Improving myself without losing myself - not all feedback is a giftFeatured

I’ll never forget that moment. What was said, what I heard, the way the textured walls just to the left of my manager’s right ear blurred as I struggled to keep the tears back. But most of all, I’ll never forget the way it felt, and how that feeling would haunt me for the next several years of my fledgling career.

It was 6pm on a Friday when we wrapped up our “chat” and my manager left the conference room. I was grateful that no one was at the door, gently tapping to usher me out. It gave me a few unscheduled minutes to process.

I found a strategic spot where I could hide from the gaze of any lingering colleagues that might see me through the frosted glass walls.

Then I sat down on the floor and sobbed.

I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of being “subtle.” I have a lot of opinions, I’m not afraid to share them, and I’m exceptionally focused and driven when it comes to getting a job done. I’m highly motivated by difficult situations and seemingly insurmountable tasks. I’m also wildly optimistic, collaborative, creative, and kind. I believe there is nothing a group of people can’t accomplish when they work together without judgement, and I believe that all people are capable of greatness if they’re given the chance.

So when I found myself in that Google conference room back in 2008, listening to “feedback” that in retrospect was probably more about my manager than about me, I was gutted. I had spent the last 8 months working 60-70 hours per week on a big project, and had volunteered to leave my family for 9 weeks to manage the onsite launch. With no extra pay or promise of promotion, I had given it everything I had because I wanted to help. And this was the result: sitting on the floor, crying my eyes out, and starting to wonder if I really was as “intimidating” and “abrasive” as my manager claimed. It sowed a seed of doubt that would cause me to constantly second guess my own judgement for years to come.

Women, particularly in male-dominated industries like tech, are often told they’re aggressive, emotional, intimidating, or harsh when they demonstrate typically masculine behaviors. Women are aggressive while men are confident. An emotional woman is just a passionate man. These are biases that have fueled the current performance review conundrum where the number of negative terms typically used to describe women at work far outnumbers those used to describe men.

For women, it can be hard to parse the legitimate feedback that can help us become a more curious, compassionate professional from the (quite frankly) sexist garbage that’s designed to push conformity to outdated gender stereotypes. The key to authentic professional development (for everyone, but it’s even more critical for women) is to learn to distinguish the feedback that will help you grow from feedback that’s intended to diminish who you are, and to learn from all of it. A lot of it comes down to new ways of thinking about the nature of feedback itself.

Here are a few shifts in mindset that might help:

Not all feedback is a “gift”

Some feedback is just bad. It’s generalized, lacks examples, and is tinged with bias. It may even be more about the insecurities of the giver rather than the growth opportunities of the receiver. Yet, we’re all supposed to treat each piece of feedback like a “gift,” which is often misinterpreted to mean that it should be regarded as inarguable truth.

Remember that feedback isn’t always accurate, and it’s not always about you. Sometimes it’s just a regifting of something someone else is trying to get rid of.

You don’t have to accept feedback to learn from it

Even the worst, most ungrounded feedback can present an opportunity for learning, whether about yourself or others. When you’re given feedback that feels unfair or inaccurate, take some time to process it. Acknowledge your emotions, then set them aside and look at the feedback with objective curiosity.

Ask yourself: What can I learn in this moment that might have been hidden from me before? It may be consistent with the feedback, or it might be something completely different. Take an expansive approach, and be radically honest with yourself about what you discover.

You’re better at assessing yourself than you think

Self-assessments are often positioned as only slightly better than useless in the tech industry. We’ve been told that other people are far more capable of accurately evaluating us than we are, and that if we think we’re self-aware then we probably aren’t. And, it’s not true. There’s a growing collection of research out there that suggests the ratings of others, which largely define our fate at work, are systematically flawed. And, we are far better judges of our own experience than we’ve been made to believe, as long as we’re operating in psychologically safe environments.

The next time you receive a piece of feedback that surprises you, ask yourself: “Am I really surprised, or am I scared?” You may land on an unexpected answer.

