Especially when it comes to negative feedback, it can feel like rejection and, as social animals, we, as humans, depend on acceptance from our peers for survival.
Feedback, and its impact on work cultures, is the focus of the first episode of ‘WorkLife,’ a new podcast from author, organizational psychologist and Wharton Business School professor, Adam Grant.
As a fan of Adam Grant’s writing (and a certifiable podcast geek), I was extremely eager to check out Grant’s new podcast that sets out to “explore the psychology of unconventional workplaces.”
One episode in, I’m eager to listen more -- and share some of what I’ve already learned.
Radically Candid Feedback as Part of a Corporate Culture
In the first episode, Grant dives deep into the culture of radically candid feedback at Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, by telling the story of a manager named Kiran Rao.
Kiran tells the story of a meeting where in front of over 200 of his co-workers, he was singled out as being the worst manager at all of Bridgwater.
Have you ever experienced anything like that in your career?
I know for me personally, getting negative feedback even in a one-on-one situation can be intensely difficult. I’ve never experienced anything close to what Kiran experienced, and if I did, I might consider making a career change.
At Bridgewater, however, that sort of thing happens all the time.
On their website, they describe themselves as a “community of people who are driven to achieve excellence in their work and their relationships through radical truth and radical transparency.”
In the podcast, Adam Grant reveals that culture of radical truth and transparency extends all the way to their CEO, Ray Dalio. He recounts a story where one of his employees gave him a D- on a presentation he gave to the company and told him he expected more out of him.
Ouch, I know, but Dalio was completely receptive to the feedback and took it to heart.
In leading by example, he set the tone at Bridgewater for everyone to follow -- candid feedback will help everyone grow and succeed.
So how do they manage to maintain such a healthy work atmosphere where everyone is giving each other such candid, direct feedback?
They ask their employees to buy into the concept of a “Challenge Network.”
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Grant explains that when we receive negative feedback, our ego’s natural response is to become a totalitarian regime, “controlling the flow of information to our brains the way a dictator controls the media.”
Simply put, we go into denial.
We avoid or remove people from our lives who give us negative feedback and seek out the people we know will reassure us.
We go to our friends, like-minded colleagues, or even moms to validate to our egos we couldn’t possibly be deserving of the negative feedback we received!
But what if we didn’t reject this feedback?
What if instead we looked to a network of people we trusted had our best interest in mind to give us candid, honest feedback; people we trusted to push us to improve and tell us the things we don’t want to hear but need to?
That’s what Adam Grant calls The Challenge Network.
For me, my challenge network consists of my best friend and my wife. They’re both smart, hard-working people who know me about as well as anyone in the world, and I trust both of them to be completely honest with me.
When it comes to a challenge network, however, Grant makes a key point, “A challenge network can only help you if you’re ready to listen.”
Depending on your workplace, it can be difficult to know who exactly you can trust to give you objective, dependable feedback. Perhaps you’re new or you don’t quite feel comfortable with that level of vulnerability with your coworkers, but that’s where your challenge network can be extremely helpful.
If you don’t 100% trust the people giving you feedback, you won’t feel comfortable opening up to them and taking what they have to say to heart.
Asking those you’re closest for honest feedback instead gives your ego permission to truly let your guard down and filter out anything that would prevent you from actually improving. Then, you can more comfortably bring this progress back into the office.
When it comes to the process of self-improvement, the ego can be a difficult silent partner.Sometimes you need an extra trick (in this case, your Challenge Network) up your sleeve to get it to play nice.
The Second Score
The concept that stuck with me the most from the first episode of WorkLife was the ‘Second Score.’
When someone evaluates your performance on a given task, they’re essentially giving you a score. Sometimes they’ll literally tell you, “I give you a 5 out of 10 or a C-,” or sometimes they’ll just let you know in more general terms that your performance on a given task was subpar.
Grant describes the way in which we respond to the initial evaluation as an opportunity to earn a second score.
We can’t go back in time to change our performance that earned us our first score, but we do have control over how we respond to the feedback we’re given.
This more conscious response disarms the ego from trying to protect your image. The subpar performance is in the past, and you have the opportunity to redeem yourself in the moment with this performance.
What determines your second score? Whether you’re open or defensive.
The Second Score is one tool at your disposal for making receiving feedback a bit more pleasant. What about giving negative feedback though? That can be an equally undesirable task for most people as well.
How to Be Better at Giving Negative Feedback
One way to help build a culture of candid feedback at your company is to make the experience of giving and receiving feedback a more palatable experience for everyone.
Adam grant interviews Kim Scott, an executive coach in Silicon Valley, and Kim provides a few ways to effectively provide feedback:
Don’t: Say, “Don’t Take It Personally”
it’s natural for people to take offense or react emotionally when receiving negative feedback, and saying this will not only be ignored, but may come off as patronizing.
It might actually be helpful in the long run for the emotional reaction to feedback to sink in as it will help the experience stay with them and perhaps be taken more seriously.
Do: Be Compassionate
While she doesn’t recommend saying the words, “Don’t Take It Personally,” Kim Scott does stress the importance of being compassionate.
For someone to open up with you and truly listen to what you have to say, they have to trust you have the best intentions in mind.
If you don’t communicate with kindness and compassion, that will never happen.
Honesty is a great policy but only if it’s accompanied by kindness. Don’t make the person to whom you’re giving feedback feel worse by being unnecessarily cruel. Be direct and honest, but remember to take into account their feelings in the process.
Don’t: Use The Feedback Sandwich
According to Both Grant and Scott, research shows “feedback sandwiches,” where someone layers negative feedback in between two layers of positive feedback, do more harm than good.
People see right through those veiled attempts to soften the blow and simply take offense to people sugarcoating what they have to say.
Do: State Your Intention to Be Helpful
If you feel the need to disarm someone before giving them negative feedback, remind them where your interest lies: in helping them grow and learn.
If you’re genuinely interested in helping them succeed, make it known,, and they’ll be much more likely to open up and listen.
Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions
It may not be easy to open yourself to the pain that comes with negative feedback, but we can all look back to moments where someone in our life made us aware of a given behavioral trait we might not have known we had.
In time, I know I’ve become extremely grateful to the people in my life who’ve helped me learn and grow (even if I wasn’t particularly enthused by their feedback in the moment) and also learned to be more constructive with the feedback I give others.
That being said, this is my first article at IMPACT. What do you think? What feedback do you have for me? I promise, I’m all ears!
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Marc is a member of the business development team at Impact. He spent two years as a consultant at HubSpot before spending an additional 4 years in marketing. He loves helping businesses overcome challenges to growth.