current events

The Psychology of Constructive Feedback and Exit Interviews: Nobody Really Cares

Speaking of not being impressed (ahem, Mckayla the gymnast), can I get an Amen if you like getting feedback? Wow, the room got really quiet there for a second. Undoubtedly, there are people who like giving feedback–managers, supervisors, and the various people who direct others surely love doling out the feedback; otherwise why taken those positions. Surely it ain’t for the love and roses one receives from those you try to guide and in some circumstances shield from adverse workplace events. The reason for the lack of love is because no one truly can take feedback. Some claim they learn from it, but deep down, I swear most harbor resentment. That resentment is oftentimes related to “se7en” factors: (1) they feel they are actually smarter or better than you (in some instances that may be true but obviously they weren’t smart enough to be your supervisor, so take that); (2) they are under the illusion that they are an under-appreciated, misunderstood genius because their mommy raised them to believe that; (3) they don’t have the constitution, self-esteem, or sense of identity to handle it; (4) feedback is seen as petty and so micro when they are clearly so much bigger than all this minutia; (5) their ego is so large they have lost their sense of hearing; (6) they equate length of time in the field or ever working with skillsets which that is clearly not a positive correlation; and (7) it just sucks to hear something negative.

There are those that claim they can take critical feedback as long as it’s mixed in with positive reinforcement. How Psych 101. It’s pretty much the equivalent of saying that you’ll accept minor criticism if you are also showered in praise. Maybe you just suck. Which reminds me of a former staff who claimed that what she did on company time was none of my business, that our conversation was so “Psychology 101” and then went running away from me as I tried to get her to sign her warning letter. She quit 10 minutes later and hugged me goodbye. One of the most bizarre workplace interactions I’ve encountered.

There are those who are actually smart, strive to learn and process your feedback. Somewhere. I’ve been led to believe they exist in the wild, but sightings are infrequent. They are the good employees that you eventually promote (although there are many bad employees that get promoted), but you can’t help but feel a bit like a conspiracy theorist imagining that the second you are out of the room there is some level of negative feeling or reaction.

In the workplace, there is such a thing called an exit interview. It’s the chance for an employee that’s leaving on their own accord to provide feedback to the organization. Basically, an exit interview is a chance to leave on a positive note, offer a few minor, correctable observations and leave with good will, or you can burn that bridge and go out in a blaze of fury. Either way, hardly ever does management really take into account or implement new strategies based on said interviews. See, the organization is run by people (for the most part) and their ability to handle that feedback is pretty limited. Also, they just don’t care. They are in power. You are leaving. Enough said.

I ask why did the media, and ostensibly the public, act shocked when neither Bush nor Obama could come up with a really good answer in terms of what they learned from their first terms in office. You think they took feedback and internalized it? Well, it would actually entail someone daring to give them feedback to begin with. Counsel, Yes. Feedback, nah-not gonna happen. Non-profit organizations also have a rocky relationship with feedback in that there is a sense of entitlement to getting away with certain types of work behaviors they are ostensibly working out of the goodness of their hearts and not getting paid much for. Its as if they are saying hey the less I get paid, the less I will tolerate feedback. Hmm, I almost get that point. There is only so much suckiness someone can tolerate, I suppose. But then again, without accepting feedback, you will not be able to rise above that sucky job. Furthermore, in non-profits the pay is actually not that bad (see previous blog post on salaries).

So, there are all these lists and books that talk about how to manage effectively. Inevitably, there is a chapter on how to provide feedback. These books in all seriousness will state that feedback increases team productivity and harmony. Productivity? Possibly, for a little while at least, at least until people no longer feel their job might be in jeopardy. Harmony? Not so much. That’s actually laughable. No book ever details how you provide feedback to a staff person who is literally running away from you, or throwing themselves on the floor in a tantrum. How about we use the Clockwork Orange method and strap them to chair with their eyes forced wide open? Don’t think you can get away with that? Then go get a couple of cocktails and rip the band-aid.

69 replies »

  1. So so true. as an Indian woman, people take feedback even less from me it seems. they will even claim that they dont understand what I am saying because of my accent-but I dont relaly have one. Feedback is not really valued.

  2. I have a supervisor who qualifies (constructive) feedback with “Don’t take it personally” and I don’t… It’s definitely how the feedback is presented. Feedback should be focused on your present actions and future performance rather than your qualities (that’s too personal!).