After 14 years at Google, I received a lot of feedback: some was transformationally eye-opening, and some was deeply damaging. When I look back, the thing that amazes me most is that I spent so much of that time not being able to tell the difference. I treated it all the same - indisputable truths that needed to be accepted and implemented - and it wasn’t. No one person holds the whole truth; it’s a combination of perspectives.

Feedback is important. I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about myself from embracing the perspectives of others. I’ve become far more curious and less convicted about my own “rightness” as a result, but I also allowed ungrounded feedback to damage my sense of self-worth, and that’s not an effective path for growth. What it all comes down to is a delicate balance between confidence and curiosity, and a willingness to learn from every experience and interaction.

But that’s just my perspective.

What’s yours?

How did you take that feedback at the time, and were there actions you took to help you advance in your career and move through the feedback? I'm also curious if you found yourself receiving similar feedback later in your career, and how you dealt with this each time. Asking because I've had the same experience / feedback throughout my career, but I find myself hopping to work environments where they embrace my "abrasiveness."
Such great questions! At the time, I took the feedback really hard. I honestly started to wonder if there was something wrong with me on a pretty fundamental level. I heard the same comments over and over again throughout my career and I genuinely tried to rewire my brain to be more inline with what people expected of me. I was told I would offer ideas and answer questions too fast, so I started to stay silent for a beat of 10-20 seconds after someone would ask a group for input. I was told that I sounded too confident in my ideas, so I would start hedging with phrases like "this may be a dumb idea, but..." or "I'm sure others are already thinking about this, but what if we..." It wasn't a good strategy. And honestly, it just served to make me feel less like myself and to always second guess how I was coming across and whether I really knew who I was or what I stood for at all. I knew that Google was probably not a great fit for me early on. I probably should have left earlier. But, I really loved many of my colleagues, and I loved the work, and I loved how much I was learning and growing despite the constant feedback that I was "a bit much." So, I stuck it out. It was pretty damaging for me until I learned how to do three things: (1) separate my identity from my work, (2) embrace that acceptance of a situation is not the same as approval, and (3) take ownership and control over who I allow to judge me (and feedback often is a LOT of judgement) and who I don't. These three shifts allowed me to successfully function (and thrive!) in an environment that wasn't ideal for me.
Sarah, I first ran into your post early this AM and couldn't reply as zoom calls stormed in but remembered I was actually excited to reply and connect once I had the chance. I simply couldn't resonate more. Your post conveys the raw dissonance that I have been struggling with presently (and I believe many women do so as well!) I feel seen and validated via your delivery and topic. Brilliantly done!
Thank you @andreavalera! I'm sorry that you're dealing with this right now. Happy to chat if I can support you. It can be a rough road to travel alone.
Beautifully written, Sarah. That last point is news to me—and super interesting. As a coach I tend to work with folks who lean self-critical, and so their own bias is towards accepting feedback carte blanche. But, as you lay out here, feedback is usually someone's subjective perspective. There is no singular truth about you, your qualities, or who you are. You're always evolving. Different people will perceive you in different ways, unique to them. And so all feedback should be taken with some level of consideration. I think what's most important for self-critical people (often women!) is to discern whether the feedback feels true for you. When you receive a comment from your manager, do you feel like it's opened your eyes? Is it helping you to improve? I once heard that men and women receive feedback differently. Women immediately take it in as truth. Men go through an unconscious 6-step process of thinking, first, who is the source? Do I trust them? Does this feedback seem valid? Is it important for me to change this *now*? etc. The only type of feedback that can be absolute truth is rooted in objective observation. A colleague once pointed out that my active listening was pretty vocal (a lot of "mmmm"), and that it could make people feel rushed as they speak to me. That was grounded in neutrally observable fact. It doesn't mean everyone felt rushed in speaking to me or that I was, say, "too active" as a listener. But it really resonated and helped me to improve. A very important reminder, especially for women. Thank you!