Don’t fear the feedback

On Wednesday night I presented an information session for one of the academic programs that I advise. In attendance at the session was a woman I knew from a previous role. I was perplexed by this as I work in Nursing and she has a Master’s degree in Student Affairs from a well-known and highly reputable program. Nursing would be a big career change. Why was she there?

We chatted a for a bit after the session. She told me that she is unemployed and has been actively searching for almost two years. She is starting to question her choice of graduate school degree and future professional life. My heart aches for her. Like many, I have been unemployed and I remember well the levels of frustration, anxiety, and sometimes even the sense of desperation that can come with the search. I remember feeling as if the interviewer could smell my desperation when I walked into the room. As a candidate, the deck is stacked against you. There are more of you than there are positions open. In many cases, candidates are given little, if any, feedback about their status in a search. And, candidates are given even less feedback about their performance while in the search.

This woman is smart, kind, capable, honest, and committed. I do not know all the details of why she is not being offered positions. Maybe she doesn’t interview well. Maybe she is under/over qualified. Maybe she doesn’t write well. I have offered to meet with her and do some career coaching. I hope to help her in whatever way I can.

Ever since then, I have been thinking about feedback in the student affairs job search process. I asked her if she had asked for feedback and what, if any, she got. To her credit, she has called past interviewers and asked for feedback. That takes guts. To even ask that question takes courage. To actively listen to what someone has to say takes even more courage.

She related to me that the feedback she has gotten thus far was “You were great! You didn’t do anything wrong in the interview.” Oof. Not only is this not true, it is also not helpful. Obviously something is wrong if she has been unemployed this long. And, how will she ever get better as a candidate if no one is taking the time to help her get better?

Feedback is hard to hear. I hate feedback. I hate hearing it. I hate giving it. But, it is a skill that I am learning and constantly trying to work on. Because, in my career I have been very fortunate to have received direct, honest, specific, and constructive feedback from people whom I know and trust. I also understand how hard it is to give feedback. So, when I get it, I try really hard to listen because I appreciate the time and energy that went into that conversation. I have also seen the impact that feedback has had on my own staffs.

In student affairs, we are quick to praise our colleagues and supervisees. We tweet it, we nominate them for awards, we serve as references. But, when it comes to the tough, icky, uncomfortable stuff, we speak in generalities and niceties that, in the end, mean very little. If all you are ever told is that “it wasn’t you” then how will you ever grow, learn, change, or get better?

Feedback makes us all better. It makes us more self-aware. It makes us slow down. It is helpful to others’ growth and development. It clears the air. It improves communication between individuals and across teams.

Feedback is hard. But the hard stuff is what matters most. That’s where the work really is.

I hope this woman will take me up on my offer to look at her application materials and do a mock interview. If she doesn’t meet with me, I hope she meets with someone who will take the time to genuinely help her, not sweep the feedback under the rug.