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Cassie Werber: I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for good feedback. And as a journalist, maybe I’m lucky: the editorial process means there’s feedback all the time, making my work better; and at the end there might also be a public conversation too.

The flip side is that, like a lot of people, I find criticism really hard. It’s taken me years to learn not to take edits and comments personally; and sometimes I still do.

But most jobs aren’t like mine. Feedback can be rare, even absent, at work. Plenty of people toil away without either the dopamine hit of praise, or the constructive feedback that might improve their performance.

The fact is, giving feedback well is hard. Ad hoc criticism isn’t always constructive; but trying to formalize the process has pitfalls too. As social animals, we’re always trying to glean clues about how we’re doing in the eyes of others. And at work, their opinion has the added weight of how much we need to keep our jobs in order to support our lives, and our families.

Recently, of course, it’s become even harder. Everyone’s burned out from years of staring at screens. Activism at work is on the rise. Managers are giving feedback over Zoom to employees who now seek it, and hear it, very differently.

This is Work Reconsidered, a podcast from Quartz. I’m your host Cassie Werber. Today we’re talking about feedback: Can we get better at getting better?

Today I’m joined by senior reporter Lila MacClellan. Hi, Lila.

Lila MacLellan: Hi, Cassie.

Cassie Werber: When we talk about feedback, what are we talking about? What makes it so fraught?

Lila MacLellan: Well, you know, everything is feedback in a way. When you give a project to your manager, and you don’t hear anything, that’s feedback, and eye-roll this feedback. But we’re really talking about the kind of intentional feedback that managers give to their direct reports, say, letting you know whether or not something is working, or how to improve. And it’s fraught for so many reasons, you know, one, we all have egos, we can be hurt quite easily. It’s tied to our economic security. You know, we feel like if we don’t perform well, and we get bad feedback, we might not get that raise we’re looking for.

Cassie Werber: So what is it meant to do, what’s feedback at work. What’s it for?

Lila MacLellan: You know, I think it can be all of those things at different times. As individuals, we need feedback for one basic reason, which is that we’re just social creatures, right? And we need to know that we’re contributing that other people are paying attention. And, you know, during the pandemic, sometimes we noticed that working in a vacuum is a bit depressing. And you just kind of spiralled towards, like, what am I doing with my life? Why am I spending my time on this, and then somebody gives you some nice feedback, and you feel great again. And then obviously, like, in a more transactional sense, you need feedback to know whether you’re meeting the basic requirements of a job. But putting it that way, makes feedback sound so reasonable, right? When we don’t experience it that way at all.

Cassie Werber: Yeah.

Lila MacLellan: I get so nervous before a performance review, and this is not uncommon. I mean, people have panic attacks, people lose sleep, even if you don’t really think you have that much to fear. So, no, most people feel that they are not getting the right amount of feedback, or they’re not getting feedback that is helpful. Sometimes it’s too gentle. Sometimes it’s too punitive. without explaining, you know, how to fix the problem. So it has this huge impact on a company’s ability to function.

Problems with the annual performance review

Cassie Werber: So one tool for managers to give feedback in a more structured way is the annual performance review. But you, Lila, wrote a big critique of this practice. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Lila MacLellan: Well, you know, in the middle of the last century, there was this real push to make management more of a science. So, you know, companies start looking for ways to measure people in some empirical way. And the military had these metrics set out already, so they decided to sort of look and see how they could mirror that and create these hierarchies within companies. And how would you decide who is eligible for promotion? You needed to have a ranking system. So you could both weed people out, and you could have this, I’m going to say, pseudo-scientific way to look for the people who would be the best leaders as well. Then what happens with the performance review over time is, you know, when the economy is bad, it becomes more of a tool for deciding who to lay off. So that’s what happens, say, in the 70s. In the 80s, GE became famous for a very formal ranking system, again, used mostly, for layoff purposes. Now, you know, we do tend to think of performance review as part of your career development, it’s something that you’re going to use to look forward and set goals.

Cassie Werber: How do you think that’s going?

