Pilita Clark: Painful truth is that we are poor at workplace feedback

Figuring out how to deliver analysis that is truthful and kind is not easy

Good management: there are lots of reasons to admire forthright feedback at work – the trouble is, too many people do it too poorly.

Imagine you are 25 years old and you always wanted to be a playwright and, wonderfully, a well-known theatre in your home city has agreed to stage one of your plays.

Your friends and family come on opening night, along with the local newspaper’s theatre critic. The next morning you rush to read his review. At first you are baffled, because he starts by saying your play was showing at a theatre near a police station. It is just as well, he adds, because last night, “I had to rush out and report that a crime had been committed”. What follows is a review so crushing that you give up writing plays and instead become a journalist.

All this happened to a friend of mine more than 30 years ago. He became a fine journalist, worked around the world and eventually turned the unkind reviewer into a dinner party joke that usually ends like this: “If that guy is ever found dead in suspicious circumstances, you’ll know where to look.”

I thought of my friend last week when Ray Dalio, founder of the US hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, put out a media statement to say one of his top executives was leaving. It was an unremarkable press release, except for the bit at the end that explained what Bridgewater was, and how the firm had "a culture of radical truth and radical transparency".


Blunt feedback

Constant, blunt feedback is a hallmark of Mr Dalio's singular management style, which has been known to bring employees to tears. It did not stop him creating the world's largest hedge fund. Equally, a bracing feedback culture at Netflix does not seem to have hurt the online streaming group.

The success of such companies is one reason many business leaders have been drawn to the idea that painful truths equal better performance.

There are lots of reasons to admire forthright feedback at work. The trouble is, too many of us do it too poorly, as that review of my friend’s play showed. There is obviously a big difference between a theatre critic and an office manager. The critic has a duty to entertain and let potential audiences know if they should part with their cash. The office manager does not.

But neither has an excuse for gratuitously savaging a 25-year-old, no matter how amusing the savagery.

The more common crime, in my experience, comes when people giving feedback are not rude or insincere but vague

Luckily, that type of performance review is relatively rare in the office. But there is no shortage of ways in which managers muck up important conversations about what is and is not working. I came across a classic of the genre the other day when an angry, red-faced colleague told me about a meeting she had just had with her boss about progress on a big project.

“She didn’t stop looking at her phone the whole time!” she said, adding the boss could not have conveyed her dissatisfaction more clearly. Assuming the boss was in fact trying to send that message – and was not merely a hopelessly distracted email addict – this was a terrible way to send it.


Apart from being rude it was unproductive: the project might have had genuine problems and the boss might have been trying to discuss them. But behaviour that makes people feel as if they are not being properly listened to is guaranteed to infuriate rather than elucidate.

The more common crime, in my experience, comes when people giving feedback are not rude, insincere or overly polite, but vague.

“You’re doing really well,” is not helpful. “You’re doing really well because you did that,” on the other hand, is genuinely useful. Likewise, telling someone that what they are doing “doesn’t work” or “needs to improve” is useless. It is always better to have precise examples of why something is not working and what could have been done differently.

Finding a way to do this takes time and effort that pressed managers often lack. Likewise, figuring out how to deliver feedback that is both truthful and kind is not easy. Two years ago, a former Google executive named Kim Scott produced a book called Radical Candor about how to achieve that balance. It is no surprise to me that a new edition has just been published.

Ultimately, people want to hear the truth about their work and managers want to tell them. And I would always prefer to work in a place that tries to do that, radically or not. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019