  3. I agree there needs to be more care taken in providing an exit interview. some companies are now eliminating them and that is really bad practice. perhaps something can be learned by the employer and simply stated, is the most important thing for the continued success of a company

    • I agree about the exit interviews being underutilized as a form of feedback on the company and its managers. Through my years in corporate HR I often marveled at the missed opportunity to gather important intel on how a department is really running. Maybe not everyone is completely candid due to fear of backlash and burning a bridge but I’m sure a quite a bit of good information is missed through ignoring this outgoing employee feedback entirely.

  4. i can see the point of view of the company, and why they think its necessary and being done right. but at the same time sometimes it is difficult to separate work criticism and personal criticism, when your work becomes your life. All in all, I liked reading this to gather a new point of view!

  5. When I worked for a gov’t agency, the best supervisor I had was one who was fearless in giving feedback. When the office we worked in was reorganized, I requested a change in job assignments [a lateral transfer] so I could remain in her unit. Did we always agree? No. But we always respected each other.

  6. Well, actually, I DO appreciate hearing feedback, and I DO believe I can learn from it. Of course, most of the time it’s positive, but I have received negative before.

    Hey, I’m still here and thriving away.

    May I give you some feedback?

    Here goes: Don’t generalize and speak in absolutes when each person and each situation is or can be different than any other.

    In many cases, too, feedback can denote a difference in perspective, and no two if them are exactly the same either.

    I am a professional writer and researcher, and I presently serve as an editor and a translator at a publishing company, so I am both supervised and a supervisor.

    By the way, just because one is your supervisor doesn’t mean s/he is “smarter”. The main reasons for person ‘A’ to be supervisor over person ‘B’: (1) ‘A’ has been working at that particular company for a greater duration of time and/or (2) ‘A’ has more experience in general. Experience does not equate to level of intellect, but it does equate to level of knowledge.

    Before I started here, I had helped found a literary publication, for which I wrote the employee manual, supervised a host of other editors and interns, and sat on the journal’s committee. All of this occurred before my current supervisor reached her position of EIC. I brought some very useful insight to the publishing house, which is one reason I was hired on the spot.

    I am not trying to boast (no reason to do so), just explaining that my situation is different and doesn’t fit into the framework and/or reasoning of your article.

    Everything is constantly up and down, in and out, buddy boy. It all depends. There are so many factors at play. The situation is never just black and white.

    Are you venting? If so, Hang in there. Everything will be fine.

    In any case, this isn’t an attack, so relax. I am actually a friend who is willing to share his own insight with you and your readers.

    Take care and keep up the good writing.


  7. I really like this post. I have seen both sides of the equation and know that feedback can be bitter pill to swallow. Hope you dont have more employees thorwing tantrums on floor (is that true story?). By the way, your other posts seem different from this one. I enjoyed getting to read your travel posts seems you have had some exciting experiences. Good luck getting back to the US

  8. I really think t depends on the employee. Although they do seem more fragile now. could be the economy makes everyone a bit jumpy. If Im scared of being able to put food on the table id be scared of feedback as well. i completely agree on the uselessness of exit interviews. Those are punishment all around. I like the different photos you included. good job on making me think about the work environment.

  9. Darling, saw your tweet. Congrats. You always know how to push a button. You are indeed the master social manipulator-I mean psychologist.

  10. Haha, I so agree with you on most points you make here!

    It’s nice to know that there are other people (crazies, perhaps) out there who try to give exit interviews too. I try to give one before I quit unless they beat me to the punch (which happened last time, damn it!) or whenever I am rejected. I’d give out constructive feedback as if I was an advice vending machine spitting out a constructive tip (oh look, a pun!) after being injected with cash. The difference though is that I wasn’t injected with cash, unless you consider rejection a form of currency, and my “lemme tell you what your problem is” piece of advice as, well, constructive.

    Of course, I describe it this way to be humorous, but in reality, in a work place that either you decide to quit or it decides to quit you, something somewhere was amiss from the beginning in the whole employment match-making fit; they’re not a good fit. Period. It’s just that one of the two parties decides to take action about it sooner than the other. At least that’s how it was in my experience.

