On Feedback

On Feedback

October 22, 2022
An Overview:

Think beyond the sandwich.

‘Tis the season.

Where did the time go? We’re now solidly in the Fall, which can only mean the season of decorative gourds, Halloween decorations, premature Christmas decorations, and ... feedback is upon us. Whether you belong to a large organization with a systematic performance review process, or work at a smaller startup that’s at least committed to an informal practice of taking stock of the past year’s work, odds are that you’ll be receiving some feedback this quarter — if you haven’t already. If you’re really lucky, you might even work for an organization with a feedback culture that encourages timely upward and downward feedback throughout the year, separate from the pressures of promotion and compensation decisions.

Another reason feedback has been on my mind: I recently got certified to deliver the Leadership Circle Profile (LCP), a 360 assessment tool that unifies the best thinking in leadership development from Kegan and Lahey’s work on adult learning to the Enneagram. I looked into other assessments I could use in my coaching, but was drawn to train first in the LCP because of how rapidly it allows those of us who work with it to move from the practical world of action, benchmarks, and scores (where my coachees spend most of their days) to the internal world of unconscious tendencies, beliefs, and structures of mind (where coaching can begin to prompt insight). Having received my own very illuminating 360 assessment as part of the certification process, I found myself wishing I’d encountered this tool sooner (and more frequently) in my career. On the back of my own experience of it, I’m excited to start deploying the LCP with coachees who’re looking to hold a powerful mirror up to their leadership potential, and to rolling this out across the Avalanche VC portfolio.

Going through the certification and experiencing how much care and awareness my fellow coaches and facilitators were modeling for each other in the feedback process also made me realize how much better equipped I could’ve been to give and receive feedback earlier in my career. How many nights spent agonizing about the inscrutable feedback I’d received could’ve been avoided if I’d known what questions to ask? And more importantly, how many agonizing nights could I have spared my team members and colleagues if I’d known how to provide honest and accurate feedback that works? Wherever you are in your personal journey with feedback this quarter — nervously anticipating it, sitting with it, wondering how to give it, or already on your way to working with it — as always, I hope the words help you find your way.

"Personally, the most important areas of growth I’ve achieved have come from learning how others experienced me — thanks to colleagues vulnerable enough to share with me that my habit of quietly touching up their work the night before a meeting, which I imagined as an act of selfless leadership, actually had the effect of making them feel mistrusted; or that until I verbalized how grateful I was for my team’s efforts, a sentiment I assumed I’d expressed in so many non-verbal ways, they never truly felt appreciated."

#1. It matters what words you use.

If you’ve read my other writing, you might’ve noticed the outsized attention I give to our vocabularies for describing our experiences at work. Feedback is no different — as anyone who’s ever received a performance review can attest, the words we use matter a great deal. Unfortunately, feedback in the workplace is too often delivered in obfuscating language that doesn’t suggest any specific action, but whose meaning is nevertheless assumed to be self-evident — whether in the vocabulary of abstract qualities (“professionalism”), complex skills (“influence”), character traits (“confidence”), or worse, tired business jargon (“executive presence”). Whatever growth such feedback might’ve hoped to inspire, the odds of its recipient knowing what to do with it are nearly nil.

It’s often the words we take most for granted that become the most opaque over time. For instance, “conceptual problem-solving” is widely held at McKinsey to be an essential part of the toolkit. But in all my time there, we never seemed to be able to agree on what the phrase actually meant, despite how frequently we dished it out in feedback. As it turned out, my colleagues often had in mind specific behaviors like “developing an independent point of view on the problem,” or “breaking down a complex problem into a series of discrete work streams” — so why didn’t we just say that? Spending a few more words to explain what we’re inviting someone to do not only spares them from painful misunderstanding, but also turns what often gets experienced as a judgment of intrinsic ability (“I am a bad problem-solver”) into a far more inspiring call to action (“I can do more of X in the future”).

What if you’re on the receiving end of poorly-worded feedback? You can’t control the words others use, but you can certainly choose the words you use in your self-talk. My spidey-sense goes off whenever my coachees describe their feedback in the language of immutable being (“I’m not a numbers person”), because it’s often an opportunity to reframe in the language of potential doing (“I can give myself the extra time to check my work”). It also helps to remain curious, and to ask the person giving you feedback questions that move from abstraction to action: “What does X look like in practice?” “What suggestions do you have for how I might practice X?” “Is there anyone you suggest who could role model X for me?” What stops us from asking these questions is often the fear of being judged for not knowing what everyone else seems to take as self-evident. It takes vulnerability to ask for what we need in order to grow and develop — a theme I’ll return to below.

#2. Subjectivity and emotions are data, not distraction.

Feedback needs to be honest and accurate to be effective. But honesty and accuracy incur what psychologists call “social costs” — the social and emotional burdens of risking rupture in our relationship with the recipient, of provoking in them a stressful reaction, of being perceived as difficult to work with, and so forth. Seen this way, it takes great courage and vulnerability to want to risk such emotional penalties in service of another’s development. As fashionable as it’s become to say that “feedback is a gift,” honest, accurate feedback is in fact a most precious gift because of how costly it can prove for its giver.

