Don't Let Workplace Feedback Crush You

Taking criticism is hard, but you gotta do it
Photo illustrations by Those People

“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.

This doesn’t only apply to work. Kids take high-stakes tests in school, then they and their teachers are judged on the results. Social media quantifies feedback into likes and dislikes, ratings and four-and-a-half-star reviews, shares and favorites, and even the responses to an online dating profile. The tirelessly hyped concept of Big Data is just lots and lots of bits of the same thing.

Although criticism is as old as language, if not older, feedback is a newer phenomenon. In the late 1800s it was used in engineering to describe the process by which the output from a system looped back into the system: Positive feedback fed the process; negative feedback damped it.

Systematic evaluations are even older, according to Peter Capelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In the early 19th century, the social reformer and utopian socialist Robert Owen instituted them in his cotton mills. Each worker had a four-sided wooden block hung by him called a “silent monitor.” The color that was turned outward indicated how hard he had worked the previous day: black was the worst, blue was indifferent, yellow was good, and white was best. Owen hated punishing his employees, and he relied on this form of public reward and shaming in his factories. The evaluations, in other words, were their own consequences. Whether the silent monitor had anything to do with it, Owen’s mill, New Lanark, had a happy and productive workforce, and the owner’s methods made it a tourist attraction. Of course, most factory owners were not as humane: Near the end of the century, the “drive” system took hold. “Basically … supervisors yelling at you and hitting you,” Capelli says. “That may have been a low point.”

In the years after World War I, fast-growing companies started hiring social scientists to evaluate and get the most efficient worker performance. Later, around World War II, forced ranking—using yearly evaluations to rate employees from best to worse—was introduced, along with the 360-degree review. That’s when the term “feedback” began to refer to behavior rather than machines. Yet for most of the 1900s, the term remained white-collar jargon. Despite its origins, the idea of comparing midcentury factory hands to each other was an affront to the solidarity-based worldview of organized labor; when unions ruled the American manufacturing sector, they were able to keep evaluations off the floor.

Photo illustrations by Those People
There was good reason for workers to be cynical. Most management experts agree that, when poorly executed, the feedback process can be worse than useless. Stone and Heen cite statistics suggesting a performance review culture at many places that is at once ineffective and unpleasant. Sixty-three percent of executives see their biggest challenge as the fact that “their managers lack the courage and ability to have difficult feedback discussions.” In many companies the point is less to help employees improve than to insulate against lawsuits.

So how do you thrive in that environment? The new book suggests that feedback givers be as specific as possible about the triggering event or behavior—not “You’re sloppy,” but “I noticed you didn’t have the numbers I asked for two weeks ago, and you spelled several names wrong in your presentation.” And receivers should ask for specifics and not discount what they’re hearing because of who’s saying it (or why). They should be vigilant about defensiveness and remember that not all advice is judgment. The first priority, Stone and Heen argue, shouldn’t be to accept or reject feedback but to understand it.

All of this is reasonable guidance. But it might be nice if the same workplaces that subject their employees to reviews also provided some of these suggestions, rather than leaving them to scour the self-help aisles. According to Capelli, most American corporations have removed much of the support for the process. In the mid-20th century, “all the big companies took this stuff very seriously,” he says. “IBM was probably the leader. Citibank was big on it. So was AT&T. They would have departments of psychologists who did nothing but worry about feedback,” helping make sense of it for recipients and following up after the fact. As the American workforce has become more transient—and more expendable—the calculation has changed. If someone doesn’t make the most of his feedback, that’s his problem. There’s probably someone else out there who’s a quicker study.

There’s one advantage to losing all those shrinks: It creates a personal sense of responsibility for giving and taking constructive criticism, and it can help embed the process in the rhythms of everyday work. Still, as Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, concedes, “If you ask the question, ‘Can people take and learn from feedback?’ For the most part, it’s no.” The profusion of self-help manuals on the subject is a testament to that. When it comes to managing the barrage, we’re mostly on our own.

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