  11. Great great post although sadish reality …
    I worked in Vietnam in non profit (fully, no salary) to establish a self awareness – meditation, spiritual development centre and I have really played the game of accepting feedback.
    I was working with a small team of 5 young women (all volunteer like me, 10 hours a day 6 days a week – really for the love and meaning of it all!).
    I was 20 years older but luckily not very much smarter and I really played the game of being extremely careful in the feedback I was giving and putting myself at their level in accepting whatever had to be said to me.
    I tell you I found it real personal work! But infinitely useful, humbling and heart opening.
    I have now left leaving behind a thriving learning centre that is operating without me after with a bigger team of volunteers working less hours. The place was floating on its own after 5 years of common team work. It is managed by 3 25 years old and to me, although there are hundred of other factors, it is in great part due to this genuine communication we had.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  12. Not everyone is 10… As a dancer and dance instructor I give about 10 corrections an hour. Students don’t scream or cry, they fix it and move on. Its not given as a long winded speech, its given “use your time wisely” or “put your phone down on my time” or “point your toes!”. Half the time I’m yelling. No one puts up a fuss. And I mainly work with children. I’m not sure what company you work for but clearly its not hiring mentally competent employees.

  13. Cool post, mate!

    A couple-a years back in a philosophy class, we were having a discussion on ‘self-identity’ and whether or not people (we eager pupils) cared about what other people thought of us.
    I’ve always thought about this question in two separate and usually mutually exclusive lights: from an intellectual p.o.v and from an emotional p.o.v.

    I think that intellectually, most of us can see the benefit in constructive criticism and would typically claim that it’s useful – even if the offered critique, in reality, did miss the mark. Emotionally though, I reckon you’re right. It’s never nice to be on the receiving end of a backhanded compliment. Pow! Tough love, but love nonetheless.

    I pride myself on being an open chap and putting myself out there for others to do with me what they please; even critique. And though I’m aware that this is a beneficial ritual, it’s not always going to be a pleasant one.

    Sometimes you’ve just got to endure the build up of lactic-acid to reap the toned fruit (whatever that means).

    • thanks for your thoughtful comment. love your last line “Sometimes you’ve just got to endure the build up of lactic-acid to reap the toned fruit (whatever that means).” lol. Im gonna have to figure that oen out as well.

  14. Your blog and mine should going bowling. The reality and common sense style writing is awesome. Check my blog if you feel like it, I enjoy yours either way.

  15. Oh, boy! This is so true. In my line of work as well. I’m not an employer or a job interviewer, but it is my job to give constructive criticism, so that people know what to work on. So many can’t take it. They may as well just pay some random person on the street to tell them how great they are, rather than to pay me to tell them what to work on, if that’s how they feel!

  16. I think that receiving feedback can be a positive experience that can help you to learn and improve, however I would not force feedback on someone. I leave the person to ask for it, as a health professional we are trained to use feedback to help with our development, but I find it is better more positive experience when the person asks. We also have a concept of the feedback sandwich – two pieces of postitive feedback sandwiching a negative piece. As you say, this is still negative though. I like your blog – keep up the good work.

  17. CONGRESS is one “organization” that never listens to feedback, they just vote the party line. If we fired them all and gave them exit interviews about why the American economy collapsed, they’d say it was the other party’s fault. Their egos are tied to their pensions, but over time they come to believe their own lies.

  18. Feedback is useful and you’ve got to have a pair and take it when it’s not good, doesn’t mean they are right every time though, especially if you are supposed to be employed as the expert.
    Exit interviews – I would only be truely honest if my next job was either retirement or millionaire – never burn your bridges.

  19. It’s tough. Many people hate being criticized and not only because they’re immature or egotistical…we all come from someplace (family/school/prior life history) and some have been nothing BUT criticized along the way by people with their own issues and insecurities. So no matter how valid or smart the professional “feedback” it can sting much more than the person giving it thinks it should.

    And most bosses, in my experience (I’m 55) have zero ability to offer useful feedback before things really go south. Like the man who screamed at me, when I told him (he’d eagerlly hired me wayyyyy beyond my skill set) I was doing my best, who snarled “Define best!” Yeah, that was deeply helpful.

    I think many of us hunger for feedback that will help us truly improve our skills. But the person giving it, de facto, is judging us and finding us wanting. That sets up a difficult dynamic from the start, no?

    • thanks for your thoughtful comment. I do think many hunger for feedback and its true there are those that have suffered early on in life in that they received demeaning or demorlaizing “feedback”. something to always keep in mind.

