12/03/21 | Blog

How To Give Feedback That Doesn’t Trigger the Impostor

Giving good feedback is hard — especially when the person receiving it suffers from Impostor Syndrome, which makes them inordinately sensitive to anything they may perceive as criticism. Impostors’ mental and emotional boundaries are not sufficiently strong, so they internalize and often take personally and overreact to critical feedback. 

As an example, let’s consider Jana, a senior product manager at Amazon. She describes her role as both stimulating and challenging, because the caliber of talent across her department is high. But so are the expectations and pressure to perform. 

Jana and I first met just after she and her team had presented their annual plan to the VP in charge of her department. His response to her presentation was great, but in front of her team and peers he also told her that he felt she and her team should “think bigger.”

When Jana took the Impostor Breakthrough assessment, she scored high in Rejection Sensitivity. So it was no surprise that her immediate reaction to her VP’s feedback caused her to take his input as searing criticism (even though he most likely meant for his comments to be constructive). This triggered deep and unconscious feelings of shame, which caused her to shut down, abruptly end the meeting, and leave the room. 

But it didn’t stop there. The VP’s remarks nagged at Jana for weeks, causing her to question whether she was really qualified and deserving of her position at the company.

Even though all of this may sound extreme, her reaction is completely natural. As COMPOSURE co-author Joshua Isaac Smith explains, “When Jana’s boss told her to think bigger, she experienced this as a threat. As a result, her fight-flight-freeze response took over.” 

Joshua’s research shows that fight-flight-freeze is a primitive survival instinct that results in instant hormonal and physiological changes — and people with high levels of rejection sensitivity are especially prone to experiencing this response. 

This may sound like your body is getting ready for a fight. And back when we were hunter-gatherers, that was probably true. But now that we’ve evolved from caves to boardrooms, shouldn’t our brains know the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat?

Not necessarily.

Even though you’ve evolved, there is still a reptilian part of your brain that spontaneously responds to certain stresses as if your life were threatened by a predator. At that point, a bodily process older than humankind takes over.

Jana’s reaction to the VP’s feedback in the meeting was first flight, then freeze. When she created the exit she needed (“Meeting adjourned!”), she went into flight mode and immediately left the room. After that, she went into a paralyzing freeze mode by never meeting with the VP, thus missing out on the potential benefits and valuable insights his feedback could have provided.

In this scenario, everyone lost.

The power of the effective, constructive feedback framework

Jana’s story shows us how easy it can be for a seemingly innocuous piece of feedback to cause legitimate harm. Get it wrong when you give feedback and you’ve inflicted harm or damaged a relationship with an important team member. But when you get it just right? The recipient leaves the meeting feeling encouraged, confident, and motivated.

So how can you accomplish that — giving candid, effective feedback to your valued employee — without triggering her to react? And how can you build trust and rapport to help shift her beyond Impostor Behaviors to build confidence and become less sensitive to feedback?

We’ve developed a feedback framework to eliminate reactivity. It works well for anyone, whether or not they’re sensitive and reactive due to Impostor Behaviors. 

Ask permission to give feedback

Since impostors can be easily triggered in these situations, it’s important to ask their permission before offering feedback. This gives them a sense of control, allowing them to assess whether they are in a good emotional space to hear the feedback and have it actually sink in. 

You might say something like, “I’d like to check in with you on your project to review your progress, offer support, and provide feedback. Is now a good time?”

If they say no, ask them to suggest a good time. 

Giving them control helps to put impostors more at ease because many aren’t quite sure where they stand with you or with the team. Asking for permission is a step that acknowledges that their work matters and reassures them that you just want to check in to be on the same page.

Have them self-evaluate first

Since impostors are often perfectionists and highly self-critical, it works well to elicit their feedback first. That way, you won’t need to deliver any negative feedback that they’ve already self-identified and are willing to share. You’ll find that this happens often, as impostors are usually incredibly self-critical.

