“How’m I doin’?” Ed Koch, the late mayor of New York, would famously shout to his constituents. Cynics say the tic was rhetorical, that hizzoner wasn’t really interested in anything but praise. And judging from American bookstores, Koch was before his time. The nation is obsessed with feedback—how to give and receive it without descending into awkwardness or crushing self-esteem. “One in four employees dreads their performance review more than anything else in their working lives,” write Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their book, Thanks for the Feedback, out on March 4. That’s why some companies now refer to it in more euphemistic terms: the “performance appraisal” process or, worse, a “midyear check-in.”
Stone and Heen—two lecturers at Harvard Law School’s program on negotiation—argue that our modern system of giving and receiving feedback is broken. It’s often cluelessly delivered, poorly timed, and driven by the giver’s own insecurities or ambition. (An architect I know had a boss who once told her he couldn’t think of a single thing she was good at, including “human interaction.”) But even crudely put, self-serving feedback contains usable truths. Besides, it’s the only kind many get, so it’s best to figure out how to use it. “Receiving feedback well is a process of sorting and filtering—of learning how the other person sees things; of trying on ideas that at first seem a poor fit; of experimenting,” Stone and Heen write. “And of shelving or discarding the parts of the feedback that in the end seem off or not what you need right now.” Much of their book is a description of all the ways our defensive instincts manifest themselves, including “I can’t believe you of all people are saying that” and “You’re never satisfied!” In identifying these reactions for what they are—“wrong spotting,” the authors call it—you can sift through the annoying things people say for useful advice.