How You Can Turn A Performance Review Into A Great Learning Experience


Nothing can improve your performance like solid feedback can.

However, none of us likes being criticized, judged, or told what to do. And our first instinct is usually to ignore feedback or even do the opposite.

I never said life was simple, folks.

Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code, and Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, both consider feedback essential to peak performance.

Merely being the kind of person who seeks out feedback is linked to many good things like higher job satisfaction and creativity.

And people who specifically seek out negative feedback do better on performance reviews at work.

Via Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well:

Feedback-seeking behavior — as it’s called in the research literature —  has been linked to higher job satisfaction, greater creativity on the job, faster adaptation in a new organization or role, and lower turnover. And seeking out negative feedback is associated with higher performance ratings.

Many people think they’re good at taking feedback and what they mean by that is “I know how to nod my head and not get angry.

That’s a good first step but it doesn’t help you improve — it just stops you from getting fired.

Learning to really take feedback can help you win. Just quietly nodding is merely a way to lose slowly.

And we’re talking about negative feedback here. Positive feedback has another name: compliments. And we’re all pretty good with those.

So what’s the biggest mistake we all make when it comes to feedback?


“That’s Wrong!”

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, call it “wrong spotting.”

We’ve all done this.

Someone offers criticism and you get angry inside. Or just squirm uncomfortably. So your brain goes on the offensive.

You just want to show they’re wrong about something so you can ignore everything they say.

Sometimes it’s legitimate and substantive and sometimes it’s silly and ad hominem.

You just want the discomfort of being judged to stop so you don’t have to deal with the ego-bruising process called change.

As Stone and Heen point out, wrong spotting not only defeats wrong feedback, it also defeats learning.

But avoiding wrong spotting is really, really hard. What strategies can help us do better? Stone and Heen have a great answer.


Two Lists

So our natural response is to try and show the other person is wrong so we can ignore their criticism.

Basically, we’re trying to “net out” what they said: 1 + -1 = 0.

And that’s exactly what you end up with: zero learning.

So make two lists: One is things they’re wrong about. And one is things that, well, they might be right about.

Next time you get feedback, make three columns:

  1. What they said
  2. What’s “wrong” with the feedback
  3. What might be right

This lets you vent your frustration in column 2 but column 3 makes sure you don’t lose the value of what they’re saying.

But getting feedback is fraught with problems on many levels. Stone and Heen’s book is loaded with great tips. Here are four I’d like to highlight.


1) What To Do When There’s Too Much To Do

The typical performance review covers 6 months or a year. That much feedback is almost inherently overwhelming.

Your head is spinning trying to figure out where to start. The answer?

Just isolate one important thing you can make progress on.

Via Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well:

At the end of the day, is there one thing you and the giver (or givers) see as most important for you to work on? It should be something meaningful and useful, but don’t get paralyzed by that. It doesn’t have to be the one perfect thing. That sends you right back to no things. Just a useful thing. A place to start.

The goal is not to be perfect at everything; it’s to get better.


2) How To Ask For Feedback (The Right Way)

The way you ask for feedback is probably terrible. We all do it.

“If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it.” Lame.

Nobody knows how to respond to that. Heck, you don’t know how to respond to that. Frankly, neither do I.

So when you really want advice, how do you get it? Say this:

What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that’s getting in my own way?

Boom. That’s something people can reply to.

Want a twist on that question which a boss or spouse will love? Try this:

What’s one thing I could change that would make a difference to you?

That question will get you answers that can improve important relationships. And don’t forget to follow it up with “two lists.”


3) How To Know When Feedback Is Valid

Stone and Heen recommend you “Listen For Themes.”

If you keep hearing the same thing over and over, it’s probably true and probably something you should act on.

I learned this one years ago when I was writing in Hollywood.

If your script gets criticized about something once, maybe you can ignore that feedback.

But if three separate people all criticize the same thing, they’re not wrong, you’re wrong. Make the change.


4) The Ultimate Strategy For Determining Which Feedback Is Valuable

We usually sort feedback into two categories:

  1. This feedback is useful and I can implement it immediately.
  2. This feedback is wrong and the person saying it is evil and must be destroyed.

What if, despite everything, you just don’t know which of the two it is? Guess what: you don’t have to know.

You can test it.

It’s the simplest thing in the world yet very often we never even consider the option:

Give it a shot for a week and see what happens.

This is the method used by the most creative people in the world to come up with great ideas.

It’s how Frank Gehry designs beautiful buildings. It’s how Chris Rock comes up with brilliant comedy.

Do people say you’re too negative? Give optimism a week. Too much of a procrastinator? For a week don’t put anything off.

(Oh, and if you want to learn the best way to give feedback, that’s here.)


Sum Up

Feedback is essential to getting better at anything. But life’s not all about a mechanistic quest to increase performance.

Seeking feedback is also a great way to make friends and improve relationships.

Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer and persuasion guru Robert Cialdini both recommend asking for advice as a powerful way to bond with others.

Wharton professor Adam Grant breaks down the science behind it in his excellent book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success:

Studies demonstrate that across the manufacturing, financial services, insurance, and pharmaceuticals industries, seeking advice is among the most effective ways to influence peers, superiors, and subordinates.

Anything that can help make you better at your job and happier in your personal life is too important for you to ignore.

Please don’t take that the wrong way. I’m only trying to help. Just a little feedback for you.

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