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Dear Businesslady,

I’m a woman in my late 20s, and am working in the nonprofit sector in an analytical position. I’ve been in my current role for a few months.

I am able to de-personalize feedback, and am not someone who, say, reacts defensively if someone proposes a change to my work or to my process. Over the years I’ve received plenty of constructive feedback that I’ve worked to address in my performance. However, in both my current role and at my last job, I’ve received feedback that’s really specific to my personality, and, to be honest, cuts a little deep. I’m someone who is more introverted and reserved by nature. The issue that’s been shared with me is that I come across as reserved or aloof (but not, say, brusque or rude). I’ve also received the feedback that I can come across as overly formal or uptight in more casual settings at work. I want to be clear that this isn’t an Autism spectrum issue: while I know that I’m socially awkward in some situations, the issue isn’t that I’m unable to read people or social dynamics. At the same time, I’ve consistently received the feedback that I communicate well in writing and in-person, and I know that the words people use to describe me most frequently are “nice” and “sweet.”

I’m having a hard time knowing what to make of this feedback. On one hand, I know that this feedback is coming from somewhere real in how I come off to people, and I’m working on expressing more enthusiasm and friendliness in the short-term. On the other hand, it bums me out that my personality is an issue at work when I treat people with respect and get things done. Even though I’m now in an analytical role, not a sales or relationship-building role, I’m wondering if I should move into something like IT or tech, where there would be more focus on deliverables and less focus on my personality. I know that communication and personal relationships always make a big difference to your effectiveness, and I’m committed to learning and growing in this area, but I’m starting to wonder if my personality type is just incompatible with analytical work in the nonprofit sector.

I’ll also note that I’ve mentioned this feedback to friends in tech, finance, and consulting, and they are always surprised that I’d be getting feedback like this about my personality (because it’s weird feedback to give, not that it isn’t true). Given your experience, do you think that this kind of personality feedback is especially common in the nonprofit sector? Would you recommend making the move to another field where my more reserved nature would be less of an obstacle to overcome? Is this just some weird gender thing???

Dear Feedbacked,

Well for starters, if I were able to accurately adjudicate “Is this just some weird gender thing???” I would be so busy fixing misogyny forever that I wouldn’t have any time for this column. Fortunately for you, that’s not the case, so my answer to that question is: “maybe???”

Feedback is the double-edged sword of the working world: without it, you’re left grasping for clues about your status within your organization, either blithely screwing up without realizing it or letting your anxieties convince you of your worthlessness even as everyone around you is in awe of your productivity—or, to make things even more complicated, some unknowable combination of the two. But it’s important to note how important feedback is, because actually getting it is the worst.

Look: can I give you some feedback?

And now I think I’ve made my point. How many of you tensed up upon reading those words, despite knowing I couldn’t possibly continue with a critique your own individual work in the following paragraph?

So, okay, feedback is a necessary evil. But I’d like to spend a second unpacking why it sucks, because I think that will ultimately prove useful to you (and to the LW after you, who we’ll get to in a bit).

Some of the reasons that feedback is so unpleasant are pretty obvious: no one likes to be criticized, learning you’ve been doing something wrong is embarrassing, and in a work context there’s often an implied “…fix it or you’re fired” that taps into very legitimate concerns about livelihood and self-sufficiency. But I think those are actually secondary, and that people really dread feedback because they fear being told “you—as a person—are somehow wrong in a way that can never be fixed.” Feedback often ends up giving voice to all the insecurities we harbor within us, and often aligns with shortcomings we’ve been working on our entire lives. (And of course, it can also be misguided, sexist, racist, unnecessary, unkind, or impractical—or even all of those things sometimes—so I’m not trying to suggest it should be taken without any salt grains whatsoever.)

So whenever I receive negative feedback, I ask myself a few questions, which I recommend to anyone who finds it similarly unnerving: Do I understand where this person is coming from? What could I do to mitigate the issue they’ve identified? And, ultimately, do I actually want to put effort into changing?

