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 6 p.m. 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 judgment, 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 nine 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 judgment 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 may 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?
Sarah Deveraux is a Leadership Coach & Advisor with Third Coast Coaching and a member of the White Pine Leadership Collective, which will lead the FLOURISH: A Transformation Workshop for Women in Leadership on Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at 1440 Multiversity. Sarah has coached and facilitated for more than a decade on a variety of leadership topics including resilience, wellbeing, innovation, self-awareness, trust, complexity theory and systems thinking. She is passionate about developing senior women leaders in traditionally male-dominated industries, like tech, finance and manufacturing. For more information, visit whitepineleadership.com.