It happened on a Wednesday. I was in my cubicle preparing for a meeting I felt unqualified to lead, nervously scribbling down an agenda. I was pumping myself up with the freshest single at the time, Like a G6, when I heard my boss shouting over the sea of cubicles, penetrating my ears over Far East Movement's fresh beats.
"JEREMY, can you come into my office please?!"
Her normally calm yet confident voice had risen to a sharp, irregularly stressed pitch. Nervously, I arose from my desk and peeked over the divide, searching a sea of coworkers for an empathetic eye. With everyone glued to their computer screen, seemingly aware of what's to come, I found none. Taking this as a sign of my inevitable fate, I embarked on the long, lonesome corridor to her office.
Dead man walking
As I passed through doorway, the temperature seemed to rise 10°. Still clinging to hope that this was another friendly catchup, my confidence took a hit when she said, "Can you shut the door behind you?" On the surface I calmly obliged, and shut the door as gracefully as I could as if proving that I could do something...anything right. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I was soon concerned that the growing beads of sweat from my torso would seep through my $12 button down and expose my deepest fears. As daintily as a 6'2", 215lb, 22 year old man-boy could, I crossed my legs, committed to a calm and collected demeanor. There was a long, pregnant pause. She studied me for what felt like hours. Surely she knew how uncomfortable I was, and I remember thinking to myself:
Out with it! Put me out of my misery!
How did I get here?
Six months ago, I was shaking hands with my college dean, accepting a diploma on behalf of the school of business at the University of Wisconsin. In lieu of higher paying consulting gigs, I instead accepted a job in Intuit's rotational development program, convincing myself that learning shouldn't stop after college. This program focused on developing future leaders and offered the unique opportunity to switch jobs every 6 months (without having to get fired).
I was 3 months into my first rotation in Intuit's Employee Management division (i.e. payroll software for small biz). My first foray into product management wasn't even the largest of my insecurities. Having just moved to a new state, starting my first job in an industry I knew nothing about, with a side of an ongoing inferiority complex, I was desperately seeking the slightest indication of how much (not if) I was fucking up my job/product.
Refusing to relinquish the only power I had left, I waited for her to speak. Unintentionally holding my breath, I clutched my fists in preparation when she finally broke the silence.
Manager: "Jeremy, I want you to know, we've really valued your work here. Everyone really likes your ambition and personality."
Me [in my head]: "shit. past tense. 'valued'. Here it comes. I wonder if I'll cry."
Manager: "I've heard from several people that you are far exceeding expectations, and many of your teammates can't believe this is your first job out of school."
Me: [shock and disbelief followed by complete silence]
Manager: "One thing I think you could work on is being more prepared for meetings and more confident while you're in them."
Me: "That's great feedback. I'll try and work on that. Thanks!"
That was it. I wasn't fired. I was actually doing a great job, but I somehow convinced myself that I was the weakest link and was so terrible that I needed to pack my things. I peeled my dampened shirt from the leather chair back, and skipped back to my cube.
Could this have been avoided?
In short...yes. There is one major contributing factor that lead most of us (especially those just starting their career) down this inferiority entrenched path toward being on a totally different (and more dramatic) page than our managers. I didn't know how to measure my performance AND...
There was no regular, ongoing channels for positive and constructive feedback.
This is especially true in fields where your output/performance isn't easily measurable (ex: product management). After years of class projects, grades, midterms, and finals, I had no idea how to grade my own performance. The lack of positive praise from coworkers led me to believe I wasn't earning a gold star.
Old habits die hard
My overwhelming joy of still having a job was short-lived and soon backslid to focusing on what I was doing wrong.
"She was probably just being nice. I'm so unprepared for meetings and often lose control of the room. I'm still teetering on the edge of unemployment."
Even after praise, my mindset hadn't changed. Only now, I didn't have to speculate that SOMETHING was wrong. Instead of living in fear, I decided to never get blindsided again by taking a more active role in my development.
I started asking for feedback on everything
Seriously. I even asked coworkers if my breath smelled bad before a meeting with the CEO (note: it did. Luckily, I had a mint handy). I immediately felt better about my situation because I removed all doubt in regards to what I was and wasn't doing well.
Ongoing feedback makes a ton of sense for a few key reasons:
- Inconsistent feedback tends to skew negative: The mentality of 'only say something when something is wrong' creates a vicious cycle of feedback fear where even if it's coupled with praise, we tend to only hear how we're fucking up. This gives the recipient the impression that they aren't doing anything right which has a HUGE impact on confidence (and ultimately job performance). Instead, get in the habit of sending positive and constructive feedback to at least one teammate per week AND ask them to reciprocate. This creates a more open culture where feedback recipients can get used to both positive and constructive feedback.
- More prepared for the annual review: All big companies are largely the same in that they need to know how you performed relative to your peers to make pay/promotion/bonus decisions. This typically consists of providing your manager a list of peers who give you feedback and completing a self-review. It only takes 3 or 4 of these longform feedback requests to fuck up your day. It's easy to put them off and/or not put the appropriate amount of time into each. Not to mention they are regularly back-weighted with examples spanning over the last 4 weeks instead of the intended 12 months because your teammates can't remember accomplishments from 9 months ago. Instead, build out your annual review over the course of the year by collecting and providing small pieces of feedback each week. At the end of the year, all you'll need to do is compile the data and send it off to your manager (who will be smitten that they don't have to chase down and remind all of your coworkers to give you feedback).
- Get on the same page as your manager: Don't leave your manager in a black box when it comes to your personal and professional development. Instead, include them in your feedback loops. Give him or her visibility into what people are saying about you AND (this part is important...) how you plan to address the constructive feedback. Be diligent about what items you choose to focus on. Not only does this show them that you care about your career, it also prevents situations (like mine) where I was sure I was getting fired and my manager thought I was exceeding expectations.
- Treat your job like you treat your car: If you care at all about your car, chances are you take it into the shop every 3-6 months for a tune up (change the oil every 3k miles, rotate tires, check brakes, etc). We don't wait until our engine seizes up from lack of oil to see a mechanic, right? So why would we wait until the annual review to make small adjustments in our day to day? Imagine, you finally get your annual review. Turns out you did a good job and are getting a decent raise, but several coworkers said you need to better manage your time and not overcommit on deliverables. Well guess what? It's too late to make any material adjustments that affect your review/salary/bonus. Better luck next year, champ. Instead, gather weekly feedback to stay on top of development areas as soon as they come up and address them on the spot. Eventually, I gained enough confidence where I wasn't asking for feedback just for validation (which is common for early career employees) but for true growth and development issues. Even years later, ongoing feedback is still a huge part of my professional growth plan and increases transparency into how I can perform better in my job*.
Up next in this series of the power of feedback: How to give constructive feedback. Follow me to be notified when it's live, and please like this post if you had a chuckle or a relatable experience.
*I'm currently starting my own company that makes getting feedback fast and easy. If you'd like to be notified of our launch, you can sign up here! Thanks for reading.