Lila MacLellan: You know, really not very well. Performance reviews have really become corporate theater. They come up once a year, they give people panic attacks, they waste a lot of time and money, just so many man hours go into the paperwork, and then the sitting down, and the fretting and people talking to each other about how their performance review went—it can create a lot of drama. So companies were moving away from the performance review even before the pandemic. During the pandemic, you would see more calls for companies to change the way that they’re holding reviews, or drop them completely.

Cassie Werber: Sure, because I guess waiting for a year for somebody to give you some feedback over your video call, surely that’s not a very good way of giving feedback to people.

Lila MacLellan: It’s not. If you don’t already have a very close relationship with that person, it can be extremely awkward. And you can feel quite isolated once you hang up the phone, or the Zoom call. And the thing that we already knew before the pandemic is that, when people get negative feedback, and it’s delivered poorly, they tend to start looking around for a new job. Gallup found in 2019 that only 10% of people who receive negative feedback feel like, ‘Alright, now I’m motivated to do better.’ And almost everybody else just is like, ‘I’m out of here.’

Cassie Werber: So basically, negative feedback doesn’t work.

Lila MacLellan: I think that negative feedback is necessary but it can often just backfire. And you know, quite often the feedback that you get from somebody may have more to do with that person and their perspective and might not be that useful to the listener.

How unconscious bias works in feedback

Cassie Werber: And when you say ‘might have more to do with that person,’ what do you mean, exactly?

Lila MacLellan: Right. So it may just have to do with that evaluator’s mood that day, whether they had a good morning. It could have to do with how much they remember of your work or any sort of bias that they hold. And they may not even be aware of those biases. So it’s just hard to parse.

Cassie Werber: Yeah, right. I guess one of the reasons that the performance review came into being was to make feedback less ad hoc, and therefore less biased, right? Does it help managers to give feedback that’s more equal?

Lila MacLellan: I am not sure that any company has really demonstrated that that is possible, because there are just too many cognitive biases that can get in the way. It’s a very imperfect system. And that’s why you’re seeing so many corporations move away from it altogether. And then if you think about it, every time a manager speaks to you, they’re trying to get something out of you. On some level, this is about the company’s performance, and there’s some form of manipulation that could be happening in the conversation as well. But I’m telling you, writing that piece was so cathartic, because I just loathe the entire process.

Cassie Werber: Is that why you wrote it? Were you’re trying to exorcise some demons?

Lila MacLellan: Yes, exactly. As we keep talking, we’ll talk about how it doesn’t have to be that way. But it often can feel that way.

Cassie Werber: So you spoke to Cynthia Pong, who is a career coach and her work focuses on getting people of color the money, power, and respect they deserve in the workplace. Right?

Lila MacLellan: That’s right. So her company, it’s in New York, it’s called Embrace Change. And she’s also a former public defender in the Bronx. So she is quite used to sort of like really trying to get inside the head of somebody who is doing the evaluating and judging, literally. So I think that would be very useful for her clients. Anyway, so she talked to me about why receiving feedback can be so hard when you are someone from a historically marginalized group.

Feedback for people in historically marginalized groups

Cynthia Pong: Feedback, this does not mean I’m a bad person. This is not a judgment of me, really, in any fundamental way, it’s simply a sign of what I might want to consider doing differently. We might put too much emphasis on it. I do still think that it’s important because even if it is not as objective as it might feel, it still does something for the working relationship between the two people, that actually helps build the working relationship, it moves the working relationship to the next level, and it makes the work more efficient, it helps drive the mission or advance the client work better, you know, all of those things, I think feedback can really serve those, but it has to be probably more thoughtfully delivered and requested too.

I have had clients who literally their supervising person would not speak directly to them, even in group settings would never talk directly to the person would only talk to them through third parties. And that was really horrifying to hear. And it’s not uncommon. It happens a lot. I think for Black folks, Black women and even Black men that I’ve worked with, there’s oftentimes feedback that they’re either too assertive or too cold, need to be warmer and friendlier and more collegial in the workplace. And that, frankly, I think, is absolutely a projection.

I’ll give you one more to consider. And that’s for my clients that are introverts, because I’m very attuned to this too, because I’m an introvert myself, but they often get feedback that says things like, you need to be more vocal in meetings, or you need to think faster and be better on your toes or on the spot, give more presentations be more high energy in the workplace, things like that, that are literally attributes of people who are more extroverted. That one’s a dangerous one too, because introverts contribute a lot to the workplace. And most workplaces are not really designed for them.