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, @rachelhamlin! I'm curious about your point re: objective observation. I think there's a subtle difference here that's worth pointing out (but let me know if I've misinterpreted!). I would offer that the only two objective observations that we're able to make are about ourselves: (1) how a situation makes *us* feel (not other people), and (2) what our personal experience of the situation is. Emotions and personal experience are the only inarguable truths, in my view. Everything else is only a portion of the truth puzzle and needs to be explored more through curiosity before reaching conclusions. In your example, I would offer that unless the feedback giver was saying you make *them* feel rushed personally (not that they think you might make others feel that way) then the feedback is not technically objective observation - it's a judgement and an assumption about the feelings of others. I'm curious to discuss this though! Great fodder for exploration.
Oh, yes, yes, yes. Completely agreed! I almost wrote that ALL feedback is subjective. But in my case, I was referring to the number of times I said "mmm" while listening in a conversation. Anyone could count that it was... well, N times per conversation. 😅 You might just label that an observation, rather than feedback. Because the feedback, that it makes folks feel rushed? You're right. That was that person's experience. And I did pause to think, "Oh gosh! But no one else has ever let me know this?" When I listened to the playback, though, I actually felt the same and decide to take that feedback onboard.
Thanks for clarifying this @rachelhamlin! I'm such a nerd when it comes to subtle differences in language that I was curious to hear more from you about the experience. Appreciate you engaging and sharing further!
@sarahdevereaux This is such a timely post as I am literally working through one such feedback now! Thank you for your thoughtful post. What you said above is so so true 👆, “how a situation makes us feel” and “personal experience of it” is what matters. Depending on the day, context and environment I take feedback differently. For example when I pour my heart into the work with love, passion, smarts- with everything I have in me, the greater the feedback hurts, especially if it feels ungrounded. While I try to discern bad feedback in the logical part of my brain, the sting and the hurt feelings are still there. I still have to sit through the pain for a few days before I can cleanse myself of it. So I wish there was a way to make bad feedback bounce of you and not stick for even second. A replant of sorts, my grandparents would call it a thick skin 😅 @sarahdevereaux do you have any tips ?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience, @Hilina! It's really tough to not let ungrounded feedback bother you in the moment. And honestly, I haven't found a great strategy for doing this. I'm not even sure that we should? I'm a big fan of self-compassion practices, and one of the things I really like about it is that it stresses the importance of sitting with your emotions for a bit, even when they're negative. I think that's important. When something sucks, it's okay to sit there for a hot second and say: "Hey, this sucks. I feel sad, or hurt, or scared." And then, once you've held onto that emotion for long enough, being able to set it aside (not bury it!), give yourself a big hug, and assess the situation without being subjected to the emotions associated with it. Rachel Simmons does a great job laying out some of these practices in her book: Enough As She Is. It's technically a parenting book for parents of teen and pre-teen girls, but I think many of the techniques and advice apply perfectly well to women also. I know I've gotten a lot of value out of them myself! Finally, I just have to say that I'm also a big fan of grandparent advice. My grandparents lived through serious hardships, and although not every technique they employed was perfect, they had a lot of resilience wisdom to share. One of my favorites from my grandfather was: "Do you want to be right, or do you want to win?" I've adjusted it slightly - replacing "win" with "make progress" - but the lesson is a good one. "Being right" doesn't matter as much as moving forward, together. Thanks, Papa.
Thank you so much for taking the time to respond Sarah! Ordering the book now, as I have two little girls and it sounds like it will help me in my parenting journey as well. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom.
This reminds me of some thing I’ve heard a therapist say: Honesty is good, but expressing your honesty too much or often feels like constant critique to the other person. You don’t always have to say everything that occurs to you, and you will not always deliver it well even if it feels well-intentioned. I think people who prize feedback as a tool can sometimes use it to backhandedly criticize others in a way that seems constructive to their peers. The context of the moment and the situation when delivering feedback is at least as important as the feedback itself, and probably more so.
Context is SO important, @jasminepfingsten, thank you for highlighting this! I had a brilliant colleague at Google who used to talk about the importance of situation awareness in addition to self awareness. I think this is an element of leadership and collaborative communication that is not focused on nearly enough.
