Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On Feedback

Something that receives a lot of attention in MBA land (at least at Booth), second only to the ever present L word ("Leadership"), giving and receiving feedback. This topic comes up a lot in Managerial Decision Making, so I've had the quarter to ponder my deep aversion to both giving and receiving feedback.

From about age 5 to age 17 (the public school years), I honed my ability to completely ignore everyone else's opinions. This was a matter of survival. Growing up in a small, rural community in which my family did not dress, eat, worship, leisure, talk, or vote (or frankly do anything) like anyone else - a deaf ear was essential to sanity. I also similarly learned to keep my mouth shut at all costs. When I began college I was astonished to realize how severely underdeveloped my oral powers were. Additionally, such thick headedness did not come easily. I am, frankly, a conformist at heart and overly concerned with others' opinions of me.

But the crux of the issue is that while some feedback is good, much of it is useless and some of it is very damaging. And I have yet to figure out exactly how to tell in the moment of receiving, which is which. (Except for the obviously, fantastically bad feedback: such as my first resume review at Booth in which a second year told me that I should not put "CFA" after my name on my resume.) This is one of my challenges with the qualitative courses at Booth, which I have tended to avoid. My marketing professor encouraged us all to come in to receive feedback at some point and I dutifully made an appointment. The TA pulled out my most recent case (the infamous chicken contact lens case) and said, "Actually, this is good ... but you need to give me ... more." More of what??? But he couldn't elaborate, as we were out of time. And then there is the endless conflicting opinions on your resume and the contradictory feedback on mock interviews and of very-dubious-value LEAD experience of receiving and delivering feedback on fictional (aka mock) experiences and the inexplicable good scores on the essays you thought were awful and the low scores on the one's you worked hardest on. In fact, I can't really think of any piece of feedback that I have received at Booth which I have found particularly useful ... and yet, feedback is presumably useful ... but when??

At the end of my summer internship, I received very critical feedback from the most senior member on our small team about my stock presentation. Now, this was a great opportunity to practice my feedback acceptance skills. But I had been so impressed over the summer with his complete lack of listening skills and delight in hearing his own voice, that it was hard to imagine how valuable his perspective could be. Nor was his opinion universally shared by any means. And so it didn't stick.

We have talked a lot in Managerial Decision Making about the importance of feedback, particularly with regard to entrepreneurship. That the entrepreneur is at great risk of so falling in love with her idea that she is eventually blinded to reality. But, in all honesty, that's a trait that I love. Blind stubbornness. Refusal to accept the practical and the real. At the root of my aversion to feedback is a fondness and admiration for individuals who are anything but conformists and not in the least bit concerned with others' opinions of them. At a very young age, I found these traits to be crippling handicaps and have worked so hard to rid myself of them, that I can't seem to bear to risk letting them back in.

But more practically, the fact of the matter is that it seems no matter what you do, no matter how hard you rehearse or dutifully absorb your critiques, there will always be someone who thinks you're an idiot and someone who thinks you're amazing. And when I put on my practical hat, I don't really see the value in going about life being buffeted about by these two opposing opinions. Frankly, it seems like an annoying way to spend one's time. I can't help but feel that one is better off living life in the manner they find most respectable and letting the naysayers fall where they may. What is most important it seems is authenticity.


Anonymous said...


Feedback for me is a point of view someone else has on something of mine. It's just information and sometimes one's enemies can provide the best feedback to highlight one's weaknesses. What you do with the information and how you eventually decide is up to the specific situation and preferences. If there is a consensus of independent opinions then it makes it easier though even this may not be 100% accurate or useful.

A concrete example is one's resume. I've spent many months tweaking, updating and getting tons of feedback from all kinds of people. Some have the same things to say, others point out different preferences but at the end of the day, it's not up to them and neither it is up to me. I'm selling this product (my resume) to someone else and the buyer's (the target market/employer) preferences are most important to secure the deal. The caveat is that it's a fine balance of conforming (e.g. required formatting parameters, basic qualifications required etc) and standing out from the crowd for the right reasons (e.g. unique but relevant skillset).


Anonymous said...

So true. The crazy thing about feedback is having to listen to it from people far less competent than you.