23 June 2022 14:26:47 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

How to give and take feedback

SpaceX employees were fired for criticising founder Elon Musk recently

One thing every leader faces is criticism. In fact, one can argue that if a leader faces no criticism, then she probably isn’t attempting something truly transformative. How a leader handles criticism can often decide whether she grows as a leader or stagnates. Abraham Lincoln for one could go down as one of those leaders who received enormous criticism, especially from those closest to him. But what was true criticism he accepted with humility, what wasn’t, he never let affect him.  

A leader also finds she sometimes has to hand out criticism or as we’d put it in the business world ‘give feedback.’ Again, how she does this could define the impact and influence she has on her team and the trust capital she earns with them. We’ll look at one attitude when receiving criticism and two approaches to keep in mind when giving it. 

How we react  

Last week, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploration venture, fired a few employees. Their crime? They had written and distributed a letter critical of their CEO, Musk. Among other things, the letter called out Musk’s antics and tweeting as “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment.” The company President Gwynne Shotwell fired the employees and effectively asked everyone to focus on their work and stop trying to be ultra-activists. Contrast this behaviour with Sayta Nadella’s.  

Back in 2014, Satya Nadella was at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Phoenix, Arizona, US, when he made some remarks about pay gaps between genders. He seemed to suggest that women need to be more patient, and that ‘ karma’ would take care of the gap eventually. The women at the conference were livid at him and didn’t mince their words. Nadella’s reaction — an immediate apology, and a brutally honest and humble statement: “I answered that question completely wrong.” 

If we need to harness criticism right, then we need to cultivate both self-awareness and humility. We also need to be secure enough in ourselves that every criticism we hear doesn’t make us all prickly and defensive. We especially need to be more welcoming of criticism, when we trust the person giving it and their intent. If they have a record of being authentic, walking the talk, and standing up for their convictions, then we need to be respectful of what they could be trying to tell us even if it’s sometimes delivered a little bluntly. 

Soon after Jeff Immelt took over as CEO of General Electric (GE), Immelt was regaling the GE board with what he described as his ‘brand-new priority.’ He was going to ‘form a group of fellow high-profile CEOs to discuss the pitfalls of the CEO job and the unique problems of the most powerful CEOs.’  

Ken Langone, the billionaire entrepreneur who co-founded Home Depot and a GE board member, was appalled. He believed that a new leader had to have a laser focus on his new assignment — leading the company not socialising. He took Immelt aside and told him, “With all due respect, I think the time you spend on this would be better spent with some of the high-potential leaders in the company or with customers.” Immelt was withering in his response. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”  

Langone retreated with the thought running in his head — two months in and he has senioritis (as described in the book Lights Out – Pride, Delusion and the Fall of General Electric by Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann). It is this kind of a know-it-all attitude that sounds like the death knell for many leaders. Their Teflon-coating soon turns out to be razor-thin. Instead, leaders who listen and discern the criticisms they receive can quickly learn to harvest what is fair and right and ignore what isn’t. 

Before we criticise  

You would remember the sonorous voice of Peter O’Toole voicing Anton Ego in the movie Ratatouille, “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”  

It is easy to be an armchair critic. It is easier to criticise a book than to write one, easier to criticise a player from the spectator stands, than to play on the pitch. Before we criticise, we must also check in with ourselves — first whether we have the credibility to criticise and second whether we are authentic — are we ourselves guilty of the same sins we accuse others of. As Jesus told the crowd who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery — ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. Everyone slunk away. 

There’s a gem of a Harvard Business Review article that every leader should read — The Feedback Fallacy by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.  “The first problem with feedback is that humans are unreliable raters of other humans. Over the past 40 years, psychometricians have shown in study after study that people don’t have the objectivity to hold in their heads a stable definition of an abstract quality, such as business acumen or assertiveness, and then accurately evaluate someone else on it, Our evaluations are deeply coloured by our own understanding of what we’re rating others on, our own sense of what good looks like for a particular competency, our harshness or leniency as raters, and our own inherent and unconscious biases.” So, critics, beware!  

Is it worth it? 

Often, we criticise either out of a sense of superiority or to vent our own frustration. Rarely do we have at heart, what should be the goal of real constructive criticism — the growth and learning of the person we are providing feedback to. If that is our goal, then we must think again — will it achieve its outcome. As the same Feedback Fallacy article calls out: “Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.”  

Bill Green, Accenture CEO and my former employer, would say, “Criticism makes people raise their defences, challenges make them raise their game.”  

Recently, two friends I know had a disagreement at work. At the crux of the matter was ‘constructive feedback’ — given with the best intentions but in front of others and therefore it came across as uncaring and unjust. As the affected person told me “In front of everyone…!!!!” the rest didn’t matter – I could immediately hear her dismay at being put down in front of others, inspite of her very obvious hard work and commitment. Lost in the humiliation was the actual feedback.  

Any positive feedback given in front of others you multiply the positive impact. And when its negative feedback given in front of others again you multiply the negative impact. It pays for a leader to hold her horses and have the ‘constructive feedback’ conversation one-on-one with her colleague.  

When giving criticism it pays to wait. A scalding sentence left unsaid is likely to be moderated with some empathy and compassion with the benefit of time. As Ted Lasso in the award-winning Lasso TV series would say, “Sometimes the best stew is the one you leave on the stove overnight.”  

This is particularly true for people we deeply care about — family, friends, and valued colleagues. If we give it with the right intent, sometimes the receiver of our criticism may accept and change. But sometimes they don’t, they may be stubborn about it, or they may be too set in their ways. Then perhaps the advice of Higgins another character from the same series would be helpful: “I try to love my dad for what he is and forgive him for what he isn’t.”