Hey I think that's just so important @jasminepfingsten. Situation awareness as well as self awareness are the key.
Thank you for sharing this, @sarahdevereaux! What sticks out to me here is the relationship between feedback and likability. Too often, I see my clients take irrelevant feedback as gospel truth because they want to be seen as agreeable. Or they absolutely crumble under the weight of critical but constructive feedback. I really like the way you described taking back ownership of the way we interpret and apply feedback because, after all, we are the true experts on ourselves.That said, it's a costly thing (literally and figuratively) for women to be perceived as unlikeable in the workplace. But it's even more costly to stay in those workplaces over time and it's a large part of the reason I went into business for myself. I'm curious if anyone here is working for an employer that truly embraces direct communication and unapologetic ambition in female form.
Thanks for sharing this, @liztalago. I love your point around embracing "direct communication and unapologetic ambition in female form." It makes me think that that's a question we should be asking more - to our current and prospective employers: "How does the culture here embrace direct communication and unapologetic ambition in female form?" What a powerful inquiry to help women find supportive and accepting environments.
@sarahdevereaux It has a nice ring to it doesn't it?! But in all seriousness I do think you're right - unless an employer can demonstrate that they welcome (as opposed to tolerate) women taking up space and using their voices they are going to have trouble recruiting and retaining top talent amid this Great Resignation. I think most of us are so tired of fighting for a seat at a table that doesn't serve us and that's why I recommend that women build their own tables instead.
This has definitely been my experience. I think one of the reasons I struggled so much is that often those giving me the feedback had the expectation that I would take it and change. As long as I'm not causing harm, it is not always an appropriate expectation to think I'll change just because you said so. It took a lot of courage to say "thank you for your feedback" and then come back later and say, you know what, no, I won't be changing. I'm not everyone's cup of tea, and that's ok.
Cheers to that! Nicely said, @kellykalelahidalgo
1. You’re a hell of a writer! 2. I had a similar experience at the same company & didn’t last a fraction of the time that you did. Thank you for sharing this beautiful insight.
Thank you so much, @Sarrah - I appreciate that! I'm glad to hear you're no longer in that environment. What was your catalyst for making a jump? I'm always curious to learn what the last straw was for folks on this topic.
Thank you so much for sharing this. This is perfectly timed for me. I'm a new grad student studying nuclear science. I have received unsolicited feedback from males in my University twice already, and it's only my 2nd term. Once was from a fellow grad student, and once from one of my professors just yesterday. I was told that I was arrogant to already know what I want my thesis to be about, and I was told that I am naïve to believe in my capacity to complete my thesis. Yesterday my professor literally told me that he couldn't tell if I was crazy or a genius. But then he followed up saying it was probably neither because there aren't actually that many geniuses. I was painfully aware that even in his follow up he negated the possibility of me being smart. He could've said there aren't actually that many crazy people. I hadn't asked either one of these people for feedback. In both cases it felt as if they were upset that I dare to be smart and capable. In both cases it felt as if they were upset that I dare to do anything other than remain small. Of course I wonder if either one of them would perceive me that way if I was male, or would I be applauded for being a capable, smart, go-getter?I've been trying to process it, and it was very helpful to read this.
I'm so sorry to hear that you're dealing with that, @Rexx. If you'd like to message me privately, I'd be happy to chat more about it with you. There's a lot of things that may be going on here, and I don't want to make too many assumptions, but I would guess that there are some serious insecurities that the individuals you're interacting with are failing to deal with on their end. Insecurity and fear can lead to some truly destructive, unproductive behavior.
This definitely resonated with me and I really appreciate your nuanced take on a complex subject. I didn't realize how personally I took feedback until I transitioned into the tech world. I would be down for days when my code was nitpicked etc which, in turn, amplified my inner critic. Two things, I've learned: 1) I've read that as women we blame ourselves for mistakes, whereas men do not. To that, I've learned to speak to myself softly rather than harshly. 2) To not take things personally. Yes, there can be some valuable teachings in what someone says but I only accept that feedback if it resonates with me.
