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I work in cybersecurity at a financial services firm and am the technical lead / team lead of our team. This week I had a 1 to 1 with my manager and got both positive and what I feel is negative feedback.

On one hand, my manager said I am persuasive, effective, and assertive to get stakeholder buy in, but there were also instances in which I can be opinionated, excessively forceful / aggressive, and dominating. I do tend to have an outgoing personality and like to lead, so I can see how I can be sometimes over the top, maybe intimidating more junior folks.

I am the most experienced technical person on the team with about 4 to 5 years more experience along with two certifications in my field. Although not stated explicitly that I could be putting off other team members, I was given feedback by my manager that I should take into account the context of some of my feedback and the influence I may have by peer pressure effect on my team.

How do I interpret the latter half of my manager's feedback, to consider the possible peer pressure I may be having on junior team members?

Is my reading that I may be overly aggressive reasonable?

How can I moderate my approach and still be seen as influential and assertive?

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  • "I do tend to have an outgoing personality and like to lead, so I can see how I can be sometimes over the top" - is this "I might sometimes act in ways I shouldn't" or "This is just the way I am (which I can't/won't change) and that sometimes offends people"? The former means being open to feedback. The latter means not being open to feedback. May 6, 2021 at 13:48
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    I'm not sure this is specific enough to be answerable. The adjectives in the pros and cons mean roughly the same thing. Being a bit assertive is good, being too assertive is bad. You need to find a good middle-ground, and how to approach that could vary a lot based on the individuals involved and the specifics of any one of countless situations. May 6, 2021 at 13:51
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    Ask your manager for specific (but anonymized) examples so you know where you're going over the top. Then you'll at least know what you need to address instead of shooting blindly in the dark. You may think you need to fix area A, while the complaints were about B. This could end up leading you to more negative feedback since you're no longer as strong in an area others think you're strong in, while you continue to be weak in areas others see you as weak.
    – FreeMan
    May 6, 2021 at 14:15
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    Not an answer on its own, but something I try to apply: If I have an opinion about something, I should be able to explain myself. If I cant, I need to tone down.
    – Martijn
    May 6, 2021 at 14:26
  • Side note, you should be pleased your manager is telling this to you now, not in December at your annual review. Your manager clearly wants you to address these issues, and I would not be surprised if there was a motivation in having you address them now as opposed to later, for example, they're considering you for some sort of elevation whether it be promotion or high profile committee assignment.
    – corsiKa
    May 6, 2021 at 17:00

7 Answers 7

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The thing that I zeroed in on when reading the question was this feedback:

opinionated, excessively forceful / aggressive, and dominating

It doesn't really matter if this comes from a junior, a peer, or a leader. The end result is the same. Someone perceived you to have these traits. It's easy to dismiss this as someone being too sensitive or "maybe you should just moderate your tone with juniors". That doesn't really address the problem being relayed.

I've given this feedback to some of my direct reports, and I've received this feedback from some of my leaders in the past. It's impossible to guarantee that no one is ever going to be offended by your words or demeanor. It is possible to control your actions in such a way that those occurrences are the outlier rather than the norm.

The first recommendation I would make is to pause before responding to anyone. No matter what the situation is, just take a full second (you'd be surprised how long a single second is when in a conversation) to gather a thought, and then respond. It seems like such a simple, meaningless thing, and what it tells the other person is that you weren't just waiting for your turn to respond. You were taking the time to listen and absorb what they were saying before speaking. This is huge in the "dominating" perception. When you're just waiting for your turn to respond, it's understood that you just want to force your opinion/ideas on someone. When you are listening and considering, people don't feel controlled even when you disagree with them. Don't underestimate the power of a single second's worth of pause between discussion and response.

Another tactic I use is questions. I try not to state assertions, and if I must state an assertion, I follow it up with "What are you thoughts on that?". I don't use language like "Do you understand?" or "Does that make sense?" These are binary questions and really don't provide a safe space for someone to disagree. If it doesn't make sense or they don't understand, then they're perceived as stupid. If you have an idea, try proposing it as a suggestion in the form of "What if we did {x} then {y}?" or "I was thinking {x} and then settled on {y} because of {z}. How do you think that would affect {w}?" Assertions are the forceful pushing of thoughts and ideas onto people and they leave no room for disagreement or growth. Questions by their nature are open and encouraging. Using the second method I just described, you can make an assertion (showing decisiveness and knowledge) at the same time as welcoming ideas and discussion.