For better or for worse, women of color and people of color, we just have to be more proactive in our careers. If you have ambitious career goals, or even not so ambitious career goals, but you have certain aspirations in your career, you really do have to speak up for yourself. Tell your supervisor or your colleagues or your allies what it is that you want and need to know in order to get to your career goals.

Cassie Werber: So Cynthia seems to be saying that people of color particularly really need to seek out feedback in order to do well. And aren’t those two things a bit at odds? Like, feedback isn’t working, people from marginalized groups tend to come in for more criticism, and yet she’s saying that they need to go and seek it out.

Lila MacLellan: I can see why that may seem that it’s at odds, but what is the other option, right? The way companies are set up, feedback is what keeps you moving forward. And if you are not getting it, you need to change that. So that’s why she has this advice, where the person who’s seeking the feedback can also provide the person with the framework.

A framework for requesting feedback

Cynthia Pong: So things you can ask your supervisor, your colleagues, your manager, whoever: this is the work that I’ve been doing, what could be better about this? How can I improve? What do you want me to do differently next time? Is there anything that I did that you liked, and you want me to keep doing or keep it the same? You know, there, you’ve really hit both the positives and the negatives. And notice, I didn’t say feedback, the actual word feedback. I didn’t say that in any of those questions, because I do think sometimes that makes people think really like in the box, and it makes them think, oh, HR performance review that type of thing. But it’s better if you just relate to the person human to human, keep it very conversational. Ask what you really want to know.

Cassie Werber: Yeah. Okay. Got it. But, but also, isn’t she suggesting that people from groups that are already marginalized have to do more work? They’ve got to be more proactive and make change instead of the system changing? Does she address that?

Lila MacLellan: So yes, when I saw Cynthia speak in New York, she talked about that quite a bit. And she basically said that this is the sad reality. And that it’s not fair. But a lot of her clients, especially women of color, she said, will feel like if they work, and they do really well that the work will speak for itself. But that is just not the case. But I think it really just comes down to what that individual wants in their career at that moment.

Cassie Werber: We’ll be back after a break. Stay with us.

What is radical transparency?

Cassie Werber: I mean, it seems like feedback is so rife with problems. There must be some companies that have tried to untangle it, right, to train people to give it better, or to create new templates. Are there any?

Lila MacLellan: Yes, most famously, there is this idea of radical transparency that’s been made famous by the hedge fund Bridgewater, and also at Netflix, this is part of their creed.

Cassie Werber: What do they mean? What is radical transparency?

Lila MacLellan: So it’s really about, you know, if you are in a meeting with people you are expected to give feedback on basically any decision that’s made or a presentation that’s given. At Bridgewater, there’s even a kind of points system where people who may be watching someone, you know, update them in their monthly status meeting will, will rate how well that person did.

Cassie Werber: Terrifying.

Lila MacLellan: Yes. Sounds terrifying to me. But to be clear, this is a minority of companies that have tried it out. On the positive side, if it’s working well, it can give people a sense that their opinion matters. And you probably could get some better decisions made. But on the negative side, I think that we’ve heard a lot of sort of nightmare stories about what life is like, inside a company like Netflix.

Cassie Werber: Is that based on just anybody’s feedback? Is anybody in the company just allowed to be radically transparent at any moment?

Lila MacLellan: Exactly. Absolutely. It doesn’t matter what rank you are, you need to speak up. And if you are, have some negative criticism to give somebody it’s actually like, considered poor form to not offer it. Then you have other companies that have done away with, say, the performance review and moved into weekly check-ins or monthly check-ins. companies, big companies like Deloitte and Adobe and GE, they were already making these kinds of changes before the pandemic.

Cassie Werber: Have they taken away performance reviews as a mechanism?