Fantastic learnings, @smriti - thank you for sharing! I'm a big fan of self compassion practices, which is closely tied to speaking softly to ourselves vs. harshly. It sounds so simple, but just being kinder to ourselves when we're in our own heads makes such a huge difference.
Yes! Silencing that voice in my head has been a process. What resources did you use to learn self-compassion? I've mostly used Kristin Neff.
I'm a big fan of Rachel Simmons. In her book - "Enough As She Is" - she walks through a few simple self compassion practices that I found super helpful. The book is technically for parents of teen and pre-teen girls, but I've honestly found that it applies just as well to women who have some self confidence and self compassion work to do (ahem... pretty much all of us, myself included!). It's one of my top book recommendations.
Just checked it out through Libby! Thanks.
@sarahdevereaux I had similar experiences at Google as well. I spent ~9 years there and had some fantastic times and some not so fantastic times. Same with managers. I think Google also has a very specific way of managing, phrasing and positioning feedback that can make true, candid feedback really tough. A lot of times feedback during perf wasn't useful, clear or particularly timely. [The general lack of clarity was what really bothered me though.] I totally agree with you- I've also witnessed that feedback is sometimes more about the feedback giver than the receiver. Though it's really difficult to remember that in the moment! To compare wounds, sharing here the 3 sentences that my former manager's manager said to me during a 1:1 in my final few months at Google that in large part convinced me that it was time to leave. I share these verbatim, because I'll never forget someone thought it was okay to say this to me. - (Apropos my fit at Google, after being there 9 years, across 3 offices and multiple promotions) "You don't have the perfect personality to succeed at Google."- (Apropos not getting timely feedback) "You give me a strong fuck-off vibe."- (On being asked to clarify what that meant, because I'd never been told anything remotely similar) "If you want to be successful, you need to work at making others like me feel more comfortable." Like you say, there is insight to be had even in bad feedback. So I took my insights and left :)
@Ling42 I am so sorry to hear that this was your experience. Those comments are really hurtful, and downright inappropriate. I was a manager at Google for 12 of my 14 years there, and I'm honestly appalled by these examples. I hope this manager was more the exception than the rule. Totally agree with you re: the language used around feedback -- it often felt overly vague and "nice" without being entirely honest, which made it tough to figure out what was actually being said and what you needed to work on. But, with all that said, I had a lot of great times there also. I wouldn't trade them for the world. It was an exceptional journey and I'm grateful for the ride. It kind of reminds me of being in my early 20s though: It was amazing... and you couldn't pay me enough to do it again. 😉
I’ve had two 360 feedback rounds at work, one was more qualitative with open answers and the latter more quantitative which removed bias and was so much more worthwhile as a result. Not all feedback is equal! I too probably wouldn’t be described as ‘subtle’, with one male colleague using the qualitative form as an opportunity to pull me down and tell me he couldn’t comment on what I brought to the role as ‘I didn’t contribute and had no new ideas’, completely in contrast to all the other feedback I received (I was also in the role he wanted). However when you see a negative comment like that, it’s destroying. The more quantitative form gave me rankings, ranges, medians etc and just put everything into a more balanced view. People who loved me were balanced by those who did not, but I didn’t come out feeling crushed. I came out with some really clear areas to work on, as well as some obvious strengths. Love this post!
So glad to hear you had a good experience @Simone102! This response may expose my contrarian side... but I admittedly even have a bit of a beef with quantitative 360 assessments. Mostly because of some recent research that's been done around idiosyncratic rater effect, which says that raters display their own rating pattern, regardless of the person they're rating. This means that the rating you receive from someone else tells you more about their individual rater bias than it does about your own performance. In reality, the only things we can reliably rate are our own experiences and emotions, which are best communicated through direct, compassionate, and curious conversation. Not assessments. But that's just my take! Not saying I'm right by any means... that's just the line of thinking I'm currently exploring. :-)
