If at all possible, have an in-person discussion. Just because the person works remotely does not make this impossible. If that cannot happen in a timely manner, then use a video tool to have the discussion. The three components to speaking are what we say, how we say it and how we look while saying it. 33% of that is lost when we cannot see the speaker. Additionally, we lose the physical cues to help us understand how our message is being received. This can lead to misunderstandings, frustration and hurt feelings.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Miller-Nelson of Midian.
Combining her background as a Project Management Professional, Senior Dale Carnegie Trainer and Certified Sign Language Interpreter, Sheila Miller-Nelson empowers individuals and teams to find their voice, create connections and elevate company culture through communication and leadership training. Impactful sessions such as Disagreeing with Dignity, Leadership During Crisis and Three Pillars of Character guide individuals to better understand themselves and help cultivate a more cohesive environment.
Aside from training, Sheila brings a critically impartial voice when she moderates panel discussions and facilitates team events.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
From an early age, I witnessed my parent’s willingness to help others whenever they could. Their altruistic example left a strong impression and I found myself taking the path of volunteering and working with others to create better situations. After obtaining my degree in Speech Communications, I was offered two jobs in the same week — one to become a Speech Therapist at an assisted living facility and the other to work in a Fortune 100 corporate environment. The consensus from friends and family was to take the job with a higher profile and more growth opportunity. About seven years into my career, feeling a bit unfulfilled, I took the Dale Carnegie course. After the first evening, I was approached by the franchise owner and asked if I would be interested in becoming a trainer. While completing months of training, I knew I had made a good choice. I continued in my career as a project manager and taught for Dale Carnegie in the evening. I eventually left my corporate job, continued training for Dale Carnegie and felt I still wasn’t fulfilling my mission in life. That led me to launch Midian LLC. Now I am back to helping others create better situations through customized training that impacts them both professionally and personally and cultivates an improved work environment.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My alma mater had the motto “quality education with a personal touch”. I think of Midian as quality training with a personal touch. While the training is created based on the participants and the company, there is another layer of individualization that happens during the training sessions. They are personal and often delve into additional unplanned topics and deeper conversations. In one particular session about life balance, a participant revealed they had difficulty letting go of work when they got home. Although not part of the agenda that day, the group then had a discussion and came up with a list of ways to keep family ‘in sight’ throughout the day and strategies to transition focus before walking through the front door. After the session, another participant stayed behind and told me through tears how grateful he was for the work life balance discussion. He too was struggling because he had two young children and he was afraid they were going to grow up to resent him and his work. He said he did not know how to address the problem and was too frustrated and embarrassed to ask anyone for help. That is the personal touch that Midian is inspired to give all participants.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Two weeks into my corporate career, a young man I hardly knew had a heart attack and died in the parking lot. I was given the task of working with his family to get all his belongings and benefits situated. I was told I could handle it because my father had passed away not long before, so I would know what to do. Not only was this not my job; I was stunned at how it was being handled.
I was shocked and considered pushing back, but then realized I truly did not want to turn away from this family. I contacted them and did everything I could to help them handle all the work components. Turns out there were several challenges with his benefits that took several months to resolve. In the end the family was quite thankful for my assistance, and I know I treated them with the care and respect they deserved. Turns out, I actually was the right person for that job.
This taught me two important lessons. First, opportunities that come to us are not always done so with a pleasant invitation. We shouldn’t let pride or anger get in the way of taking on a task. Second, the universe has a way of putting things in our path that suit us, even if we think otherwise. If I would have declined this opportunity, the family may have had a much less pleasant experience. Stay open to opportunities no matter how they present themselves.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was being interviewed for a job by a panel of three people who I did not know previously. The next week I was hired, and my onboarding coincided with a department holiday luncheon. In the lobby of the restaurant, I thought it would be a good time to start meeting people. I confidently walked up to a woman, extended my hand and introduced myself. Her expression was a combination of a smirk and surprise as she introduced herself and reminded me that we had met. Yes. She was one of my interviewers.
What I learned is not to be so self-absorbed and concerned about me. I wanted to have a good interview and make a good impression. I am afraid that I may have diminished that impression with my forgetful follow up. This unfortunate mistake led me to develop a strategy for me to overcome nervousness. I use my energy to look, listen and learn about the other people in the room and focus on them. This takes my mind off me and helps me avoid these funny (and rather embarrassing) mistakes.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Many people would suggest making time for things outside of work like hobbies, friends and volunteering. Focusing on your family is also common advice as is creating and sticking to specific work hours. I agree with all those things. What we often forget to consider is whether the person is in the right job. If an employee is not following their mission and truly being fulfilled through their daily work, they will become complacent, burnout and eventually leave.
