3 min read

Warm Take: Feedback

Accurate feedback can be hard to come by
Yellow handset telephone, rotary dial, probably from the 1960s?
Yellow Telephone, by lensletter, CC BY-SA 2.0

As proprietor of this one-woman newsletter, I’m frequently confronted by the incompetence of my editor, Me.  This was roundly demonstrated in last month’s newsletter. Yes, the topic was competence. While um, editing, I omitted a key barrier to competence: it's difficult to have insight into our performance, because accurate feedback is hard to come by.

Some people lack the skill to provide feedback; they don’t want to tell you a hard truth. Clients tell me about this every year at performance review time, when managers must be pressed to re-write the glowing reviews they've drafted for people they’ve been complaining about.

Feedback from some people won’t be useful; the unskilled may not recognize expert performance. David Dunning calls this “The Cassandra Effect,” evoking a priestess from Greek mythology, doomed to be prescient, and never believed. (Cassandra was apparently cursed by a god for not sleeping with him, so there’s that, too.)

When you’re perceived to have even an ounce of power in an organization, it may not feel, or be, politically expedient for others to give you accurate feedback. Early in my career, I remember flying to Chicago to attend a workshop, ostensibly to receive peer feedback. The feedback I received was confoundingly positive. It was not at all helpful; I knew I wasn’t all that.

Zappo’s Tony Hsieh died in 2020, after not receiving help he needed. His declining health, and death, may be a tragic example of someone surrounded by subordinates who couldn't speak truth to power.

At Mr. Hsieh’s mansion, Jewel began asking the people around her, “What are you doing here?” “What is your purpose?” No one had a good answer. Most troubling—aside from the appalling state of the property—was the apparent lack of concern about Mr. Hsieh’s condition. Most of the people around him treated it as though it was normal, almost seeming to celebrate him. Mr. Hsieh had told his new employees that he was in a creative metamorphosis and would emerge soon. The last stage of metamorphosis would be sobriety.

The Rise and Fall of the Management Visionary Behind Zappos, by Kirsten Grind and Kathryn Sayre, The Wall Street Journal

Startup leaders are often advised that coaching is a way to get truth to power. This can be true. Yet the coach needs a good view of a leader's work. Unless a coach gets input from the leader’s stakeholders — and has sufficient skill to see when stakeholders are pulling punches — their feedback will be limited.

To be clear, we should invite feedback!

Great feedback includes next steps. When you get feedback that’s not actionable, ask for clarification. When that’s not possible, or the feedback really feels wrong, lean on trusted peers and mentors – or your coach! –  to help you to triangulate what you’re hearing and figure out what to do next.

(And to be clear, though out of scope for today. Some incompetent managers use feedback as a cover, after deciding to “performance manage” someone out of an organization. When you see this, the organization is kind of rotten. When you’re fortunate, you can explore other employment options.)

I can't count how many times I've shared Managing Emotions in the Workplace: Do Positive and Negative Attitudes Drive Performance?, including in the very first issue of this newsletter, back in 2015.  It covers some of professor Sigal Barsade's research on emotional contagion, which is accepted as a very real factor in how we interact at work.

Sigal died in February, at 56. Some years back, she spoke at a business school alumnae conference I helped organize, joining a supportive network of women on campus who made the conference possible.

I'll remember Sigal as a good listener. May her memory be a blessing.

Welcome to new readers, and thanks to everyone who has been reading for a while – including, I believe, 6 of the 7 original October 2015 subscribers.  And thanks to those of you who support On Management financially!  (Scroll down for some housekeeping on that front.

This is one of my Sunday morning Warm Takes, which I typically write while drinking my one and only coffee. They're brief, and sometimes incomplete, or about new ideas I'm exploring.

Several times a year, I write longer, more researched pieces. Lol, like Competence, On Management #48, which, um, inspired today's note.  As always, there may be typos, which I'll find later and fix on The Internet.

May you and your loved ones be safe, healthy, and free,

Anne Libby


It has been almost a year since I moved the newsletter away from Substack, and I'm coming to the end of the back-office issues that arose from the conversion.  I'm planning to make changes to subscription options, which I'll have more detail on next month.

For starters, I plan to stop offering monthly subscriptions.  Nothing will change for those of you with current monthly subscriptions, or for people who subscribe in the next few weeks.

gif, anime character standing in front of vibrating stereo speakers, emitting feedback