I couldn't agree more on that, Sarah! Back in time, I was fundraising a project on Kickstarter. The idea had been spinning around in my head, and I finally dared to launch it beyond any fear I could have at that moment. When a former boss (and friend of mine) I appreciated a lot came to me to challenge it with the most hurtful words, the one I remember the most was "only a silly person would buy that." According to her, her feedback was meant to push me to get a better version because she likes me so much and knows I could do it better, and according to her, to improve its lack of value or understanding of the market, etc, etc. She was so hard on me; I felt highly devastated and posted a message on the project IG about the beginnings and how you will always run into people who can either support or destroy you. Still, you must carry on. It was the pandemic, and her opinion met me with my newborn in my arms and with all my hope, joy, and heart divided into these two life projects. After that, unfortunately or not, I lost her as a friend because "I couldn't appreciate her valuable feedback nor what she meant with it."
To be honest it saddens me a great lot reading how bosses that either have never learned anything about leadership skills or are choosing to blatantly ignore them are killing the spirit, love, and effort all of you that have commented are putting into your work. I have been in a similar situation in my last position before starting my own business with a leader that was clearly threatened by me. In the performance review, he not only gave extremely negative feedback without any facts to support, in the middle of it he suddenly called me a different name - I can only guess it was the ex-wife or someone he didn't get along with. The only choice in such a situation is to run for the door. The feedback will always be offered with the intent to hurt and motivate you to leave. Feedback is important and vital for our professional growth, but we have to carefully choose which feedback we want to accept to help us shape the person we want to become and understand where our opportunities for development are. It is important to be curious and open to learn from others perspectives, but to carefully manage how close you let that feedback get to you. As you say in your post, feedback can damage your self-worth, if not processed right it can spoil the experience of work for you and even create anxiety. I have a few guiding principles that I use in my coaching practice and that has also been translated into our leadership courses#1. Never take anything personally. This is not about you, this is about your role at work. Everything that sounds like a critique of your personality is not and should not be part of your performance review. #2. Assess where the feedback is coming from - I already saw in some of the comments that some of you clearly know what the position or agenda of some of the feedback providers is. Knowing this helps to put the feedback in perspective or choose to completely disregard it. #3 Evaluate your bosses' interest in your career, your development path, and your goals. Do you have open and constructive discussions about all the above and a concrete development plan in place? Depending on how you answer this question and attempts from your end to have an open discussion around this topic you should know what to expect from this boss#4 Do your homework and get some intelligence on your boss and his track record with other people to understand if this has happened before, for instance with other female reports#5 Solicit feedback from your peers during the projects you are leading/working on in writing if possible. Keep a record. They should give you a direct indication if your performance is going well or has to be corrected and you have documented feedback for the performance review with your boss. That is if you choose to use it. #6 I read a comment about growing a "thick skin" to not let the hurtful feedback get to you. I have a specific perspective about this since I am teaching tools to develop self-mastery by shaping your Physical Intelligence. It is certainly possible, but it takes time. What I suggest is that you learn a breathing technique and practice it often, it allows you to center yourself and with time it gets harder for others to pull you off-balance. You see a performance review is an energy exchange - the boss is pushing his energy onto you, perhaps looking for an opening and when you let that energy get inside it will hurt. By centering yourself you learn how to deflect and re-direct it and what is the most amazing thing for me it also strengthens your core in a way to make it much harder to push you over. I could go on and on about it but will stop here since I know I wrote a lot... thanks for reading if you are still with me :)
Hitting home this morning. “maybe you should just go back to customer service” - a comment made in January of this year that has clouded my judgement and tainted my work all year. I love this reminder that it was more about her then me. 💙
Something that an old leader told me when I’d received some feedback that I didn’t agree with - while feedback is a gift, you get to decide what you do with it. If it’s valuable, great - do something with it, if it’s not serving you well, you can regift it (pass along the feedback to where it might belong), or throw it away. Just because someone gives you something doesn’t mean it has to live rent free in your house. <3