On being ... a proverbial minefield

A friend (Felicity, not her real name) recently mentioned in an e-mail to me and some other friends of hers that she was planning on taking a professional development seminar. As part of the pre-seminar “homework” she needed to get feedback from people who knew her. The homework involved asking friends to list her three best qualities.

As I finished reading the e-mail, I remembered a situation years ago where I had to ask for such feedback from friends as part of some career counselling. I found the exercise quite valuable and I was taken aback by my friends’ insights about me. As a result, I thought it important to think before providing my response. So, I wrote her back and said I’d e-mail her my list shortly.

As it happened, as soon as I hit send on that e-mail, into my In Box popped an e-mail from Jane (not her real name), one of the other women Felicity included on that first e-mail. Unlike me, Jane was able to rhyme off three of Felicity’s qualities without hesitation. I don’t mind admitting that Jane’s speedy response made me feel oddly self-conscious about taking time with my response. Oh well…

Later that afternoon Felicity wrote me again to ask for my input on a simplified “360 Feedback” exercise that was also pre-seminar homework. Though there were only three questions on the form, they made the task of coming up with Felicity’s best qualities seem simple. So, I decided to start on my response about her qualities first.

As I thought about Felicity, a number of exceptional qualities came to mind – including those Jane mentioned. I managed to narrow my list but there was one particular quality I think Felicity has but that I had misgivings about listing: ambitiousness. I couldn’t help think that -- for better or worse -- there’s a double-standard when it comes to describing a woman as ambitious. (It’s like the difference between describing someone as aggressive versus assertive.) As a result, I know that to some the word has negative connotations.

I was surprised by the churning in my stomach as I debated about whether to include that quality on the list. Ultimately, I decided to include it because it reflects how in awe I am at all Felicity strives for and achieves -- both professionally and personally. Of course, I could only hope she too considers ambition a positive attribute.

The 360 Feedback questions were a whole other matter. The first question asked for examples of when I thought Felicity is at her best. That seemed pretty easy. The next question asked for examples of when she’s not at her best and for comments on how that impacts projects. Oh, and the instructions specifically ask that people responding be “honest, candid and open”. Hmmm… When I read that, the old joke about the prosecutor asking the defendant if he stopped beating his wife with a leather strap, came to mind. You know, the kind of question that no matter how you answer it, you’re in jeopardy.

I ended up spending a lot of time crafting my responses. My goal was to be even handed and constructive, as well as honest and candid. But, I found it very anxiety-provoking. I couldn’t help thinking that whatever I wrote revealed as much about me as it did about Felicity.

After I sent her my response, I told my friend Rob (not his real name) about it and how challenging I found it. His first comment was, “you didn’t tell the truth, did you?” Though his tone implied he was teasing me, I knew his comment was thinly disguised advice. He explained that in 360 reviews he’s participated in, to guarantee anonymity, the feedback was always submitted to a neutral third party. He thought without that layer, most people would not provide honest feedback. As you can imagine, Rob’s comments only fuelled my discomfort.

My discussion with Rob brought to mind an unpleasant episode I encountered once as a result of an evaluation form I filled in after taking a work-place seminar. I earnestly filled in the evaluation, providing what I thought of as constructive criticism. At the bottom of the form was room for our name and so I dutifully provided mine.

Well, let’s just say some of my comments were not received in the spirit in which they were given. Later, a trusted colleague who had been with the company a long time, told me that no one ever signs evaluations. Though I’ve always believed in owning up to my opinions (which is why I had no qualms about signing the evaluation), I learned my lesson. After that I followed the unwritten company policy and provided only anonymous feedback.

The exercises Felicity asked me for input on has had me ruminating about the delicate navigation required to be honest yet sensitive to others’ feelings when giving feedback. In thinking about it, the minefield metaphor came to mind as a title for an On being …. But, as I was nearing completion of this column I came across a sad news story about Syria laying landmines on its border with Lebanon in an effort to stop Syrians from fleeing. After reading that, I realized that though we may worry that our words or comments might be taken the wrong way or might cause unintended hurt, how lucky we are that the minefields we encounter are only of the proverbial kind.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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