Third, know who you're talking to. You are not your audience. They are. They don't hear things the way you do. Watch their face, hands and shoulders for clues that they're not receiving your message positively. If you see any of these signs, stop immediately. Ask them about it. Try "I feel like I'm not communicating effectively." Then try again, or ask for their help in communicating what you're trying to say by asking what they're hearing from you.

These are all long term solutions, not immediate solutions. Once people have a particular perception of you it takes time to change that. A fast track to changing that perception (if you know who has it) is to sit them down and be open and direct with them. Tell them that you never intended to be aggressive or hostile. Ask them what it was or what you can do to prevent that. A tactic I've used and recommended to my directs in the past:

I'm sorry I gave you that feeling. It was never my intention to put that on you, and I don't want to do it again. How can I be better for you in those moments?

Then listen to them and follow through with it. The one key that drives my personal leadership style and working relationship foundation is that question: "How can I be better for you?"

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Coming from 30 years in a technical field and very focused on facts I had quite similar feedback a few times. Sometimes even being jokingly called the "Grumpy old curmudgeon".

What I found works for me:

  • Feedback is just that, feedback
  • It is my interpretation that makes it negative or positive
  • Negative means there are skill gaps I have that I want or need to work on
  • Who can help me? Who do I ask for help?

Working in a technical field tends to attract people with fewer social interaction skills. After all a computer / network / database either works or not. People on the other hand are more fuzzy "logic". Interpreting from your style of writing this black and white thought style is something you do.

It took me a while (and still gives me work to do) to learn the following:

  • Be approachable - meaning asking others whether you can help with something or even interrupt your own workflow when asked (which in turn can lead to other problems getting swamped with requests)
  • Relate training / explanations with stories how I learned it - especially if I can turn this into a kind of funny story where I failed
  • Everyone is different and almost everyone brings a unique perspective to an issue - try to get a sense how others feel and adjust your approach accordingly
  • Give feedback to others - explaining how I it makes me feel and especially give positive feedback where appropriate as we as humans tend to gloss over things "well done" or "working as expected"

Do I get this right all the time? You can bet I fail at times.

In the right environment / setup a 360 review can also work wonders. Get your team together and every person gives feedback to every person. There is no discussion allowed. The person addressed just listens. And finishes their own session with the words: "I thank you all for your constructive feedback and will take it into consideration. However I am not in this world to be like others want me to be."

It will take a few rounds to get comfortable giving feedback openly and receiving it. And especially saying these two sentences at the end.

Good luck finding your personal style!

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  • Perspective is exactly what this can come down to. One person can see a statement as useful feedback and another can see the same exact statement from the same conversation as "from the Grumpy old curmudgeon". Intention is also important to understand, but it's much less concrete when it comes to explaining why something was said. And context is definitely important. Calling something a POS around someone that doesn't understand the acronym also means Point Of Sale can lead to certain, um, Conversations. May 6, 2021 at 17:30
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    However I am not in this world to be like others want me to be. - then what's the point of doing the session?
    – Caius Jard
    May 7, 2021 at 9:28
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    @CaiusJard The point is to make clear that I as person am who I am. And the only person to allow and make changes to myself is I. May 7, 2021 at 11:00
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    See now, what you said there and your recommended sentence are rather different things.. I'd advocate you cease announcing However I am not in this world to be like others want me to be in your meetings; if I heard someone say that on the back of "thanks for the feedback", I'd interpret it as "Thanks for the tips, but you're sadly mistaken if you think I'm going to actually change in response to them. I'll carry on doing what the heck I like". Your initial sentence (I thank you all for..) stands perfectly well on its own and paints you in a good light. The followup diminishes that
    – Caius Jard
    May 7, 2021 at 17:18
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This would seem to be the result of a junior complaining. I'd take it as a heads up and just be less aggressive with the juniors. Not really that difficult, just watch how you act around them.