You don’t necessarily have to understand the feedback-giver’s perspective in order to respond to it—although it certainly helps psychologically. And only you can answer the last question. But let’s tackle the second, focusing on your specific situation.

Here are the facts: You’re still fairly new to your office, you have plenty of friends who don’t find you aloof at all, and there’s a certain weird-and-possibly-gendered element to being told, essentially, “be friendlier.” Taking the last part first, it’s absolutely true that women are often held to a higher standard of workplace cheeriness than men are (this double standard brought to you by the same culture that constantly commands us to smile!). If you suspect that’s what’s at issue here, then I can’t blame you for rankling at this bit of instruction, and if you want to double down on your office-ice-queen status as an act of rebellion, I will not attempt to dissuade you. In fact, in that case it might not be a bad idea to push back a bit, citing other (male) colleagues’ behavior as evidence that you’re not being treated with parity.

I hope for your sake, though, that you’re dealing with something less sinister than institutionalized sexism. My take is that you’re new, you’re trying to be professional, you’re a little on the reserved side, and all of these factors have coalesced into a self-presentation that’s giving people the wrong impression of you. (Shy people have been inaccurately labeled as assholes since time immemorial, so you’re neither the first nor the last person to have this problem.) But since you’ve heard a variation on this theme before, it’s landing a little more painfully than it was probably intended to.

You could just ignore the feedback entirely and see if it subsides as people get to know you better—or you could try to actively combat it, going out of your way to join water-cooler-type conversations, make small talk, and so on. If you do go this route, make sure you let your boss know, “Hey, I’m trying to work on how I come across in the office and seem more approachable. Can you let me know if you think it’s working?”

I know your friends find this whole thing weird, but assuming it’s not being generated by an antiquated Universal Theory of Female Niceness, I can’t really fault a manager for trying to promote a certain kind of warm atmosphere. It’s also not something that’s entirely unique to the nonprofit world (some nonprofits are run as dour bureaucracies; some for-profits are incredibly tight-knit), although a strong sense of “community” is something many nonprofits strive for.

As for shifting careers in response to this, I think that’s a bit extreme. Now, if you’re repelled by the idea of forcing yourself to be more social in the office, and/or this feedback persists even as you’ve taken steps to address it, then maybe you might consider a move to something more isolated. For now, though, I’d try to buddy up with your coworkers and see how things feel once you’ve been there a little while longer.

And while we’re on the subject of feedback…

*

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Dear Businesslady,

How do I provide feedback that a coworker’s feedback is condescending in a way that doesn’t make me sound as though I’m ignoring the actual message or am automatically going on the defensive?

Background:

I work in customer IT support, and we generally work long-term as point people for a specific customer, although customer assignments sometimes change. I’ve recently started working with a new customer. When drawing up a support ticket, I added a coworker who has been assigned to that customer for longer than me, but who has been with the company a few years less than I have (and I haven’t previously interacted with him). I added him because I had a question for him, which usually generates an automatic email.

He didn’t answer within a few weeks and my customer asked about it, so I gave him a call and left him a message asking for an update.

He called me back, provided an answer, and then asked that I make sure to notify him next time. I apologized and said that I would be sure to confirm the automatic email generation was on. He told me that no, it was on, but the correct process is for me to call or email him and not just add him–it’s a major problem that our division leadership has brought to our attention as bad practice. He then repeated it again at the end of the (10 or so minute) call, in a tone that seemed to indicate that I should have known this. I didn’t say anything at the time, since a. this is the first I’ve ever heard of this recommendation (I actually prefer to just be notified by this email) and b. I’ve never had a coworker talk down to me like that.

He immediately followed up with an email again going through the exact steps of this process and offering to meet with me if I didn’t understand it, which I am ashamed to say I deleted right away because I was so frustrated with him treating me like an idiot.

