Preface:  Workplace Undercover is a recurring segment of this blog, featuring a workplace scenario and a response by a guest consultant. This scenario was written by Carole Marmell. Jennifer Joyce, cofounder of LeadershipSmarts, responds. This is the second of a three-part segment.


In the previous post, Molly, a young bank employee, had expected supportive feedback from her manager during her yearly performance appraisal. Instead her manager strongly criticized her and accused her of acting arrogant and believing she is smarter than everyone else. What can Molly do?

Jennifer Joyce responds:

In this scenario, it may be easy to find problems with how Molly’s supervisor and the appraisal committee are providing feedback. The feedback doesn’t appear to have a strengths-based approach or include positive feedback. It is entirely negative. The information is not specific and is full of judgment (“arrogant”) and assumptions (Molly thinks she’s smarter than us). And it sounds as though there may be issues around Molly receiving the direction and guidance she needs to do a good job on unfamiliar tasks. Finally, Molly is blind-sided by the information as she is expecting a glowing evaluation.

Nonetheless, making a case for “poor Molly” would take Molly down the path to powerlessness.  Handled well, the situation could prove to be a gold mine for developing interpersonal skills, building more trusting relationships, and gaining new self-awareness about blind spots that have been undermining her success at work. To turn this situation into a positive career win, Molly should focus on three things: engage in self-management, “be in the question,” and “uncollapse” the issues of personal effectiveness from quality of work.

Engage in self-management

Any of us could easily be knocked off our center when receiving critical feedback, especially when we’re not expecting it. Molly doesn’t appear to be too emotionally triggered, so she has a good chance of managing herself well during the interaction. Nonetheless, she is struggling with how to explain her side of things without sounding defensive and questioning her own sense of reality and belief in herself.

During the discussion, Molly needs to have two main goals: to stay calm and to stay curious. That could be difficult if, like most of us, her natural inclination is to defend herself.

Molly needs to buy a little time to center herself and access her self-management skills.  To release her stress, she might want to take a few deep breaths, relax back in her chair, and review the points that her supervisor brought up.

It’s always a good idea to take notes in a feedback discussion, as this will help catch the most important points for review later. In addition, reviewing her notes in the meeting would help Molly buy a little time to think through how best to respond.

Be in the Question (Inquiry)

Like many of us, Molly may feel pulled to “be in the answer,” which means she will stick with her own assessment of the situation that makes Molly right and others wrong.

But if Molly uses that strategy she loses on many counts. First, she will damage her relationships and her reputation as people will not only see her as arrogant, but also as unwilling to take feedback and make necessary changes.  More importantly, she will miss the gift that feedback could provide: the chance to see things about herself that others see and she doesn’t.  Without that outside-in view, she could continue to go through life not getting the results she wants and never understanding why.

The way through this dilemma is for Molly to “be in the question,” which means setting aside assumptions in order to become curious about everything that is happening. “What is it that causes people to see me as arrogant?”  “What behaviors could they describe to give me a clue about how they experience me?” “Could they give me an example of a negative appraisal I made that seems out of line?” These questions would help her supervisor provide more specific quality feedback.

Molly could act as her own personal anthropologist trying to understand the world through other’s eyes. If she can stay “in the question,” she will jump start new levels of self-awareness that could lead to tremendous personal growth. She may be able to begin changing assumptions and behaviors that are undermining her effectiveness and begin an upward spiral in her professional development.

“Uncollapse” the Issues

Molly’s biggest concern is that that her team might consider her work substandard. That would be awful for Molly as she takes great pride in producing high-quality work. It’s an important value of hers.

However, if Molly reviewed her notes, she would realize that her supervisor said nothing about the quality of her work. Rather, the feedback is about the quality of her interpersonal effectiveness. She needs to address the two issues separately: first the interpersonal effectiveness issue, and then the work quality issue.

If she was able to be “in the question” when she received that feedback, she is well on her way to addressing the first issue of interpersonal effectiveness.

But that still leaves Molly worried about perceptions about her work performance. Now that she understands the interpersonal issues, she can ask her supervisor to give her feedback on the quality of her work.

Again, she must stay in the question so she can truly hear what her supervisor has to say. She can use the same skills and ask for specific examples to help her understand the feedback, which may be quite good. She can help her supervisor uncollapse the issues by asking “Now that I understand the concerns regarding my interpersonal effectiveness, could we spend a few minutes reviewing the quality of my work?”

Summary.  Here are three steps Molly might take:

  • Engage in self-management
  • Be in the question
  • Uncollapse the Issues

But what about the bank’s role? How might the bank as an organization support Molly and her supervisor in giving and receiving more effective feedback?  This will be discussed in the next post.

References:  Reframing Change, Building Effective Relationships, Chapter 4


Jennifer Joyce, cofounder of, is a leadership development consultant and coach.  She specializes in diversity, continuous quality Improvement, team effectiveness, change leadership, strategic planning, meeting design and facilitation, leadership development and executive coaching.  For more information, see

Carole Marmell, LMSW-IPR, C-SWHC, is a hospice social worker.

Filed under: building effective relationshipsclearing emotionsconscious use of selfhealthy organizationsinfluencing othersinitiating changemaking positive changesstrength-basedworkplace dynamics

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