Be more helpful, spend more time explaining issues, give them more leeway. After all they don't have your experience and drive. An important thing to watch out for is not assuming they can pick things up as you would, many times I've found that people do not understand as fast or in the same way as I did at their level, which can frustrate them as they feel they're not getting enough guidance.

There's no need to go too far though, you ARE the senior employee.

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How can I moderate my approach and still be seen as influential and assertive?

Assertive is maybe not the best thing to focus on for you right now. While it is a good quality in certain contexts, based on your manager's feedback it seems you've crossed the line into being over-assertive. For you, the focus should be on humility rather than assertiveness, and probably a less pro-active style of leading.

This is a skill I learned from my grandfather. In his day, he did very well on a management level in his job, and he has always been a quiet yet very present voice of reason in our family, much like how he was in his job.

He didn't proactively lead anyone, but he mentored and socratically reasoned with you, which in turn made us inclined to look at him as a leader.

When we visited, my grandmother would be the chatterbox. She'd be verbose, quick to discuss things and ask, but also prone to misunderstanding or overstating. My grandfather, on the other hand would generally not really speak much, watching TV with one eye and paying attention to the conversation with the other. But he would chime in whenever he felt that someone made a mistake or needed help with something they didn't know or were unsure of.

He would socratically ask one or two questions for clarification, and almost always the answers to those questions would help you put two and two together yourself. If not, he'd put two and two together for you, always explaining how he got to that conclusion.

Since I've started my work life, I have noticed that good managers and leads tend to display this same quality. They hold a lot of knowledge and skill, but they don't proactively override others. They don't direct people so much as let them direct themselves with (initially) minimal guidance (relative to how much guidance the person needs), but keep an eye out to make sure that it's going well.
If not, or the team member indicates uncertainty, they'd help out just enough until the team member felt confident enough to continue by themselves.

The key phrase here is empowerment, as opposed to overriding.

I was given feedback by my manager that I should take into account the context of some of my feedback and the influence I may be peer pressure effect I may be having on my team

If you have more answers than anyone else, it's very easy to start giving these answers instead of working with others to find them together. This runs a few risks:

  • You may be blind to improvements, and your lead position makes it so people can't really override you (hence the "peer pressure effect" you mention)
  • You cause others to not be able to think for themselves anymore, which can make them lose passion for their job. Developers are inherently problem solvers, and if you always give them the solution, they'll lose interest in tackling problems.
  • It sets a know-it-all reputation that is going to have a negative impact on a social level.

There's nothing wrong with knowing a lot of information, but being a proactive know-it-all will generally be received negatively.

Don't underestimate how much your public perception in the workplace can influence your perceived value as an employee. Whether you have all the answers or not, if people plain don't like you, you're at a disadvantage.

Some general tips:

  • Do not take credit for things you helped solve. A person in a leading role who takes credit will very quickly be perceived negatively and will be avoided so as not to steal the person's credit from their own hard work. Try to be the unsung hero, because those you helped will then willingly credit you, which has a positive effect on your reputation.
  • Never use your lead position as a justification for why you're right. At best, explain that because two options are equally viable, you chose to take A instead of B. If something is better, no matter who came up with it, it's better.
  • Read up on the Socratic method. It's the core of how you can give someone information without making it feel like you're outright telling them what to do/think.
    • Don't overdo the socratic method either. If you're less than subtle about how you introduce knowledge, people will see your attempt as a veiled way to override them anyway.
  • Try not to inject your knowledge unless you have a concrete reason to, e.g.
    • Someone asks for help
    • Someone seems to be stuck on a specific item
    • Only really inject yourself for important things, e.g. when a short-term mistake can cause serious damage or have long-term ramifications.
  • Instead of injecting yourself, take a backseat, but remain observant for cases that require your attention. Usually, unless someone asks for help or is not keeping up with status meetings, you usually don't need to take action.
  • Ask if you can help and how, instead of telling them they need help.
  • Ask if someone considered approach Y instead of X, rather than telling them they "should use Y".
  • Try to focus on being available to answer questions, as opposed to fixing mistakes. The latter tends to put people on the defensive, as they don't want to be perceived as making mistakes in front of their lead.
  • Never judge a person by the mistakes they've made. Openly admit having made similar (or worse) mistakes. Try not to point out to someone what mistakes others (i.e. third parties) make, unless you know the third person is open to admitting fault themselves and can laugh about it.
    • In that same vein, try to make light of mistakes with a "it can happen to anyone" subtext, because it will make people more eager to work with their team and you, as opposed to trying to hide things they don't know or did wrong.

