‘Don’t Get a Puffy Tail Over It’

by Leda Marritz

My friend Rebecca and I have an expression for when someone says something at work that immediately makes us react with defensiveness, anger, or frustration. We call it “getting a puffy tail.” (Yes, we are cat owners). As in, “When my boss said I’d have to redo the report I just finished, my tail puffed so hard…”

The expression pokes a little bit of fun at ourselves for immediately reacting to feedback we get at work in ways that are outsized, inappropriate, or defensive. It’s hard to hear that someone is unhappy with you or your work, yet performance feedback — formal or informal — is a certainty and, ideally, helps you develop your skills and grow to feel more confident in your abilities. When a situation comes up at my job where I am feeling criticized or inadequate, I have to work to avoid an immediate and negative reaction. I don’t consider myself expert in avoiding defensiveness in any way, but here are a few things I try to do to keep my tail down.

Strike while the iron is cool
This is a phrase my therapist used to use, meaning don’t try to tackle big problems when you’re upset or emotional. Wait until you’re calm to bring something important up. When you’re the one receiving the feedback this is harder to control, but sometimes still possible. If you know it might be coming, see if you can schedule it for a time when you won’t be stressed out about other deadlines or looming projects. Try, “I want to make sure you have my attention when we meet. I know I’ll be exhausted if we do it right after the sales presentation. Could we meet next week instead?” This gives you some time to cool off, think, and prepare before the conversation.

Don’t respond immediately
Feedback is as much about listening as it is about responding. Few people are ever prepared for truly candid feedback, probably in part because no one wants to imagine the ways in which they are not measuring up or meeting expectations. In order to respond in a meaningful way, we first need to really hear what we’re being told. This can be challenging, especially if it seems to come out of left field or feels harsh.

Remember that you don’t need to respond right away. You can nod, listen, and tell the person giving it that you need some time to think before continuing the conversation. Offer to make time to revisit the topic together in a few days. This is one of the hardest things for me to do, but can work really well if you remember. For example, I’d repeatedly punted on a project that a colleague asked me for weeks ago (I complained of busy-ness — it was true, but also an excuse). When she called me on it, I could feel my tail puffing up. After a briefly escalating interaction where I started becoming defensive, I luckily I had the presence of mind to just listen, and followed up later with a second meeting.

This is for you
This one really flies in the face of our first impulse to get defensive, but feedback is ultimately for you so that you can improve and grow in your position. When what you’re hearing feels personal and overwhelming, try to remember that. No feedback isn’t preferable, either. My friend Steph rarely hears anything from her boss — negative or positive — and it drives her crazy. She has so sense of whether she should keep doing what she’s doing or alter her course. She told me, “Receiving no feedback makes me feel not seen and gives me a constant sense that I’m not doing enough.” Absence of feedback can signify permission, but that doesn’t mean it feels good or puts you in a better position.

Hearing critical feedback is almost always a difficult experience, and most supervisors are not particularly skilled at giving it. There are times where it isn’t fair or right. When that’s the case, it can mean there is a larger cultural or interpersonal misalignment. Sometimes can be fixed and sometimes it cannot. Other times you may truly hear the feedback and fundamentally disagree, or decide not to change your behavior. There are times when this is totally justified. Either way, hearing what your supervisor wants from you ideally gives you the roadmap to succeed in that organization. You can’t control how feedback is given, but you can work on is how you hear it, what it means to you, and what you do with it.

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at smallanswers.us.

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