adjustment here, but rather a form of play-acting where you’re trying to be whoever/whatever you think others want you to be, in the hopes that you’ll avoid getting slammed. Big mistake. First of all, it’s exhausting. And ultimately it will backfire. You’ll come across as inauthentic, inconsistent or, worse, manipulative.

However unfair or unskillful stylistic feedback may be, it is always an opportunity to learn something. That’s where I always suggest that people start – looking for the learning nugget. Maybe you will discover something about yourself. Or maybe it can help you understand something new about the feedback-giver. Maybe it will give you valuable insight into the organization’s culture.

About yourself. The leaders I’ve worked with who were most successful at dealing with stylistic feedback have been able to find the grain of truth in it. One of my clients got feedback that she was too judgmental, to which she initially responded with blame. But when I asked her how her relationships at home were going, she reported that her daughter was intimidated by her and avoided contact. Despite the fact that my client still didn’t respect the views of the person who gave her feedback, she was able to see the thread of truth: that her forceful style was getting in the way of important relationships both at home and at work. From that point on, she invested fully in her own development and made stunning stylistic shifts. She developed a strong compassionate side, without ever losing her signature feistiness.

About the feedback giver. If you can’t find any evidence that the stylistic feedback you’ve received is accurate or valid, it still gives you insight into the values and preferences of the feedback-giver. While s/he may be saying that you’re objectively ‘too emotional,’ the meaning may actually be that your style is overpowering to him or her. You may learn from this feedback that dialing down your own intensity will help you be more effective with that person.

About the organization and its culture. I’ve had a lot of clients who have moved to new organizations and been hit with stylistic feedback that they’ve never encountered before. Often, that’s because what was expected or acceptable in a previous environment is devalued in another. For example, I’ve coached many ex-military people who have transitioned to the civilian sector. Once lauded for their directness and clarity, they may be harshly criticized in their new environment for being overbearing. While this feedback may be confusing, it can provide crucial insights into the values of the new organization and the adjustments that you may have to make to be successful there.

If you’re a woman in the workplace, you are much more likely to receive feedback on your style than your male colleagues are. So you might as well plan for it. If it comes your way, try to make sure that you don’t fall for any of the classic unhelpful responses. Instead, use style-related feedback as an opportunity to learn something – about yourself, the person giving you feedback, or your organization.

 

Don’t Just Do Something; Sit There!

I did a really good thing last week: I went on a 24-hour personal retreat. From noon on Monday to noon on Tuesday, I set down all my ‘shoulds’ and to-do lists and went with a friend to a log cabin in a wilderness preserve about 2 hours from DC. No agenda – just space, time, wooded trails, a journal and some wholesome food.

As we began our retreat, each of us articulated an intention for our time there. Mine was to feel less scattered, to be restored to a sense of inner consolidation and wholeness. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling better. Within minutes of settling on that porch overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, serenaded by the whisper of dry leaves falling, the sharp inner edges smoothed out. I felt spiritually reconnected. I felt relieved to drop down into a mode where I was not making anything happen.

These 24 hours got me thinking about how much my life supports accomplishment and how little it supports personal renewal. Whether it’s in my business, my home, or in my community, the world around me is always calling for me to do more. And I want to answer that call. So I spend most of my time in what I call my ‘executive function,’ the grit side of myself that plans, aspires, organizes, and gets stuff done.

By contrast, there is very little around me that encourages me to slow down, to inhabit a more quiet, receptive mode. I don’t get messages from my environment saying, “Get less involved!” “Be content with what you have!” or “Hey – winter’s coming: time to slow down.” The drive to take things down a notch comes only from within myself – not because “I’m worth it,” but because I need it in order to be at my happiest and best. None of my most creative moments occur when I’m staring at a computer screen – they occur in the shower or on walks. Busyness does not cultivate kindness in me – relaxation does. The harder I’m driving, the less open I am to inspiration or delight.

I don’t know about you, but the world doesn’t tend to hand me renewal time on a silver platter. I’m going to have to keep carving it out for myself.

I am a fan of big breaks, like spiritual, contemplative or creative retreats or even spa get-aways. These can be immensely beneficial – kind of a whole-being reset. But these big breaks can also be beyond reach for many of us. No worries. Even the smallest reconnection with our ‘grace’ sides can have profound effects. So we have to reclaim and build renewal time into our daily lives, structuring in no-cost, low investment micro-retreats. Here are some ideas:

  • Breathing breaks. Unless the building’s on fire or your kid needs to go to the emergency room, most of us can take 60 seconds out to simply pay full attention to our breath. The breath is an express train into the present moment, which is actually the only place where stress does NOT live. Most stress is a fabrication of our minds, which are either fretting about the past or worrying about the future. For one minute a couple of times a day, be. here. now.
  • Mealtime meditations. When was the last time you sat down to a meal and brought your full attention to the act of eating? When was the last time you really tasted your lunch? Noticed the color, shape and textures of what you consumed? Chewed instead of shoveled? Even eating at your desk can be transformed into an opportunity to cultivate receptivity and presence.
  • Gratitudes. I don’t know about you, but once I get into task mode, I can tend to feel put-upon – even if I’ve put everything upon myself! It can be a game changer to take a second to register one thing that you’re grateful for, one way in which you feel blessed. Research has proven that a gratitude practice yields significant psychological and physiological benefits, and it’s easy to do. You can weave it seamlessly into your day – maybe doing it every time you’re standing at the elevator or walking between meetings. Maybe you write down one gratitude as the first note you take in every meeting. I have two ‘gratitude buddies’ – we try to email each other each day with five things we’re grateful for.
  • Nature time-outs. I have a client who sets a chime to ring on her computer two or three times per day. It reminds her to go outside and connect with the natural world for a minute or two. Nature returns her to a larger sense of perspective and a more gracious orientation to time. Nature’s often closer at hand than you think. Step out of your office and walk around the block. At your daughter’s soccer game, take your attention off of how she’s doing for a few seconds and just feel the sun on your face. At a stoplight, turn off the radio and open the window.
  • Music retreats. Music can change your state almost instantly. Put on a quiet piece of music in your office and just listen. Or shut your door and dance around to a favorite boogie tune.

What about you?

What happens to you when your life becomes all doing (grit) and no being (grace)? How does it affect your health, outlook and energy? How does it affect the quality of your relationships? How does it affect your effectiveness at work and at home?

Have you ever established grace-supporting structures or routines in your life? If so, what were they, and what impact did they have on you?

What impact did they have on those around you?

What enabled you to sustain these structures? What got in the way?

Given the reality of your life these days, what are two things you could do on a regular basis to give your grit-ful ‘executive function’ a break?

 

Senate Women – A Glimpse of “Grait-ness”

Two New York Times headlines leapt out at me this morning:
Senators Near Fiscal Deal and
Senate Women Lead Effort to Find Accord

The current U.S. government impasse has been a grit-fest. It’s been like watching “Godzilla Meets King Kong” – two opposing beasts slugging it out to the death, laying waste to everything in their path. In Washington, four weeks into a government shutdown and on the brink of default, Godzilla and King Kong are going at it tooth and nail, and there’s wreckage everywhere you look.

This is what happens when grit takes control. Unmediated, the productive forces of clarity and determination devolve into bullying and intimidation. The positive ability to stand for one’s own point of view goes sour with overuse, severing the relationships that are crucial to moving forward. The result? Utterly predictable, mutually-assured destruction.

So what heals a grit-fest? It’s not just a matter of calling in the ‘grace squad’ and ceding our positions. Caving does not mend a deep divide. It simply drives the conflict underground. What’s needed is a third way, where grit and grace are integrally combined and leveraged together, creating a wholly new form of power. Not grit or grace; not sometimes-grit and sometimes-grace. Rather, “grait” – where the two energies are linked in an inextricable partnership. Grait-ness happens when we are both bold and related at the same time and in the same action. In acts of graitness, you can’t parse out the care from the courage. They’re both on line and in full force in every moment.

Examples of graitness have been in short supply of late. But enter Susan Collins, Republican from Maine, who shows us how it’s done. According to the New York Times:

“Frustrated with the lack of progress, Ms. Collins, a Republican, quickly zipped out a three-point plan that she thought both parties could live with, marched to the Senate floor and dared her colleagues to come up with something better. A few days later, two other Republican female senators eagerly signed on — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. The three Republican women put aside threats from the right to advance the interests of their shutdown-weary states and asserted their own political independence.

Two powerful women on the Democratic side of the aisle — Senators Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and Patty Murray of Washington — took a hard line and pressed their Republican counterparts to temper their demands, but they also offered crucial points of compromise. Together, the five senators starkly showed off the increasing power of women.”

Ms. Collins and her bi-partisan partners have taken decisive action, held each other to account and taken great political risk. But there’s more than grit in play. In each step, they are kicking ass with their hearts open. Fueling their independent actions is a desire for the collective well-being. Within their forcefulness lies a core of humility.

“I probably will have retribution in my state,” Ms. Murkowski said. “That’s fine. That doesn’t bother me at all. If there is backlash, hey, that’s what goes on in D.C., but in the meantime there is a government that is shut down. There are people who are really hurting.”

These Senators have had real impact where others have remained impotent. I think it’s because of how they have wielded their power. They have shown us what possibilities lie beyond the potential of the either/or approach to power. Instead, they have modeled a form of integrated power that is durable, productive and potentially transformative. They have given us a glimpse of graitness.

What about you?

Have you ever experienced graitness in yourself?

How did that differ from when you have leaned heavily toward either grit or grace, or when you have toggled between the two?

What did graitness enable you to do that was new or different? How did it transform the situation?

Have you ever experienced graitness in someone else? What can you learn from him or her as you make your own journey to graitness?