That said, my best advice to hire thoughtfully. So much time and money are wasted on employees who are not in the right job. This doesn’t mean they are a bad employee; they are just not the right employee for that role. That causes slow work product, rework, poor attitude, lack of inspiration and enthusiasm and turnover. When patience and care are invested while hiring, many of these problems do not arise. While it may take additional time and money up front, placing a person in a role that inspires them to do their best will help them thrive and prove invaluable.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A leader is someone who inspires others to do something. That is an extremely broad definition, and many folks, by that definition, are leaders. However, leadership is the way they choose to wield that power to inspire others. People cannot truly be inspired unless they understand the ideas and motivation behind a course of action. Often leaders make sweeping decisions or change direction and tell (or just expect) people to get on-board. Sometimes people will “get on-board” because they are used to that type of leadership and/or they have become complacent. That does not lead to a successful environment. Leadership is taking the time to not only explain decisions but the reasoning behind them. People may not always agree with the action, but they are far more likely to support and respect it.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
While there are some quick fixes you can do to prepare for stress -physical activity, breathing exercises and mindfulness — I subscribe to slow and steady thinking here. Working on stress is an ongoing process. If there is already a base of stress built up in your system, it is easier to become stressed more quickly and more often. I use and recommend three practices — quality eating, regular physical activity and Transcendental Meditation (TM). While eating doesn’t need to be pristine, what we use as fuel for our bodies and minds is highly significant. As for exercise, find something that is not a chore. That could be dancing, walking, gardening — something that you look forward to is much more likely to get done. While eating right and exercising are important, for me, practicing TM has been life changing. It allows me quiet time to still my mind and just be, while releasing that base of stress and allowing me to enjoy life more. I encourage everyone to find a meditative practice that resonates with them. Nurturing your soul on a daily basis helps overall stress remain in check so you are always prepared for situations, whether you knew they were coming or not.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?
As a project manager, I worked with a split team of local and remote folks. It was naturally convenient to give regular feedback to people I saw daily. For remote folks, I built time in my schedule to check in via phone or video. Text is fine, but I wanted to hear and see how they were doing. With time differences it wasn’t always practical to call, so I sent an email requesting a chat the next morning. Aside from feedback, I also took time to talk with remote folks about other general topics. When you are not in the same environment you lose the benefit of hallway exchanges and dropping by their office for a chat. These extra conversations were an important element in keeping all team members included and building cohesiveness as a team.
This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?
Here is an example, an employee takes an action — moving something from point A to Point B. That was the correct action to take, in the correct manner at the correct time. As their leader, I say nothing. After all, they are just doing their job and they get paid, so why take precious time to notice their efforts. I invite you to consider these questions. What will inspire that employee to continue to take the same action? What if they have doubts about it or think the way they do it doesn’t much matter? If I don’t let them know they are doing it right, then I am opening the door for it to change.
Another employee moves something from Point A to Point C. It should have been moved to Point B. As their leader I say nothing. Why, you might ask, would I say nothing? See if you’ve ever heard (or thought) any of these things:
- I am busy — far too busy to correct this action.
- It’s one small thing — it doesn’t matter than much.
- I don’t feel comfortable doing this right now.
- I might embarrass the employee.
- The employee will figure it out.
- The employee’s team will set them straight.
- I’ll put that in their file and bring it up at their review.
Now put yourself in the employee’s place. Wouldn’t you rather be given the opportunity to correct the action immediately? The potential temporary awkwardness of a corrective discussion is a much-preferred choice to being left in the dark, having others notice your continued actions and creating rework. Leaders need to give people every opportunity to make the right choices and take the right actions, if not, their silence paves the way for the opposite.
One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.
While these are specifically for remote employees, they are applicable to all feedback.
- If at all possible, have an in-person discussion. Just because the person works remotely does not make this impossible. If that cannot happen in a timely manner, then use a video tool to have the discussion. The three components to speaking are what we say, how we say it and how we look while saying it. 33% of that is lost when we cannot see the speaker. Additionally, we lose the physical cues to help us understand how our message is being received. This can lead to misunderstandings, frustration and hurt feelings.
