Negative feedback: ‘tis harder to give than receive
One of my first experiences in business was working at McKinsey & Co in the summer of 2007. I had just graduated from MIT with an M.S. and had received a full-time offer to join the firm in its business technology practice. I opted instead to attend HBS in the fall, so McKinsey was kind enough to bring me on for the summer as a compromise. I wanted to give the whole consulting thing a try and see if it was a fit for me personally, especially after finding I meshed pretty well with several members of the NYC team.
Put simply, I didn’t love consulting. The folks at McKinsey are incredibly talented at what they do, and the organization has a strong culture. I learned a lot about how world-class service organizations are run from working there, but I never saw the value to my own career of being a consultant.
I did take away one important lesson: giving feedback is a heck of a lot harder than receiving it. Feedback is hardwired into the McKinsey culture: you get and give it many times during a typical “engagement.” Even the summer interns get feedback.
I remember my first feedback session, during which my manager sat me down and walked through a couple things I could do better. Eager to please, I had an explanation for each negative observation he brought up. The conversation degraded quickly into an argument.
Eventually, he interjected:
Ok, hold on a second. You have to realize something.
As hard as you think it is to receive negative feedback from me, it’s a heck of a lot harder for me to give it to you. So, if you want this to be constructive, you need to sit there and listen and not be defensive of every point I make.
I get this now, many years later, after having been on both sides of the table repeatedly. Nobody likes making other people feel like they’re doing a bad job. I think that’s why most organizations suck at giving feedback: managers want to avoid putting themselves in an awkward position.
Yet, without difficult conversations, problems fester and go unnoticed by those who are creating them. The best thing you can do is have that conversation often and early, and if employees are self-aware, they will eventually thank you for it.
On the receiving end, the best thing you can do is to shut up and listen hard. If you really disagree with the feedback, then ask clarifying questions in the form of, “So, let me make sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying…” Just starting off the sentence that way will take the edge off.
Finally, don’t confuse the above with “sugar coating” or common politeness. How humans interact with each other inside a company forms the basis of its culture and can make transparent communication easy or difficult. The managers alone don’t carry the burden of making feedback productive; employees need to do their part as well.