Hustling for self-worth is an exhausting hamster wheel. Accept yourself and you can make everything in your life easier.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Laura Gallaher.
Dr. Laura Gallaher has worked in the field of professional and personal development since 2005. Laura is an Organizational Psychologist, Speaker, Facilitator and Executive Coach. She is the founder and CEO of Gallaher Edge, which she started in 2013 and rebranded in 2018.
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?
While studying industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Central Florida, I began my career at NASA to help transform and enhance culture at the Kennedy Space Center following the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003. I worked there for eight years to positively influence culture, develop capacity and improve organizational performance. After I left NASA, I was hired by Disney to help manage change associated with transforming performance management at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
In 2013, I decided to take the plunge in becoming a business owner. I started Gallaher Edge. We exist to evolve humanity by applying the science of human behavior to organizations. We are a management consulting firm that creates transformational change in organizations’ cultures through meaningful and impactful human experiences. My team and I help companies nationwide navigate changes and improve their organizational culture through workshops that help build trust, create cohesion, and align teams.
Culture is created from the inside out, so we work with leaders to help them improve and better understand their inner selves. By working from the inside out, executives will increase self-awareness, improve team alignment and cultivate accountability.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Gallaher Edge takes a unique direction in improving company culture. We combine industrial-organizational psychology and industrial engineering to approach and manage culture from the inside out. For example, right after launching our company, Gallaher Edge was hired by Code School to help them with culture changes. Our team helped them go from laying off employees to a successful acquisition within 18 months.
On another note, our leadership team is also unique due to a switch in roles. Dr. Phillip Meade, now my partner, first hired me at NASA, where he developed a plan for the organizational and cultural changes necessary after the Columbia accident, employing innovative techniques to align organizational systems, processes and leadership behaviors to drive sustainable change. He developed the strategy and led the implementation of an integrated and comprehensive framework for change management, and under his leadership the organizational and cultural changes instituted were recognized as the benchmark for culture change. After starting Gallaher Edge, I acquired his company — Xodus Business & Technology Solutions — and have since become business partners.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In 2018, my executive assistant, Kayla Wonisch, and I decided to travel around the world through a program called Remote Year — a platform for location independent workers to take their remote jobs and travel with a group for 12 months. We worked together in different parts of the world. During this time, we built a membership site and did virtual coaching all while living in 12 different countries in a year. This gave us the opportunity to not only grow personally but become better professionals with a deeper understanding of culture. After the tenth month, I did a TEDxOrlando talk about the experience called: “How to Feel At Home Anywhere.”
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?
I’ve learned the importance of personally vetting clients before taking them on. When I was hired as a subcontractor to work with a client that I hadn’t personally vetted, I found myself in the position of giving feedback to the president of an organization in the format of culture survey results. In the overview of results, one summary chart showed that the employees felt like the culture had become less effective over the last six months, which was about the length of time the president had been in that role. He became extremely angry and concluded that “clearly” all the employees are idiots. When I urged him to not come to that conclusion so quickly, he started yelling at me (calling me “young lady”), saying he can conclude whatever he wants. That was not the most fruitful survey debrief! I learned after that point how important it is to assess leader’s ability to receive feedback before engaging in very feedback-heavy work.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
People who feel appreciated will nearly always do more than what is expected. Genuine, specific appreciation will go a long way to prevent against burnout. Additionally, burn out is likely when the organization is trying to do too much all at once. One of the biggest challenges an organization can tackle is the desire to prioritize 17 things. If everything is important, then nothing is important! If you truly focus your efforts around one thematic goal, you can reduce burnout within an organization.
By including your employees in planning, strategizing and setting timelines, you can also reduce burnout and increase accountability. Make sure you truly listen while you are including them (otherwise you’re not truly including them), and then trust them to get the work done. Work collaboratively on the “what” and allow them to worry about the “how.”
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is focused on inspiring people, providing direction, interpreting environmental context, developing strategy and communicating. Some people say that you manage things and lead people. So leadership really is about creating and developing real relationships with humans to bring them together under a common purpose to achieve a set of goals.
One of my favorite examples of leadership is Suneera Madhani, CEO of Fattmerchant. Suneera is a visionary, who, with education and experience in finance, saw a way to disrupt the payments industry. And she built a leadership team around her with the expertise to make her vision a reality — but not through command and control, rather through investing in the culture, creating an aligned team, developing the leaders throughout the organization, and getting things done. Today, her company is over 100 employees and she continues to not just meet but exceed the goals they set each year for organizational growth, while also being a positive contributor to the community, and a family woman.
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?
When I’m feeling stressed about a high stakes meeting or discussion, I address the story in my head that’s causing me to feel the stress. I believe that stress is a choice that comes from whatever I choose to tell myself about what’s going on. It’s powerful because it means that I can change the story to one that serves me. For example, something like: “I’m so nervous — I’ll be screwed if this doesn’t go well!” can turn into: “I’m confident in my ability to accomplish my goals.” A helpful mantra is “Expect everything; attach to nothing.”
In addition, breathing is a powerful tool to remind your body and brain that you’re not about to die — which is what our brain is often subconsciously thinking when we are feeling really nervous or stressed.
