Years ago, I had a leader whose feedback during my annual review was simply this, “You’re just too nice. We don’t want you to be a jerk or anything, but you’re really just too nice.” He chuckled awkwardly and shifted in his seat.
Seriously? What is a person to do with feedback like that? It felt deeply personal and especially troubling because it’s important to me to be the same person at work that I am in my personal life. Wacky. Kind. Smart. Funny. Hardworking. Irreverent. No matter the location, you’re likely to hear me utter folksy sayings like oh my stars or wax on about data and analytics trends or share the latest antics of one of my fur-kids. I’ve been known in those dreaded office icebreakers to say something like, “I have donkeys” (which is completely true, by the way). I get it. I’m not the corporate tech world norm, but I kind of dig it, and I’m OK with it.
It’s taken a long time, but I am proud of who I am.
So when a boss gives you feedback like, “You’re just too nice,” what do you do?
I was much younger then, so I largely just stewed about it and made no changes. In my mind, he was asking me to be someone I wasn’t, and that was simply not an option. And if we’re sharing truths here, he wasn’t my favorite either, so if I was going to take personality tips, it was certainly not going to be from him.
I remember just being totally stumped with the feedback. But what I failed to see was how his view was limiting my opportunity. And given his leadership team was male dominated, I was also pretty sure my male counterparts were not getting this same feedback. There was something he was trying to tell me, some trait that would help me, but it was completely lost in translation, and not only lost but doing more damage than good.
In retrospect, I think what he was trying to say was that I lacked confidence, that when challenged by superiors I too easily acquiesced. In essence, “You have some good ideas. Fight for them.” Now that would have been a message I understood.
Luckily for me, not long after he gave me that feedback, he and his band of merry men left the company. This left the business in a pinch and in need of a reorganization.
I was asked to step into a manager role to help keep the wheels on the bus. Eager to please and grow my career, I said, “Yes.” And I immediately began working for my new boss, who remains one of my absolute favorite mentors of all time.
As I stepped into my new role, I put all I had into it. I worked hard, I built relationships with my new direct reports, and we all gave it our best to not only stabilize the business but to grow it.
My new boss began giving me feedback I could actually process and use. I’ll never forget when he pulled me aside to tell me to stop second guessing myself in meetings, to stop discounting what I had to offer or share. I had a terrible habit of starting every idea with, “Well this may not be a good idea, but I’ll share it anyway.” He told me how that devalued the idea before I even shared it. It remains some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
The job ultimately went from a temporary leadership stint to a permanent one, and I continued to thrive working for my new boss. His feedback was not always unicorns and rainbows, but it was always delivered with kindness and was ultimately meant to help me grow. And I appreciated it.
It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me in my career, and I try to share it with others. Feedback and constructive criticism are good things, but they become great things if delivered with clarity and kindness.