Lila MacLellan: Yeah. And they have found that employees are much happier with the new processes and they have saved a lot of time and a lot of money. There’s also, interestingly, I’ve recently had a chance to try out this virtual reality training program for managers created by a company called Talespin. And Talespin works with Accenture, which is doing a lot of interesting work in the metaverse. And so I, you know, I tried to sell it, I put on my Oculus headset, and I sit down in this virtual office, and I’m the Senior Manager. And this avatar comes in, and it’s an employee who has either said something that upset the team at the morning meeting, or it’s somebody who’s done really well. And I’m given these choices from a script of what I want to say, to this individual in front of me.

Cassie Werber: And how does it work then? So you do then talk to it, like with your voice?

Lila MacLellan: No, so they’re not quite at that level, you can speak to it with your voice, but you have to use the script that’s there. They’re not at that level, where it’s like, you just say what you want, and the AI will sort it out for you. And actually, that’s on purpose, because the way that we learned is, it’s not really from searching in the dark. It’s more from making a decision about, of these options, which is the best one. So you choose the best one, and then you get to find out how well it went. And if you choose the one that is the awkward response, you get to see how that plays out and how awkward you’ve made the moment. And you can try again. When I did it, I learned that giving feedback is not that intuitive. I thought that the best way to start the conversation would be like, ‘Hi, how are you today?’ But it turns out that as a senior manager, someone’s coming into your office, they’re already afraid, and the stakes are quite high and you’re scaring them. This is not time for a kind of social chit chat.

Cassie Werber: What is your best way to start?

Lila MacLellan: To lay out exactly what the meeting is about, you know, in a friendly, neutral way. But not to beat around the bush.

How can managers give better feedback?

Cassie Werber: If you’re a manager, how can you give better feedback?

Lila MacLellan: You know, a lot of managers aren’t trained very well to give feedback or to think about these things. And so you know, something like 14% of managers in one survey said that they felt they were ready to give feedback effectively. So if you think about how all of these different cognitive biases and then unconscious racial biases and other biases come into play, this is a real skill that managers need to develop.

Cassie Werber: Yeah, absolutely.

Lila MacLellan: This is a really great place for us to introduce our next guest, Phoebe Gavin. She is the owner of Better With Phoebe, a career coaching business. It’s aimed at people for all levels of the company though she also does have a bit of a specialty on people seeking leadership roles. And when I spoke to Phoebe, she described the steps that managers need to go through before they give feedback. She had a lot of really good advice.

Phoebe Gavin: My name is Phoebe Gavin. I’m a leadership and career coach, I help leaders develop their people management skills so they can build healthy, productive workplaces. I’m also executive director of talent and development at The big problem with feedback in the workplace is that workplaces are inherently psychologically unsafe, unless leaders have taken very concerted efforts to make them psychologically safe.

When you enter into a situation where you need to give feedback to someone you are immediately going into a negotiation. Because you are making a request of someone you’re asking them to do something different or to give something different than they have previously done or previously given and in a psychologically safe environment, that negotiation is going to feel a lot more collaborative, it’s going to feel like you’re on the both on the same side of the table. In a psychologically unsafe environment, and there are degrees to unsafe, there are some that are unsafe to the place of toxicity, and there are some that are unsafe, just because they don’t necessarily feel safe.

If feedback is being delivered in a psychologically unsafe environment, then that negotiation, the subsequent negotiation is going to feel adversarial, as if you are on opposite sides of the table as if you are fighting to win versus working together to move forward.

And so if you want to have a good feedback culture, you have to be really proactive, you have to build that culture of psychological safety in your relationships with your direct reports and across your team. And you will know when it’s working, when they tell you you’re wrong about something. What matters is when they tell you they think you’re wrong, because that means they trust you. And that means they feel like you trust them.

Separating facts and assumptions

Cassie Werber: Did Phoebe have any thoughts about how to handle your own bias? If you’re a manager who’s giving feedback?

Lila MacLellan: She did have a couple of thoughts on that. So one idea, you know, is to go back to what she had to say about separating assumptions and facts.

Phoebe Gavin: My number one piece of advice, if you want to give better feedback is to take time ahead of time to think through what are the facts and what are the assumptions. It is factual that the deadline was Monday, and we didn’t get the deck until Wednesday. It is factual that we got the deck on Wednesday, and it had errors in it. It is an assumption that the reason why that happened was because so-and-so was procrastinating or was slow or is messy. All of those things are assumptions.

