Author and Poet Janet Ruth Heller: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

Criticism should stress the positive aspect of a situation, rather than attacking a worker. If a person’s work is too vague, a boss might say, “This report has a lot of promise. The report would be really spectacular if you added more specific examples, statistics, and details. I know that you can turn this report into a masterpiece!”

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janet Ruth Heller.

Janet Ruth Heller is the president of the Michigan College English Association, coordinates Janet Ruth Heller Books, and has taught literature, linguistics, composition, creative writing, and women’s studies. She has published the poetry books Exodus (WordTech Editions, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012), and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011); the scholarly book Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990); a middle-grade chapter book about sibling rivalry, The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015); and the award-winning children’s picture book about bullying How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006; 6th edn. 2018). Her website is

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Istarted writing poems when I was in first grade. My teacher liked my poem about flying a kite with my father so much that she dittoed it for the whole class. When I was in graduate school, I started literary magazines and met other authors, who gave me helpful feedback on my writing. I sent my work out to national publications and began to publish poetry, essays, literary criticism, and fiction. In 1990, the University of Missouri Press published my doctoral dissertation. In 2006, I published my story about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale; 6th edition 2018). This picture book has won four national awards. I have now published two children’s books and four books for adults.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I write about nature, love relationships, travel, music, literature, the people and events in the Bible, and important social issues. Many children identify with the characters in my stories, especially in my picture book about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape. One mother revealed to me that her daughter said, “I am the moon” because both experienced bullying. This story touched me deeply.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was autographing my books at Pages Bookstore in Detroit, Michigan, when my youngest sister and her best friend walked in. It was great to see Nancy and Tamara! Both of them live in other cities — and Nancy lives in another state — and I did not know that they were in town.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started writing books for children, I did not know that each grade has a different reading level. My early manuscripts had sentences that were too long and vocabulary that was too difficult for young children. I learned from author Shutta Crum how to use the Flesch-Kincaid tool on Word to assess the reading level of my stories.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Supervisors need to keep lines of communication open so that employees will tell bosses about serious problems at work that the firm may need to remedy, such as an abusive colleague or a racist or sexist culture.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the ability to inspire and motivate other people to do their best work and to work together to benefit the whole group or organization.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Taking a walk or listening to music helps me to deal with stress. I also write down in advance what main points I want to make at an important meeting and any advice to myself about staying calm.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

I have served as the president of five nonprofit organizations, including the Michigan College English Association, the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, the Ladies’ Library Association of Kalamazoo, and my synagogue’s Sisterhood/Women’s League chapter. I have often needed to speak tactfully to colleagues about improving their work or moving more quickly on a project. Also, I taught college English and women’s studies courses for thirty-five years, and I needed to give gentle criticism to my thousands of students on their writing, their class participation, their tardiness, etc.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

Many people are confused about what an organization expects of them. A supervisor needs to clarify for subordinates exactly what standards and type of work the firm or group requires. Some employees previously worked at different companies and were used to one set of expectations, but those requirements may not fit the needs of the new firm. Bosses may also have to teach some individuals skills and approaches that they never learned before.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Bosses need to present criticism by using empathy, respect, and encouragement, instead of simply reprimanding an employee. Every worker has strengths and weaknesses, and supervisors must keep that complexity in mind. For example, an insensitive reprimand might be, “You always take a long time to get work done. That is terrible!” A better approach would sound like this: “I know that you work hard to produce a really polished report. Sometimes, we have a very tight time frame. Then, I need you to finish your report more quickly, even if it is less perfect. I will clarify the time frame for you in advance, and I want you to work with that deadline in mind.” Another approach would be to ask the worker how the boss and other colleagues can approach the situation and coordinate best with the employee to finish all tasks by the deadline. The supervisor may find out that the worker has trouble dealing with another individual and needs to work closely with a different member of the team. Or the boss may learn that the worker is currently caring for a dying relative and has temporary trouble concentrating. Supervisors need to be sensitive to the different needs and situations of employees. Also, bosses should not forget to praise the workers for their strengths. If we only attack weaknesses, workers will lose confidence in themselves. For example, a supervisor might e-mail or tell an employee, “You have wonderful ideas in this outline for your report. I need you to develop your ideas fully and to show how they connect to one another.”

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Criticism should stress the positive aspect of a situation, rather than attacking a worker. If a person’s work is too vague, a boss might say, “This report has a lot of promise. The report would be really spectacular if you added more specific examples, statistics, and details. I know that you can turn this report into a masterpiece!”

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

I think that criticism should come as quickly as possible after a person makes a mistake or takes the wrong approach to a situation. If the supervisor waits too long, a subordinate may forget the details of the incident.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

Great bosses are open to new ideas and are willing to make changes to benefit a firm or organization. Such individuals seek input from other members of the firm or group and respect the opinions of colleagues and subordinates. Great bosses are willing to work hard and to collaborate with others on projects. Such people can take criticism themselves and know how to gently but firmly ask subordinates to make changes to improve their work. Great bosses are well organized and can focus on solving complex problems. Such individuals know how to encourage others and bring out the best in colleagues and subordinates.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to end bullying of all types for both children and adults. I was badly bullied at elementary school when I was a child, and my book How the Moon Regained Her Shape has helped many children, families, schools, and other organizations to deal with such abuse. But I would like to push further with programs and incentives for individuals to learn more constructive ways to interact with other people.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The famous fighter for women’s rights Susan B. Anthony said, “Failure is impossible.” That has inspired me to keep trying to accomplish my goals, even when I encounter resistance.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is

My Facebook page is

My LinkedIn section is

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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