- Use eye connection. This is appropriate during all communication (with possible cultural exceptions). Connecting with the person eye to eye helps create trust and elevates our ability to understand the message. When distraction or discomfort causes us to look away, the recipient can create many assumptions and stories around our words. Remember, the way to look someone in the eye on video is to look at your camera lens.
- If you cannot talk with the person and must write something, consider every word carefully. Write the message, walk away from it and do something else, then come back and reread it. Ask an appropriate person to read it confidentially and give you feedback. Reread it again. Would you find the tone of this feedback acceptable if it were given to your parent or your child? Remember, the person cannot un-read it, and your name will forever be attached to it. This is one significant way to create or destroy your reputation and leadership style.
- Share one of your stories of imperfection. Remind the recipient that no one is infallible — including you. Before talking with them, think of a relevant story from your history, how you corrected it and how it helped you grow. While it doesn’t change what happened, it can make for an easier conversation with two-way dialogue instead of a reprimand.
- Ask questions. We often go into a corrective situation with a script. While it is suggested to be prepared, begin the conversation with questions to gather facts. What is this person’s perspective of what happened? Were there extenuating circumstances? Why did they choose this action at this time? Stay quiet and listen. Do not interject, sigh or roll your eyes. Invite the other person to share and you may end up in a vastly different conversation then you expected.
Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.
How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
As stated above, I would only do this if there was not an in-person or video option. Instead of creating a lengthy message loaded with all the information you have, start by letting them know you think there is an issue. Ask a few well thought out questions with neutral language to get their side of the issue. It is beneficial to agree to the facts before proceeding with correction.
Many people ask about giving a compliment to start the message. While you can make a general statement, people are often wary of the leading compliment, because they know there is a “but” coming, making the compliment seem shallow and gratuitous. The better compliment is to show them respect by asking questions, getting their side of the issue and inviting a discussion.
In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?
Feedback, whether positive or corrective, is usually most effective when given immediately after the action or incident. However, a perceptive leader will know if the circumstances are not conducive to feedback in the moment and wait for the next best time.
When the incident has just occurred, memories are fresh, and the feedback can lead to a more productive discussion and understanding. An effective example of this is sports teams. The coach doesn’t wait until the end of the game, next week or an annual review to discuss what’s going well with the game and what needs improvement. This behavior would cause frustration for the player, the team and the fans. In business, how can we expect employees to change behaviors or keep doing certain activities if we don’t discuss it with them while we have the opportunity to do so? When team members see something that needs correcting and leaders do not take the time to do so, it breeds a negative culture. Stakeholders can feel this, and it can completely undermine your business.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss will never ask something of their team that they are not doing themselves. One time over our corporate two-week holiday shutdown, our team was required to work. Our leader was there with us every day. Not only that, he was the first one in with breakfast and coffee, treated us to lunch, and most importantly sincerely shared their gratefulness for our team’s sacrifice. People will be more inspired to do great things with you rather than for you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Sometimes the simplest ideas have the biggest impact so I would like to inspire people to habitually use three simple courtesies — please, thank you and may. This small politeness gives us a second to think about the kindness we bring to one another and the environment. If I created the popular voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant home devices, I would have coded them so they wouldn’t work unless your command ended with “please”. I realize this may have reduced their sales.
When it comes to people, this courtesy is so powerful, yet we have allowed our fast-paced world to overshadow the habit. We tell the restaurant server, “I’ll have a steak and potato” or “Give me a croissant and coffee”. How would the world start to look different if we started with “May I”? Even better, get a 2 for 1 deal and start with “May I please”.
And while “thank you” may get the most use of the three, it is often a trite automatic response. What if we looked the other person in the eye, thought about what they did for us, and used the words meaningfully?
Although these are three small words, when used consistently, think about how the world would sound. Creating that environment might lead to bigger and better changes in how people think and feel.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” Henry Ford understood the role that approach and attitude have in all we do. While knowledge, critical thinking, training and practice all play a part, the attitude with which we undertake something can be the keystone to our success.
I have encountered many things in life where negative self-talk has sabotaged the outcome. Over time I have gotten more in step with this quote. It has allowed me to think bigger, be smarter and reach further. I would have never started Midian if I thought I could not be successful. That said, sometimes this positive attitude still escapes me, so I keep Mr. Ford’s quote nearby!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I appreciate this opportunity to share and hope it has proved valuable for the readers. I invite folks to visit my website at midianllc.com
Sheila Miller-Nelson of Midian: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.