With critical feedback where you are requesting a really big change from someone I always recommend to start with an observation. And then to go in with a lot of questions. So: I noticed that the deck for the client was turned in a little late and that it had several typos in it. I’d love to better understand how it ended up that way. Is there something that I can do to support you better? Is there something that we need to change about our process or your process so that we can make sure that we’re hitting our deadlines and that the clients are getting deliverables that are flawless?

That is a very different way of delivering feedback, than ‘you missed this deadline, and the deck was full of typos.’ One of those feels collaborative, and the other one feels adversarial. One of them builds the relationship and puts equity and trust into the relationship. And one of them makes the other person very much on the defensive, very much fearful, very much in a place where they are not feeling psychologically safe.

Lila MacLellan: The other bit of advice that she had is that you have to dig into the literature right now. There’s a lot of information out there about racial biases and creating an anti-racist workplace. And if you’re a manager or leader, you have to make that a part of your diet, is what she said. You can’t assume that it’ll come to you naturally. And you can’t assume that it’s not part of your job.

Cassie Werber: It’s hard for managers as well, isn’t it? Like, it’s a hard job.

Lila MacLellan: I think it’s hard. And we know that during the pandemic, it’s been especially hard. And I think companies are recognizing that more and more.

Cassie Werber: What can people do to make the experience of seeking or receiving feedback a little bit easier on themselves?

Lila MacLellan: Well, Cynthia gave a few tips for people on who are on the receiving end of feedback.

Accept that you will make mistakes

Cynthia Pong: One, know that you’re going to make mistakes, and just accept it. Then the second thing is, I would put some effort into trying to understand the person you’re speaking to as a person. You have to think about your audience, always. If we’re talking to Greg, How do things look from Greg’s perspective, what does Greg actually care about? What words do you need to use to get Greg to understand where you’re coming from? And those are going to be the words that Greg uses, by the way.

Focus on compartmentalizing. it might help if you try to quantify this a little bit like what percentage of this is Greg’s sexism? What percentage of this is actually something that I could improve on or that I could respond to you in a constructive way? That can help. And just to make sure that you’re hyper aware of what is a reflection of someone’s stereotype bias against you, so that you do not, do not, do not internalize that and start to believe it for yourself.

Cassie Werber: Yeah, it’s so easy, I guess, to hear even slightly negative feedback in a very kind of loud internal voice, and keep going back to it and then torturing yourself with it right?

Lila MacLellan: I’m an expert at that.

Can we get rid of feedback altogether?

Cassie Werber: Have any companies just said, That’s it, we’re getting rid of feedback altogether, we’re not going to do it anymore.

Lila MacLellan: One woman I spoke to who argues against feedback altogether, her name is Carol Sanford. And she has worked with some big Fortune 500 companies. And she feels that feedback, the way that we rely on it really undermines an employee’s sense of confidence in themselves, and that we have to learn to stop looking to other people, you know, to feel safe... to feel [that] our ideas are useful and creative. And also, she makes the point that feedback and performance reviews do create a lot of drama, and take people away from the main task at hand.

Cassie Werber: So what’s her answer? Is it just like self reliance, kind of believe that you’re doing the right thing and get your dopamine hit from the satisfaction of a day’s work well done.

Lila MacLellan: Yes. And, the thing is that it’s so hard to talk about what her whole theory is, because we can’t really just introduce it into the workplace as it is right now. She is really talking about rebuilding the paradigm, shifting the paradigm away from command-and-control. And so if we were just suddenly to drop feedback in the workplace today, I think a lot of people would just feel untethered. I think we’d feel quite at sea.

Cassie Werber: Thank you so much for joining me today, Lila. I know so much more about feedback than I did.

Lila MacLellan: I’m so happy to hear it. Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed this.

Cassie Werber: Work reconsidered is a podcast from Quartz at Work. I’m your host, Cassie Werber, and I was joined today by Quartz reporter Lila McClellan. This episode was produced by Lila McClellan and Nicole Kelly. Our sound engineer is George Drake. And our executive producer is Alex Ossola. This episode was edited by Francesca Donner. Our theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Cynthia Pong and Phoebe Gavin.

And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends to listen too. You can also leave a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening.

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