When I’d cooled down, I did some research. There is one mention of the process that he talked about on our company intranet–it was written only a few months ago, by someone specifically in his department. I then went back to check our division-wide meeting powerpoints since that entry. No mention. So he’s not necessarily wrong: this does seem to be a process, but one that hasn’t been communicated outside his department, and there is really no excuse for being so patronizing.

While I don’t agree with this process I can see why someone might want to implement it and also that he could feel put on the spot with the customer because I didn’t follow it. Anyway, how do I make it clear that he may have a point, but he was extremely unpleasant and a poster boy for mansplaining without sounding like I’m just trying to deflect criticism?

– The IT Girl

Dear IT,

You can probably guess why I paired your two letters. You’ve described a situation I think we’ve all been in, and one we can all agree is just awful. Say nothing, and you’re letting obnoxious jerk behavior win the day. Speak up, and you risk being dismissed as defensive or overly sensitive—which in addition to being maddening, could have repercussions in terms of how you’re perceived in your organization.

I can’t speak for you, and certainly not for All Women, but I often go out of my way to avoid making the people around me uncomfortable even when it’s working against my own interests—and I know that I am not alone, and that gender socialization has something to do with this behavior. It is a habit I’ve been trying to break for years, and I’ve gotten better, but the instinct is still there. Against all reason, some part my brain thinks “if you could just make sure everyone likes you, everything else will surely fall into place.” And while there are a zillion reasons why this is a bad and impractical policy, the biggest problem is that it just doesn’t work.

Does that have anything to do with you? Not exactly, but I wanted to provide some background on where my answer is coming from. It’s been a while since I’ve had to deal with a situation like this, and I’d like to say I’d be a badass about it now, but I know there’s a version of me who would opt for never, ever mentioning it due to an inordinate phobia of feather-ruffling. Instead, I’d just quietly seethe whenever I thought about it—anger that I’d pretend was directed at him, but which would be really be directed inward at my own spinelessness.

So there’s that. If we’re talking about feedback, I might as well be upfront about my own shortcomings, right? Sticking up for yourself is rarely easy, and it’s tempting to opt for the path of least resistance even when you know it’s likely to make things worse.

What I think you should do, and what would actually have a chance at being effective, is to have a frank talk with this guy face-to-face. Not a “confrontation” per se; more like, “Hey, I gotta say, I was really taken aback by the way you handled this whole support-ticket thing. I realize that I wasn’t following the protocols you use, and making things harder on you as a result, and I’m sorry about that. But in my defense, that information wasn’t on my radar until you brought it up, and I felt your response was ruder than it needed to be.” You do this face-to-face so that you can keep a measured tone, so that he can see your face, and so that he’s compelled to respond verbally and in the moment.

If he apologizes, great. If he apologizes but pulls the same thing again, then at least you have a precedent to refer to when you call him out the next time. And if he reacts in any other way—by arguing with you, disputing your version of events, implying you’re overreacting—then you say something like “I’m not interested in debating this; I just thought you’d want to know how you’re coming across to your coworkers. I hope we can work together smoothly in the future!” And then walk away. With any luck, you’ll have prompted him to question whether he was indeed being patronizing—and either way, you can safely deposit him your mental file of Assholes Who Can’t Be Reasoned With.

If there’s a theme in these letters, it’s that feedback is on a spectrum between truly well-intentioned advice and bullshit that should not be countenanced (with all kinds of variation in between). It’s not always easy to tell the difference, but if your oh-hell-no senses are tingling, do right by yourself and speak up. And on the other hand, if you suspect that there’s some truth to what you’re hearing, take a moment to lick your wounds before commencing the necessary steps toward self-improvement. I certainly hope that this IT dude has the capacity to learn the error of his ways, and I will leave you with that heartwarming possibility as we close out 2015.

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Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. Her job history includes everything from food service to retail to corporate nonsense, but she currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet.

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