  20. Feedback: I’m glad you included both sides of the table in your posts. People are people and react the same no matter what their position.

  21. For many people the annual performance management drill is the most dreaded time of the year. As an HR consultant I’ve found that many of the issues arise from the neglect of the goal-setting process to kick things off. But as with taking time to give meaningful feedback, goal setting is frequently viewed as another bit of administrivia to be squeezed in at the last minute. It’s amazing to me that managers don’t get that ignoring your team’s goal-setting activity often comes back to bite you in the a$$ when performance review time rolls around. Perhaps a little workshop on delivering effective feedback is in order, hmmmm?

  22. My workplace enforced this Walk in my Shoe book as a required reading where regular employees can read that employees and management are actually walking the same road. So in a discussion I asked them what they would do if I said I do not agree with the book and have other complaints. They said they will discuss it with upper management. SMH!

  23. I comprehend your blog entry concerning employee feedback and criticism. I would have appreciated a bit of input concerning your perspective on workplace mobbing, the psychological effects on employees, and the supervisor’s responsibility to nip such a destructive process in the bud. I was a victim of workplace mobbing, theft, and sudden termination as a result of registering the theft with the police and reaching out to mobbing organizations in my area. At this particular job, I enjoyed my position working with the toddlers and pre-schoolers via creative tools of dance, theater arts, and song, Unfortunately, work colleagues’ jealousy remained an oppressive cloud that was apparently visible to the childrens’ parents. I learned from the pain, but the psychological effects of the mobbing were excrutiating. Workplace etiquette and supervisor responsibility should also be open to feedback and criticism.

    • If I am not mistaken, you can legitimately sue a company for terminating you if the reason for your exit was that you had complied with the law regarding the commission of a crime. If you hadn’t reported and it somehow got out that you had known about the crime committed, that inaction would have reflected badly on you. Despite what upper-level thinks, no company is impervious to legal action for wrong-doing. Ex: Enron.

      The problem with the above, however, is that you’d need to prove that you were fired for going to the authorities, and upper-level is not about to say anything to you or leave any evidence out for you to acquire easily.

      Ah, business politics! Don’t you just love it?

      In the end, if you don’t fit into the company culture for one reason or another, said company will find some reason to dispense with you. That’s unfortunate, but it is unavoidably true.

      As for me, I provide honest constructive feedback in a nice way. Despite what some believe, this can be done. I just hate lying. Unfortunately, honesty, too, is a lost art in the world of business; it’s so much easier to lie. That doesn’t mean that honesty isn’t or shouldn’t be valued or appreciated just the same.

      In the end, it’s all about making money, and if you are not contributing effectively to that end, you’re useless. Apparently, respect for employees and a desire to allow them to be imperfect human beings is inconsequential and irrelevant.

      Thanks, Whenquiet. I do agree with you. I just wanted to elaborate on what you’ve said.

  24. As a retired HR geek, I can atest to the fact that no matter how consistent the feedback was about a particular boss, work process, or company policy where I last worked, the powers that be NEVER took the information from exit interviews seriously. Why? Because the person was electing to leave the company. And if an employee had made the decision to leave, he must be a world-class loser because the company was the greatest place in the world to work. Because management had created the culture and policies, and those things were perfect because of who created them. Consequently, if an employee was leaving because he was unhappy, it was the employee’s fault, not the company’s. However, because HR best practices said a company should have an exit process, the company had one. Even though the results that were compiled and distributed quarterly were either shunned or laughed at because it was so not true. The entire exit process was a total waste of time.

    And, I have to add, I decided to quit wasting my time there and left. Did I complete an exit? Although my VP asked me to complete the form, I did not. I knew if I gave honest feedback (and boy, she would have benefited from it), it would have been ignored, laughed at, or used against me in some way. So, I just let it go and didn’t look back.

      • Ismael,

        Please see my response above to Whenquiet. Much of what I said there applies here as well. Although I have been in positions of authority (and am now), I can relate to you.

        If a situation is toxic, you get out as soon as you can. Good for you. I hope things are better now.

