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Monday 15 September 2014

Finding the usable truths in the waffle of work appraisals

Drake Bennett

Published 13/03/2014 | 02:30

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Ed Koch: “How’m I doin’?”
Ed Koch: “How’m I doin’?”

"How'm I doin'?" Ed Koch, the late mayor of New York, would famously shout to his constituents. Cynics say the question was rhetorical, that he wasn't really interested in anything but praise.

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"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'. "That's why some firms now refer to it in more euphemistic terms: the "performance appraisal process" or, worse, a "mid-year check-in".

Stone and Heen – two lecturers at Harvard Law School – 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.

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 filter the annoying things people say for useful advice.

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. They say that 63pc of executives see their biggest challenge as the fact that "their managers lack the courage and ability to have difficult feedback discussions". In many firms, 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 feedback-givers be as specific as possible about the triggering event or behaviour – not "You're sloppy," but "I noticed you didn't have the numbers I asked for two weeks ago, and you spelt 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.

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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