In the face of such vulnerability, it’s no wonder so many attempt to evade these social costs by bedecking feedback with the armor of objectivity (e.g., scores, frameworks, “best practices”) and expunging it of any trace of subjectivity and emotion, which are assumed to signal bias, irrationality, and personal taste. Moreover, when feedback occurs in contexts where promotion and compensation decisions are commingled with the goals of growth and development, it becomes even more dicey to allow that subjectivity has any role to play at all. Organizations go to great lengths to maintain this veneer of objectivity, despite it being common knowledge that what we most value in our leaders — authenticity, integrity, selflessness, empathy, collaboration, compassion and more — cannot be reduced to objective rules and measures. There’s nothing wrong with scores, frameworks, or best practices, but as the backlash to the “crying CEO selfie” earlier this summer made patently clear, the true impact of such leadership behaviors has to be found in the experiences of others.

Yet it continues to feel much safer for us to give feedback in terms of “what leadership experts agree on” or “what the firm’s development model says” than it is for us to experience the vulnerability of letting others know what impact their behavior had on us. By playing it safe, though, we strip our feedback of the valuable experiential and emotional data that helps others grow, and we also convey to them that their experiences at work don’t matter outside of our objective measures and frameworks. Personally, the most important areas of growth I’ve achieved have come from learning how others experienced me — thanks to colleagues vulnerable enough to share with me that my habit of quietly touching up their work the night before a meeting, which I imagined as an act of selfless leadership, actually had the effect of making them feel mistrusted; or that until I verbalized how grateful I was for my team’s efforts, a sentiment I assumed I’d expressed in so many non-verbal ways, they never truly felt appreciated.

If there’s feedback you’ve been hesitant to provide because you’ve been wondering if it’s not “objective” enough and if it’s “just a you thing,” what might it look like to share that feedback from the truth of your own experience? For a useful guide on how to have that conversation, consider the Observation - Feeling - Needs - Request model from Marshall Rosenberg’s work on non-violent communication. On the flip side, consider how as a recipient of feedback you might lower for others the “social costs” of being honest  about their experiences of you — by deep listening, not jumping to explanation and defense, and remaining curious enough to ask questions like: “What went through your mind when I did X?” “How did you experience me when I did X?” “What came up for you in that particular situation?” and “What might I have done differently to have the impact I intended?”

#3. Don't get personal. Get interpersonal.

Earlier in my career, it always struck me how awkward and stilted my feedback sessions felt. Whether I was the one giving or receiving it, there was always an undercurrent of tension, of being “braced for impact” and wishing to “get it over with as quickly as possible,” and a palpable sense of relief when we could finally move on from the “feedback part” of the conversation. I began to dread feedback so much that somewhere along the way, I decided that I wasn’t going to keep trying to “do feedback,” but would instead just pretend I was having a perfectly normal conversation with someone about growth and development — which paradoxically turned out to be the exact reframe I needed.

Looking back, what “having a conversation” did for me that “doing feedback” couldn’t was simply shift where my attention went. When I was “doing feedback,” my attention was mostly on myself. As recipient, my focus went to interpreting whether I was liking what I was hearing, whether I agreed with what was being said, and interpreting what the feedback said about me. As giver, I would be preoccupied with whether I was “doing it right,” whether I’d sufficiently “backed up” what I was saying, whether I was at risk of upsetting anyone. Put simply, “doing feedback” felt incredibly dangerous, risky, and deeply personal because there was so much attention on the “me” that needed defending from all of the real or imagined ways that feedback could cost me or leave me vulnerable.

In contrast, “having a conversation” meant turning my attention to the person I was with. This didn’t mean the feelings of vulnerability went away, but loosening my fixation on how I was doing helped me drop the need to defend, and opened up new ways of relating interpersonally that I hadn’t thought to be curious about. In giving feedback, I found myself wanting to know how my colleagues wished to grow, not just in ways that served the organization, but in ways that meant something to them personally. I opened up to discussions about why change might feel costly and difficult — how giving up perfectionism might give rise to the anxiety of giving up control, for instance. I also found it easier to lean into conversations about how different identities and cultures shape how one might experience feedback rooted in the norms of dominant American business culture.

In receiving feedback, I found myself wanting to learn more about others’ journeys with the same feedback they’d given me, which both clarified what they wished for me and gave me a useful roadmap. Perhaps most importantly, paying attention to the partial, subjective lens through which others saw me helped me “hold” the feedback I received differently. Seeing the individuals giving me feedback as individuals with their own subjective experiences of me, rather than as acolytes of “The Firm” or impartial arbiters of my abilities, helped me not to take their feedback as judgment from “on high,” but to discern in those images of myself the gifts I could take with me, and to release the rest.

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