Dear Crucial Skills,
My manager recently told me that another leader said this about me: “her nationality shows by her bluntness in meetings.” I was told this as feedback but wasn’t given any specific examples. While I am open to constructive feedback and want to improve, I’m very hurt by this comment. This is particularly hurtful because I work for an organization that prides itself on being diverse and inclusive. I also ask myself: What would the feedback be if I were of a different nationality? Or if I were male? Or what would I hear if I were a director or a VP rather than a manager? How do I respond to this feedback? Right now, I feel hurt. I welcome your insight.
It’s always difficult to receive feedback—especially if the feedback feels biased and discriminatory. I can understand why you feel hurt and frustrated. While you point out that this feedback is vague, it’s also extremely specific. The critic disparages a part of your identity, implying there is something wrong with who you are. It is hurtful. It also sounds like you’re struggling to let go.
I’m going to assume you’ve had enough social interactions to know that people will not always be respectful and kind. Sometimes people will be callous, inconsiderate, and rude. Not everyone will like you, and you won’t necessarily like everyone else. For example, after some challenging interactions with colleagues years ago, I realized I won’t be close friends with every coworker. We don’t have to hang out on the weekends or meet up for lunch. Ultimately, it’s unproductive to demand more of workplace relationships than they can reasonably offer. In some cases, the best you can do is be cordial and respectful and leave it at that.
In other words, sometimes the best course of action is to let go and move on. But I have the sense you simply can’t brush off this rude comment. At the core, you feel disrespected. You also feel the comment betrays the values of your organization. So, it’s probably time to hold a Crucial Conversation or two about this interaction.
It’s important to speak up when you feel hurt or resentful because what you don’t talk out, you will act out. Your resentment may show up as backbiting, gossip, silence, disengagement, distrust, and more. I’ll assume these behaviors do not represent how you’d like to show up at work, so start talking before resentment takes over.
I recommend you hold the following Crucial Conversations.
Talk with Yourself
We agree the comment about your nationality was uncalled for and disrespectful, but let’s set that aside for now. You say you are open to feedback, so take time to really examine whether the criticism has any merit. Do you tend to be blunt?
Just because a perspective is delivered poorly or is hard to hear doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. I encourage you to reflect on your interactions and examine whether you tend to shut others down. While it would have been helpful to receive specific examples, perhaps you can think of interactions where being overly direct hindered dialogue.
Is there room for improvement? Could you be more receptive? Are there times when withholding your opinion might generate better dialogue? I don’t know the answers, but I encourage you to hold this Crucial Conversation with yourself and use this as an opportunity for growth. You can find more ideas in my recent article, “When Feedback Feels Abusive.”
Talk with the Messenger
Next, address the hypocrisy you perceived when the manager passed along the feedback. Ask if they would be willing to discuss the feedback. During this conversation, stick to the facts and use the contrasting skill.
Start by letting your manager know what you don’t intend. For example, “I don’t intend to ignore feedback that would help me be a better teammate. I’ve spent some time reflecting, and I can see that I tend to be blunt. I think I have room for improvement and will work to change this behavior.”
Then articulate what you do intend. “And, as I’ve reflected on this feedback you shared, I’m having a hard time reconciling it with the values we say we care about here.”
Then factually describe what happened. “You told me that a colleague said my nationality shows by my bluntness in meetings. While I can appreciate the feedback, the fact that it was tied to my nationality feels hurtful, disrespectful, and unnecessary. It especially feels uncalled for when we say that, as an organization, we pride ourselves on being inclusive. Speaking negatively about one’s nationality does not feel inclusive. To be honest, it feels discriminatory. And when you, as a leader, don’t shut that down but rather pass it on, it seems to condone bias rather than inclusivity. How do you see it?”
Then wait for the manager to respond. If the manager is not open to the discussion, dismissive, or even disrespectful in return, your next Crucial Conversation may need to be with another leader or HR.
If the Crucial Conversation with the manager progresses, ask them to identify the source of the feedback. Explain that it’s important to you to speak to the source because you’d like to repair the relationship. Also explain that you’d like some specific examples to help you as you process and apply the feedback.
Talk with the Source
Once you are aware of the source, ask that person for a few minutes to talk. Give them some context, then hold a Crucial Conversation similar to the one you held with the manager. Stick to the facts and contrast. Explain what you don’t intend and explain that you’d also like to talk about how the feedback was delivered.
Hopefully they’ll be open to your feedback. If they are, they will likely apologize, which I encourage you to accept. Ask for examples of how your bluntness has impacted the relationship so you can do things differently in the future. Be open to those examples and listen. Express your own apology and commitment to do better. Conclude by letting them know that if they have feedback for you in the future, you’d appreciate hearing it from them directly.
These aren’t easy Crucial Conversations, but if the feedback was as hurtful as you say, it’s important to speak up. Remember, what you don’t talk out, you’ll act out. And resentment grows larger and uglier as time goes on. I am also confident that your willingness to engage in dialogue will improve the culture of your team and organization—an important result for everyone.
Best of luck,