Getting Negative Feedback

I had a conversation with a coworker a while back, who asserted that every manager would take out his bad mood on his direct reports. This was said without rancor, challenge, or apology – it was stated as an axiomatic principle, in the same tone of voice that might convey a lack of interest in rum raisin ice cream, perhaps, or an assertion that the weather was, in fact, a bit muggy. This was a bit surreal, as it was feedback being directed at me. No, the coworker hadn’t observed me doing this, no, there was no specific incident, but I managed people, I was human and therefore prone to the occasional bad mood, this is what managers do, QED.

Unfortunately, while I found this interesting in the abstract, and have even spent time pondering the question (“do I, in fact, take out my bad moods on my team?”), it was hard to take it to heart when it was so… aggressively non-targeted. Which is a shame – negative feedback is one of the most amazingly powerful gifts you can receive. And though a good manager will do her best to provide constructive feedback, it will generally be focused on the metrics she has most visibility into – project success, adherence to schedule, reporting, hiring, retention, relationship with business partners, etc. How you interact with your peers and direct reports likely won’t get back to her unless things are particularly bad, and if you’re doing well, she might well avoid feedback that seems nit-picky. As for the others, you’ll almost never get real, actionable feedback from peers or subordinates directly. The former might not know that much about what you’re doing, and the latter can legitimately fear retribution – whether an immediate outburst, or more subtle, long term effects due to anger, hurt feelings, or vindictiveness.

Enter the 360 review.

At it’s base, the idea is pretty simple. You choose N coworkers (say, 15), including direct reports, peers, your boss, other non-direct superiors, and anyone else you work with on a regular basis (hence the “360º”). You ask (i.e., beg) them to answer a detailed questionnaire describing your performance, management skills, strengths, weaknesses, whether they think you’re a good fit for your role, whether they think you’re headed for promotion or in over your head, etc. The questionnaire is administered and results collated and anonymized by a third party.

And so, one day, you walk into a room, sit down across from an external consultant, and nervously crack open a summary document describing what everyone around you really thinks of you. Strip away the politeness, conflict avoidance, fear of retribution and desire to please, aggregate across different groups (direct reports, peers, superiors), and you have a curiously dispassionate, sharpened instrument of brutal honesty.

Now, I’ve only had the one 360 review (a little over a year ago), so I don’t have much basis for broad-ranging comparisons. But reading it was like… Maybe like going through a bad breakup. I distinctly remember going through each of the stages of grief. Denial? Check. Anger? Check. Bargaining, depression, acceptance? Check, check, check. What had started out as a fairly lighthearted exercise ended up being the single most chastening experience of my professional life.

These people – whom I like and respect, and who genuinely wanted to help me – well, let’s just say that they had some pretty actionable advice for how I could improve. Some of the feedback wasn’t surprising, but there were things in there I never would have guessed. I won’t lie – it made for some pretty tough reading. But I quickly realized that I had been given an incalculably valuable gift. Some aspects of your job have very concrete outputs – meeting deadlines, feature completion, revenue impact, hires made, and so on. You know if you’re being successful or if you’re falling down. But what’s it like working with you? What are your interpersonal weaknesses? What are your worst flaws? What do people say when you’re not around, or think when you walk by? There are so many things you’ll never know about yourself, because you’re the last person anyone would tell.

In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith talks about how the problems that keep successful people from getting to the next level are frequently styles of interaction – habits that weren’t enough to keep them from achieving success when the stakes were relatively low, but which limit growth as their responsibilities increase. Of the twenty common flaws he lists, it’s hard not to find a handful of familiar faces – we all know certain things about ourselves. Others, however, can only be revealed to us by people who have strong incentives not to. The 360 degree review is powerful precisely because it targets people who might otherwise stay silent, and gets more detail from people who wouldn’t otherwise tell us the full story.

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