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Feedback? What’s wrong with that?

June 21, 2009

Taking a break from red-hot regular posts…I started thinking about a curious question I had faced in a few of my interviews I had had.

An interviewer had wondered how I would feel about feedback. He tried to brace me for the subject, as if he were talking about the most devastating thing in the world. “You know…sometimes it can seem like feedback, reviews, and performance evaluations are negative and hurtful…but I would like to suggest that we don’t mean it negatively and we don’t mean to be hurtful. So, what would you do if you got a performance review that seemed to be negative?”

Hurtful? Who got that idea? I wondered why he had to butter up the review process…did he think performance evaluations were a great evil?

Maybe I’m weird, but personally, I like performance evaluations. I do have caveats: I like them a lot more when they are frequent and when they come before the final grading process has begun. I’d rather someone tell me that I’m doing something wrong and tell me how to improve before I miss out on an opportunity or embarrass myself.

I get the feeling that everyone else isn’t in the same boat. It seemed from my few interactions (I know; I know; anecdotal evidence = terrible) that people feared or despised performance evaluations. And I guess I’m premature in the process — maybe when I become more experienced in working for a living, I’ll learn to hate them too.

I remember what I had told my interviewer. It was something to the effect of: “Why would I think feedback is hurtful? Why would I dislike it? It shows to me that my coworkers or superiors care enough to show my how to do things correctly. What I would think is hurtful is if someone didn’t care enough to yank me aside when I was doing something wrong and correct me before things go too bad, or if someone ripped me a new one and then withheld advice on how to improve.”

From the reading I’ve been doing on generational differences, it seems that this is a common point for Generation Y/the Millennials/whatever we are called. We crave “constant feedback” and “mentoring,” whereas previous generations fear it. I don’t know how far that goes, but I can say that for me, it smells right. And all the time in recruiting when firms talked about mentoring, I thought, “So what?” I didn’t imagine that it could be any other way. How could you train without mentoring? I guess I’m biased because I’ve been raised in a generation with feedback.

In the end, there are some things I will never know, because of lack of feedback. For example, if I don’t get a job offer (as I didn’t from some places), I would really like (and would really have liked) to have someone pull me aside and explain why. The emails are generally so nice and prepackaged: “We regret we cannot offer a position to each candidate in the recruitment cycle. Unfortunately, we cannot offer you a position at this time,” but they don’t tell me much about how I could have become one of the candidates who was offered a position. I know it is naive to expect a reason why (and no doubt, rude to call or email pressing for one), so I don’t pursue the issue, but I’d rather not be in the dark.

It’s a bit like fencing (ok, this is going to be a really convoluted analogy). If I’m losing, I want to know why I’m losing. I want to know if that touch I didn’t get was close…or if I was just clearly running into someone who had a much better strategy or more solid technique. Not only that, but if I’m losing…how do I counter? What drills and techniques do I need to practice? In the end, losing isn’t the biggest loss. The biggest loss is a loss where I have no idea how to improve.

There’s a difference between not getting a point by a few seconds or centimeters and not getting a point by meters or by a fatal misstep that was seen several tempo beats in advance. Similarly, there’s a difference between not getting a job because one was good, but not as good as others…or because one made a vital misstep and dashed his chances. It is one thing for me to be outclassed and have no possibility of winning because I simply do not yet have what it takes (keep on practicing, kiddo!)…it’s another thing when I clearly have potential, but because of some stupid thing I did (and didn’t know to correct), I blew that potential.

That’s what makes not knowing and not having feedback so troubling: not even having enough information to discern which was the case.

EDIT: Oh yeah, I was going to make a counterpoint, and I almost forgot. I do think that I won’t just take criticism lying down. If I doubt some criticism, I may ask for proof. I may challenge. I may wonder if a piece of criticism is unrepresentative. And obviously, when the final critique comes (and benefits and grading and consequences come), I’m going to also try to defend my position.

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