  25. Very nice analysis of an uncomfortable human exchange. It’s awkward to be the giver or receiver of feedback. For what it’s worth, I like receiving feedback, even the negative kind, though I don’t enjoy it. It’s useful, not fun. I listen, curb defensiveness, and consider all that was said. Often, it causes me to modify behavior or action. Sometimes, I don’t take it well. What can I say about that except I’m human?:-)

  26. I think you summed how organizations (people) handle feedback fropm exit interviews quite well: They are in power. You are leaving. Enough said.
    It may seem futile to voice your concerns to no reactions. However, complaining about something without trying to change it is just as bad.
    Hurrah on the FP.

    • Yes, I consider whether or not the criticism is fair and based on some reality. I reflect on past performance, and if I think the criticism is warranted, I accept it humbly, then integrate it into my future performance. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being open and accepting of feedback and willing to grow as a professional. Although in some cases, I have merely disagreed with that criticism, I have agreed with it other times.

  27. Great 7 factors – see it all the time. We are supposed to praise people for something they are supposed to be doing anyway. “You are breathing today – way to go!” I teach horse riding and the number of people that come for help that think they know more than I do is annoying. It is almost a passive aggressive syndrome on their part.

  28. I used to be a manager and have encountered many scenarios like the one’s you mentioned. I was at one time very good at giving feedback I thought. I was very positive and people were very responsive and I felt like it worked a lot of the time. I was a supervisor who didn’t have as much pull with the employees’ careers at the time. When I was promoted to manager I realized that no matter how positive I was, I got the same death stares with little responsive action. Now I was just some asshole who could fire them and that was all the employee cared to know about my “constructive criticism”.

    • Thanks for your comment. Totally agree with you. One can try positive feedback, but there is such a thing as a partner actor effect. some people wont take feedback regardles of how it is sugarcoated.

  29. I approach feedback as coaching and feel strongly about it. It’s frequent and often and fair. For instance, if you’re an athlete and you made a bad play, a coach will call it out, you tell them they fumbled, but what they could have done better. You give direction, support and mentorship, but at the core you believe in them. If not, they’re benched or off your team. And its ongoing as it’s happening, not once or twice a year. But you need a culture that supports that as well. It’s hard and requires the skill set to feel comfortable, but it makes better employees and you develop them. They may hate you in the moment, but they thank you in the long run.

    Regarding exit interviews, they’re bogus. I’ve learned the hard way to say nicey nice things with a few constructive builds otherwise you burn bridges.

    Thanks for the great post

      • Narcissista1,

        I am with you on your first paragraph (although I can relate on the second as well). Mutual respect goes a long way.

        When it comes to employee performance, is it fair or realistic for upper-level to expect flawless behavior? No one is perfect, whatever that word really means (in the workplace, the “perfect” employee refers to the person who fits into the company culture, brings forth millions in profit for the company and worships upper-level as if it were comprised of the most wonderful people on the planet). What I mean is: What if upper-level expects and pushes employees to perform in ways that are literally impossible or–even worse–illegal? The “my boss made me do it” justification doesn’t work any more in the court system, so… What is more important–abiding by the law or maintaining your job?

  30. Once during an interview, I responded to the question “what do you want from a supervisor?” with “constructive criticism.” They were completely blown away. I’ve found that there’s no better way for me to truly improve without someone who genuinely has my progress at heart to be honest about what I could do to be better at my job.

    • Amen to that! As to the question, I would also insert:”respect”. To me, that means something, and it goes a long way. If I feel comfortable and welcome in a company, I am liable to perform well. Everything ties together.

  31. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyways, just wanted to say great blog!

  32. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say
    that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to
    your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  33. Hey! Just like you and commenters before me, I’m in agreement with the truth that most cannot accept constructive feedback.

    I was at a networking meeting a few months ago where, after the presenter – who was actually a good friend – was finished, we had to submit a little sheet with our feedback on the her strengths and areas that needed improvement. And when it came to me actually writing what I thought were areas where she could improve, I was apprehensive about being honest. Why? Because, while some folks talk big about “wanting” feedback (as if they really want to improve), many really don’t (as you and some commenters have made very clear already). So which type of recipient was she? I wasn’t sure. But I entered my honest feedback on the sheet anyway and submitted it.

    I never heard anything about it again, but this article made me think back to that incident, because I believe there are really two parts to the communication of any kind of feedback – (a) the sender effectively presenting said data to the other party, and (b) the recipient being mature enough to accept it as constructive (helpful). Translation: Sender, be nice. Recipient, be open:-).

    Great article!

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