We recommend using the same structure each time you give feedback so they can be more at ease knowing what to expect. We suggest that you give feedback in five areas:

  • Timeliness
  • Quality
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Learning

You might give them these questions in advance of your feedback session so they can prepare their self-evaluation. It’s often effective to have them rate themselves on a 5-point scale. 

  1. Are you on track or did you complete your project on schedule? If not, what got in the way? 
  2. Is your work product high-quality? Does it meet our standards of excellence? If not, in what areas could it be improved? What got in the way?
  3. Were you effective when collaborating with teammates and colleagues for the project?  If not, what got in the way?
  4. Did you communicate early and often regarding project status and to resolve and gain alignment on issues that might have arisen? If not, what got in the way?
  5. What did you learn that might help you in the future? What might you have done differently?
  6. Overall, how would you rate your performance? 

Give your feedback

Assuming your impostor-prone employee is self-aware, it is likely that you will agree with much of her assessment and not have too much to add. You may even see opportunities to highlight and provide positive feedback in areas where they are overly self-critical to help boost her confidence and counteract her perfectionism.

When you need to offer feedback they may perceive as critical, your employee may go into fight-flight. As we saw with Jana, in this state, the reasoning center of their brain goes offline, and they simply can’t process or respond effectively.

Compassionate feedback techniques are designed to avoid triggering fight-flight, thus enabling your employee to better absorb and integrate the feedback you give. We suggest a two-part compassionate feedback format: 

What I saw that worked well is …

What I’d like to see more of is …

Putting it into action

Here is an example of what a feedback session using the techniques above might sound like:

“Thank you for your thoughtful evaluation. In general I agree with your assessment, and I appreciate that you have identified areas for improvement and have good ideas for how you might be more effective in the future. 

I believe, however, that you’ve been overly self-critical. You gave yourself a 3 out of 5 as to the overall performance, whereas I would give you a 4. The quality is higher than you assessed, and you did an excellent job getting the support and contribution from colleagues that you needed to complete your project. I have only a few suggestions for improvement beyond what you have identified. [Give suggestions.]

Regarding timeliness, one thing that is extremely important to me is that our team is accountable to deliver commitments on time. If that’s not possible for whatever reason it’s important to communicate early and reset and renegotiate expectations. What I’d like to see in the future is that you check in with me a couple of days prior to the deadline if you think you might not be able to deliver on time. That way I can work with you to re-prioritize other tasks or agree to extend the deadline.  

Looking back, when did you have the sense that you might not be able to complete the report on time? If you could do it over again, what might you have done differently?

In light of this feedback, is there anything else you’ve learned or that you might do differently in the future?”

Giving compassionate and effective feedback is critical to create an environment of psychological safety and maximize engagement and performance for those who suffer from Impostor Syndrome. By asking for permission, hearing the impostor’s evaluation first, then providing clear input only where it’s needed, your feedback is much more likely to be heard and integrated in a positive, constructive way.

This piece originally appeared on Composure, and was published here with permission.

If you enjoyed this modified book excerpt, please check out COMPOSURE: The Art of Executive Presence, available now wherever books are sold.

Kate Purmal

Kate Purmal

Kate is a Board Director at ABD Insurance and Financial Services and a Business Advisor and Executive Coach. She is also an author and a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University. Kate is a passionate advocate for diversity at the highest levels of business and is a firm believer that unwavering optimism can transcend even the most daunting systemic barriers in the workplace. She has spent decades as an executive coach, bringing out brilliance in leaders and their teams. Kate launched her career as a member of Palm Inc.’s founding management team before becoming a Senior Vice President at SanDisk. She has subsequently served as CEO and COO for several start-ups and privately held companies, and serves as an Independent Board Director. Kate now applies her expertise to research gender equity in the C-Suite as a Senior Industry Fellow at Georgetown University. Kate is a guest lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, University of Michigan’s Ross school of Business and Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. She is the author of The Moonshot Effect: Disrupting Business as Usual. Her second book, The Impostor Breakthrough, will be published in 2021.

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