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?
During my time at NASA and in my own organization, Gallaher Edge, I have led teams. Giving feedback is a regular part of our day-to-day. Building trust, demonstrating care and paying attention to specifics has enabled me to give feedback to my team and also receive it.
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?
One of the most important roles of being a leader is to develop and grow the people who work for you. Feedback is a key part of that growth! It is one of the most powerful ways for people to learn about themselves.
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.
- Ask for their self-assessment first. “Thanks for meeting with me — I’d really like to hear how you think the project is going, and specifically, how you’re doing leading it. What are your thoughts?” Research suggests that about 75% of the time, people are self-aware of their own shortcomings. Not always, but when you allow them to go first, you create space for them to show up with humility and self-accountability. Additionally, it gives you as the leader information about how self-aware they are — sometimes there are meta challenges to pay attention to, instead of jumping straight into the content of the feedback.
- Get permission to share feedback with them. “Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I appreciate your introspection. Can I share with you some of my thoughts and observations?” When you give people choice, just like giving them the choice to go first with their self-assessment, they are entering into a psychological contract to be receptive. It’s not a silver bullet, and you can still mess it up from here, but when the person agrees to hear your feedback, they will be more receptive to what you’re saying.
- Align the feedback with their goals. “I know you’re really interested in leading a team on a more permanent basis moving forward, so I’d love to give you some thoughts that I think can help you earn that role.” If you don’t know anything about what the person wants for their career or their role, you will struggle to align the feedback with what they want — which means — ASK! Make sure you are taking the time to get to know the person that you’re giving feedback to — making it personal highlights the wonderful saying: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
- Be self-accountable. “I noticed that you kicked off the meeting with a lot of great information, and I know I felt a bit overwhelmed by it. It would have been helpful to me if you slowed down as you went through it all, and invited me and others on the team into the conversation. I think that would help you really get a pulse on how much they’re buying into your plan.” Speak from your own lens — do NOT triangulate! If others are giving you information about how they perceive that person — that is not your feedback to give — point that person back to have the conversation directly. “I’ve been hearing from others…” is a key way to destroy trust and demoralize the person, creating almost instant defensiveness. Plus, always remember: “When I give you feedback, that tells you more about me than it tells you about you. And that’s useful, since we work together.” Always own the feedback — don’t be a go-between.
- Let it be a dialogue. “What do you think? I’d love to hear your reaction to this — if you see it differently or if it makes sense.” Don’t think that you’re done once you have said what you have to say. This is a human being here. Did they hear what you were saying? Did your intention align with your impact? What do they think about what you said? Do they know how they want to use the feedback moving forward? Also, realize that they could have feedback for you in response. Model self-accountability in receiving the feedback, even if it feels like a temporary deflection from what you’re saying. Sometimes people don’t give feedback because they are afraid of hearing constructive feedback in return. Show them how it’s done — get ahold of your own defensiveness, practice self-acceptance, and listen.
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.
It’s extremely easy for an email to come across as passive aggressive due to the lack of cues. Rather than giving constructive feedback via email, pick up the phone or get on a video call. In email form, you may choose to get the process started, like asking for their self-assessment, or ask if you can share some of your thoughts with them on a phone call or in a meeting, but when you get to the heart of what you want to say, keep it away from email.
How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Avoid using emails for constructive feedback as much as possible. If you can, get on the phone to help walk through pointers that will help employees grow. If, as you write an email, you notice that your physiology is affected — increased heart rate or faster breathing, maybe feeling heat on your face — step back. Maybe you can write out your thoughts in a Word document where you don’t accidentally hit send. Then take a break — walk around, drink some water, meditate. Come back to what you wrote. Scrub any harshness out of it — and probably — you still will want to get on the phone and keep it off email!
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?
Feedback is most effective when it is timely. Some companies rely on annual performance reviews to get their leaders to have conversations, but you don’t ever want your employees to hear something for the first time at an annual performance review. I’m not even supportive of the practice of annual performance reviews. Have the conversation as close to the incident as possible. With trust building and cohesion, you can even get to a place where real-time, in a meeting, you and others are able to share feedback with somebody about what’s going on in that moment.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
Being a great boss is about building relationships, leading with head and heart, listening inclusively to the team, and providing clarity on direction for the team or organization. Personally, my best boss was Stacie Phillips. Even though she had never done the work that I was doing at NASA when she became my boss, she listened, was empathic and included us in her planning. She was always reasonable and helped us accomplish SO MUCH!
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. 🙂
If we could all practice more self-acceptance, the world would be a better place. We put a lot of energy unconsciously into self-preservation. With self-acceptance, we can focus more on problem solving. Essentially this means each of us realizing that we are enough. We are good enough. We have enough. This can promote an abundance mentality which is far more fruitful than a scarcity mindset driven by fear.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you’re not good enough now, you never will be.” Hustling for self-worth is an exhausting hamster wheel. Accept yourself and you can make everything in your life easier.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can join our online platform, Insider Edge at gallaheredge.com/join. For more insights, they can listen to our podcast: The Evolved Leader. They can also follow me on Instagram at @drlauragallaher.
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.