Jean, Jorts, and tough feedback

Originally posted Jan 13, 2022 • More resources on delivering feedback

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I can’t stop thinking about a recent AITA post from the manager of two cats named Jorts and Jean.

The post itself is Reddit gold—surprising and empathetic with moments of pure joy—but I also read it through the lens of someone who coaches a lot of managers as they need to respond to surprising and sensitive feedback at work.

After sharing the post with many friends and family members (the story and subsequent update are genuinely delightful!!) I got to thinking about how it’s a great example of receiving important feedback when tensions are high.

I’m excited to walk through what this manager did, because I think it could be a model for so many of us when we need to give or receive tough feedback:

Quick recap

Though I recommend you go and read the full post and update, here’s the gist: in a workplace that provides services to clients at very sad and stressful points in their lives, there live two cats named Jean and Jorts. Jean is a clever tortoiseshell cat, while Jorts gets himself into a multitude of predicaments (falling in trash cans, getting himself stuck in closets, etc.) and happens to be orange (this is important later!). Jean often helps Jorts out of his predicaments.

One human teammate, Pam, tried to help Jorts develop new skills by making life a bit harder for Jorts—putting margarine on his body so he might learn to clean himself better, removing failsafe exits from a room so he’d figure out how to open a door, assigning tasks to other teammates that would teach Jorts something—all in an effort for to get Jorts to learn.

The manager, noticing Pam’s behavior, joked, “you can’t expect Jean’s tortoiseshell smarts from orange cat Jorts.” Pam considered this a statement of racism towards one breed of cat, sent an email to everyone, went home early, and demanded a racial sensitivity training before she would return.

Genuinely seeking an outside viewpoint, the manager wrote into Reddit to ask for advice, and then in the update post, described the subsequent steps that the manager and HR took with Pam and the cats to make sure all teammates have what they need, and are treated fairly.

Stick to the facts

I’ve written a ton about delivering actionable and specific feedback with the feedback equation:

Open with a fact-based observation of a person’s behavior, connect that observation to an impact that the feedback recipient cares about, and cap it off with a request or open question.

But sometimes the feedback you receive isn’t packaged up like that. Sometimes our emotions make it difficult to avoid layering judgement and assumptions, which usually makes that feedback very hard for the other person to hear.

In this case, the feedback that Pam had was effectively: your joke was insensitive, and I’m not coming to work until you understand why that joke was racist. But when Pam delivered this feedback, tensions were escalating, and it would have been easy for the manager to respond flippantly or dismissively.

Instead, when they next spoke, the manager acknowledged Pam’s perception that they favor Jean over Jorts, listened to her evidence, and (I think!) responded kindly.

Here’s an example of the manager calmly acknowledging a piece of the feedback:

“Jean has a nice cat bed with her name on it, while Jorts has chosen an old boot tray in my office with a towel in it. Recently a visitor put wet boots in the boot tray and Pam saw Jorts sleeping on the wet boots. I bought a bed for Jorts today and a name tag has been ordered.”

When giving feedback you’re passionate about, your observation (the first part of the feedback equation) can be really hard to articulate. But it’s important to stick to the facts; we need to help everybody involved keep the rational, logical parts of our brains online and aim to avoid an amygdala hijack, which can completely derail the feedback conversation.

The fact is, Jorts was sleeping on wet boots. The manager was able to separate the facts from the feelings or assumptions Pam may have about it, and take action on it.

Be open to new information

The act of acknowledging our mistakes is a crucial skill for managers to build. We all miss things, carry biases, and sometimes we can’t see a situation objectively. Despite a tense and difficult situation, this manager was able to acknowledge that they hadn’t noticed this was inequitable treatment, or in another case, didn’t have all of the facts:

“Jean’s ‘staff bio’ has a photo of Jean, while Jorts’ bio has a photo of a sweet potato. I did not actually know either cat had a staff bio, but we will use a photo of Jorts instead of a sweet potato.”

This example illustrates that the manager stayed curious and open to learning new information from the feedback recipient, despite Pam phrasing her feedback in a way that was likely hard to process.

It’s crucial to remember that both parties might still be operating on judgments or assumptions in a feedback conversation, so we need to remain open to changing our mind with new information. You’re allowed to ask questions when you give and receive feedback! Feedback conversations should really be a two-way dialog, not a one-way series of requests.