Of course, I can't know specifically which of these apply to you and which don't. These are just general tips on how to lead without causing friction with the people you're leading.

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    Great answer. TL;DR ask, don't tell; be last to speak; value your people over "being right all the time."
    – mxyzplk
    May 6, 2021 at 15:40
  • Your grandfather acted that way? That's unusual since we're talking 1950's - 70's probably . Leaders had more authority in those times and were more prone to use it. Kudos to him. And to you for recognizing the value in those qualities. May 7, 2021 at 0:35
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    @StephenBoesch: My grandfather was a college dropout (hence not trying to act with authority) with a healthy dose of common sense. He didn't have authority. He just helped people, who would naturally start deferring to him, thus ensuring his place in a management role. He never made it high up in the chain of management, but he was always quite liked by his employees.
    – Flater
    May 7, 2021 at 8:57
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How do I interpret the latter half of my managers feedback, to consider the possible peer pressure I may be having on junior team members?

At face value. It's quite likely that the junior team members feel pressured and sometimes steam rolled by you.

Is my reading that I may be overly aggressive reasonable?

yes

How can I moderate my approach and still be seen as influential and assertive?

By defining your goals as a leader. A "manager" tells people what to do, a "leader" helps people figuring out what to do by themselves. It's a great goal to make yourself obsolete: a great leader builds organizations and grows people that are better than themselves.

In any given situation you probably already know what to do. If you work with a junior ask them what they think, then listen (and bite your tongue in the process), help them with their thought process so they can come up with the best path of action themselves. Over time they will get better at it and, who knows, you may get some great suggestions that haven't occurred to you yet.

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I am persuasive, effective, and assertive to get stakeholder buy in, but there were also instances in which I can be opinionated, excessively forceful / aggressive, and dominating

Honestly, this seems to me two face of the same coins. And we don't really know what is really going on.

Some people consider assertiveness as agressiveness /dominance.

On others instance, since you seems pretty passionate about your job, you might sometimes being "too passionate" in your way of speaking and your assertiveness might become dominance.

For the first part, as Kilisi said, it might come from juniors, it might be better to have your manager explains the difference between being assertive and agressive in the professional world and why being assertive is actually a good thing, specially if you face customer/stackholder.

For the second part, you might just be want to be a bit more carefull on not getting too passionate, specially if the person you're talking to is confronting you and is in disagreement.

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    I hear ya. I lived in a city where assertiveness is an absolute requirement but I'm from a rural town where passive-aggressive is the cultural norm. When somebody more assertive comes along we all perceive that as aggression.
    – Justa Guy
    May 6, 2021 at 11:03
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It’s easy to forget when we’re in the middle of working on a problem with someone we see as a teammate that our seniority puts us in a position of power over them. They can’t debate ideas with us as freely as someone who is as experienced as we are could. Giving them some space to present their side is important.

The simplest way to address this is to adjust your communication style. Let people explain their idea and why they think it’s a good one before you tell them how wrong they are. Asking them at least one sincere clarifying question about it before expressing your opinion can change the entire dynamic. Accepting criticism is a lot easier when someone feels that the critic understands what they’re criticizing.

Even if you are just pretending to think they might know something you don’t, letting someone explain the why of what they want to do will help you more effectively correct underlying misconceptions. Often the “why” will be related to something they were taught that might be a good idea in general, but that you know doesn’t work in this specific situation due to your experience. If you can explain that to them instead of just shutting down their wrong idea, you’ve prevented future bad ideas and made them see that you’re not just insisting on your way because it’s yours.

Joel's answer also has a lot of good tactical advice on solving the issue that people at work perceive you as more dominating or aggressive than you intend to be.

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