Feedback on Feedback

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It was an honor to be asked to be a guest lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer. Jeff is a distinguished professor in Organization Behavior and best selling author of Managing With Power and What Were They Thinking?

He is a professor that wants his students to understand the realities in today’s organizations and I was there to tell stories about those realities.  He called me a “war correspondent” about life in the work world.

Not surprisingly, the two sections were full of the bright, ambitious, poised students one would imagine at the GSB.  I was there to speak about power how it can be used and abused and they were there to learn.  The basic premise I wanted to convey was that in most organizations power comes from relationships.  The strength and depth and number of relationships often dictate one’s power base.  The more the relationships, the better.  The higher the relationships the better.  This concept is one that organizations like Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and the Davos crowd at theWorld Economic Forum have long recognized.

There were no debates in the two sections of the class about the power that relationships can generate or that competence counts for more than credentials.  Where there was debate was over the concept of feedback.  A student asked about one of my early books, entitled, Beware Those Who Ask for Feeedback and the debate went on from there.  When it comes to feedback I operate from two basic hypotheses.

The first is that, in general, people can accurately assess their own performance.  Key phrase here is “in general”. While watching a youth soccer game recently, a boy who was maybe five years old, ran out of the game with the declaration, “I sucked!”  Immediately, a group of adults coddled him and said, “No, you were great, Johnnie.”  But I had been watching other players beat Johnnie to the ball and score around him.  Johnnie was right, he had sucked and he had accurately assessed his performance.  When I give a speech I know how I believe I know how I performed.  When I handle a situation, I know whether it was the right way to handle it, in my mind.  Of course, what I tell my boss or my wife about it may be different, but in my heart of hearts, I think I know.  The sports metaphors for this hypothesis are legion.

The second hypothesis is that when people ask for feedback, they are really looking for affirmation, not criticism. When your spouse comes out of the bathroom and asks, “How do I look?” be careful before you say anything other than a positive.  After a speech when your boss asks you, “How did I do?” only say it was a bomb if you have another job lined up.  Don’t believe me, try giving negative feedback in either situation.  There are exceptions to the rule.  There are those people who honestly want feedback, but those are often the people who want to move their performance from a level 8 to a level 10.  Those are the people who know how they performed (see thought #one above) but may want to be told they performed really well, no matter the reality.

Even in an official performance review, I believe people know how they performed and they are testing if the reviewer agrees with the assessment.  In any case, the one who is reviewed believes he/she is right.  And in that same review, any negative feedback will be heard but want people want to really hear is how well they are doing.

It is a rare manager, and always a good one, who is self aware enough to understand performance perceptions and provide direct and helpful feedback to all.

No doubt, doctoral dissertations and major studies have been performed on both hypotheses but through the School of Feedback Follies I believe I am right on both hypotheses.  Trust me on this one.



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