State the impact of the behavior

The next part of the feedback equation is stating the impact of the behavior. When you deliver feedback, you’ll probably have a bunch of different impacts to choose from. I highly recommend choosing impacts that the feedback recipient cares about, not just ones that you care about!

After the manager had processed Pam’s accusations, the manager also had some feedback for Pam, which they worked with HR to deliver. The manager didn’t go into more detail on the feedback for Pam in the update post (probably because it’s confidential and none of our business!), but they did share some of the feedback Pam had for the manager and how they responded to it.

Here are some stellar examples of the manager describing an impact they care about in order to frame their own behavioral changes:

“the cats’ presence greatly enhances our work with our clients, and Jorts’ friendly nature has been so great. Both cats truly are doing important work. Truly Jorts deserves to be treated with respect.”

“We all deserve to be treated with dignity at work, so I will apologize to Jorts about some things that were insensitive or disrespectful.”

Include impact statements like these when having any kind of feedback conversation, both when you’re giving feedback about a change in behavior, or when you’re acknowledging feedback you’ve received. Doing so can affirm the other person’s position and perspective. Affirmation is not agreement; you can help this person feel seen and heard while still maintaining your own point of view.

Reinforcing the impact someone cares about is also motivating; it grounds any requests for change in something they already care about, and this can create a shared goal for you both.

Balance direction and empowerment

Normally I would recommend capping off feedback with an open coaching question (instead of a request for behavior change) to help the feedback recipient connect their own dots. For example, the manager could have asked Pam something like “Pam, I want to make sure you’re feeling supported here, too. I’ve got some ideas, but I wanted to ask you first: what else could I be doing to support you as you grow in this role?”

But in addition to giving Pam what she needs, this situation called for direction, not just empowerment. Role expectations need to be reset or clarified for the safety and security of all teammates (including the cats!), and this requires clear direction.

Figure out what you’re optimizing for, before the feedback conversation

If I were coaching this manager to help them figure out what the feedback conversation with Pam would look like, I would ask the manager my favorite coaching question: “In this situation, what are you optimizing for?”

They might have said any number of things, like “reducing friction” or “improving team happiness” or “less of my time being spent on this” or “for Pam to chill out.” I’ve heard all of these things—and plenty more—from my coaching clients!

But what I gleaned from this post was that this manager is optimizing for a combo of fairness and clarity. Fairness for all coworkers (including the cats) to ensure they have the safety and security they each need, and clarity about boundaries for behavior that correlates to roles/responsibilities. Clarity will also make it easier to see when someone has crossed a line.

Run all your ideas through that north star

What a manager is optimizing for will inform how they frame the feedback. This “optimizing for” north star will change in each scenario! So let’s look at how the manager’s north star of fairness and clarity (again, this is my best guess) may have informed their next steps:

“HR also suggested changing Pam’s duties so she is ‘in charge’ of the cats. This I refused, the cats are my staff, not Pam’s. I think Pam was well-intended but actually not meeting the needs of either Jean or Jorts so they remain under my supervision.”

Fairness to all parties informed the delineation of responsibilities; it wasn’t just about what Pam needs, it’s about what the cats need, too. Plus, the clear-cut answer reduces ambiguity and the potential for more confusion down the line.

“Pam is also not to put cups on Jorts’ head or intentionally put him into frustrating situations given his unique needs.”

Boom, fairness and clarity! This manager protected Jorts’ needs and did not just acquiesce because it’s what the loudest member of the team thought was best.

“Pam is NOT to apply margarine to any of her coworkers. Jean has shown she is willing to be in charge of helping Jorts stay clean. If this task becomes onerous for Jean, we can have a groomer help.”

This is a great example of making sure your expectations as a manager can apply to everyone, not just those involved with the situation. Brilliant combo of fairness and clarity.

These examples highlight the need for a north star when developing feedback. You can avoid simply accepting the first idea that comes to mind, or doing what you think will make the loudest person feel better (at your/the team’s expense). By deciding what you’re optimizing for ahead of time, you can run potential outcomes through it, which makes it a lot easier to choose the right path forward.

Sure, maybe I’ve spent far too much time thinking about a random Reddit post. But I think Jorts’ manager has done a great job modeling the kind, clear, and actionable feedback situation we can all aspire to. I bet Jean is really proud of them.

Woman speaking to camera with video player buttons underneathAiming to give feedback that they'll actually hear and take action on?

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Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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