Ed Toner

On Defense

Last month, I focused on Playing Offense emphasizing the strengths of our organization to orchestrate change.  I also discussed resistance to change which can result in defensive behaviors such as a lack of participation in decision-making, either due to exclusion or opting not to participate. On the flip side of the equation, leaders must learn not to put individuals in a defensive position, especially when giving feedback.  When and how a leader provides feedback should be more important to the leader than the feedback itself.

A Time and Place
OCIO Now Open


First, critical feedback should always be given in private.  Especially inappropriate would be giving critical feedback to a team member in a group setting, but critiques can be stinging regardless.   As a leader, choose an appropriate moment.  Critical feedback challenges the self-image and can be destabilizing at times; it can also destroy productivity if done inappropriately.  Did I ever give them positive feedback; or did I simply want to make a point?  

Feedback is always subjective-- even when investigating the facts.  Being a fact-focused feedback giver is always best, but especially when the feedback is of a critical nature.  Leaders will most likely think that they are looking at a situation in its entirety when, if they fail to explore the cause of a problem and understand how others are contributing to it, they might not see the circumstances that initiated the more visible behavior or product.  Did I go to the trouble of looking for facts which provide trustworthy, credible feedback? 

From experience I have learned during stressful situations, like a technology outage, never to ask questions like, how did this happen?  In stressful situations emotions are high, and in my experience the first identified root cause is seldom accurate anyway, so by asking for the cause of the problem you simply summon a heightened emotional response.  What is even worse to ask is, who did this?  Leaders should recognize during stressful times that everyone is feeling the effects, and the worst thing to do is try to pinpoint the root cause of the issue to provide “constructive” feedback.  What I have found to be helpful is asking questions that focus around my team and their efforts, for example: What systems are impacted? What do you need from me? And, how long before the next update?  

To be a leader during a stressful time requires patience.  Persistent questioning goes beyond finding the resolution or alleviating the burden of impact which is absolutely the only help needed at that time. 

Lead the Way

Managers can apply the same principles during yearly evaluations where the individual being reviewed is naturally anxious.  This is not the time for a direct report to hear critical feedback for the first time.  Feedback, both positive and critical, should be provided frequently throughout the year.  Most managers do not enjoy giving “negative” feedback, and some so much so they ignore bad behaviors.  If this is you, and you have not previously provided feedback on the specific behavior and provided coaching prior to the evaluation, then as the manager you are responsible for the unwanted behavior.



Leaders have the responsibility to ensure they do everything to prevent putting a teammate in a defensive position.  Leaders should encourage dialog and stress-free communication.  Admitting your own faults and ensuring that they are not affecting your decisions is imperative to this.  Management styles are as unique as the managers themselves but the only way to succeed is to understand and optimize your strengths and accept and minimize your challenges or weaknesses. 

Always keep in mind, feedback is not absolute or always perfect.  What you say may be useful or it may not be, especially if not met with your motivation to help. We all need to work on receiving and giving feedback, and most importantly remember the best feedback of all is giving Appreciation.

Good morning, Ed!
I gave a shout out to [the] OCIO in our BSM meeting and wanted to pass it along to you as well.

  • We did not see a blip in service from OCIO during the pandemic.
  • Regardless of your team’s work location, they were all extremely productive and responsive.
  • We were very appreciative of your team’s ability to adapt to the circumstances and keep things running smoothly.
  • Their willingness to acclimate to a different environment while continuing to serve their customers is commendable.

Kudos to you and your leadership team for allowing flexibility in the work environment and maintaining “the show must go on” mentality!
It worked!

Thanks for providing continuity of operations during uncertain times.
[OCIO BSM - Department of Transportation]


As always, thank you for your service to the State of Nebraska.