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How to Give Honest Feedback That Drives High Performance

The simple formula to ensure your feedback is heard

Radical Truth

By the time I left Bridgewater in 2020, I had received 12,385 pieces of brutally honest feedback. The math comes in just above a dozen each day. When was the last time one colleague weighed in on your performance, let alone hundreds?

For most people, "feedback" conjures the image of an annual one-on-one performance review with their boss or a casual comment on the walk back to their desk. It's private. Whispered and forgotten.

Most of the feedback I received was far from private—a story.

I'm bellied up to a sturdy conference room table in Westport, CT. Across from me is the founder and chairman of the world's largest hedge fund, Ray Dalio. Flanking him are a dozen leaders who'd make up the board at most companies.

The conference room is stuffy because nearly 75 other people are ringing the room's perimeter. My team. My peers. And a video crew. We recorded every meeting, but large ones needed higher production value. Ray never wanted to miss the chance to capture a case study.

Unfortunately, I'm about to become a case study.

Some of the observers are in chairs. Some lean against the glass wall. Others sprawl out on small squares of the carpeted floor. But every single one of them has an iPad. And every iPad has an app custom-designed for Bridgewater called the Dot Collector.

Think of the Dot Collector as Twitter for feedback. Anyone in the company could give real-time feedback to anyone else, and it accumulated in their feed, which was publicly accessible to everyone. Every dot was on a scale of 1-10, mapped to 60 attributes, and required comments.

And it wasn't that you could give feedback. It was expected that you did.

So as I steeled myself to start the meeting, everyone else readied their calloused, little dot-collecting fingers.

With Ray present, everyone knew they would be judged through the feedback they gave. That he'd see what they saw through their dots. And he'd hold them directly accountable for being in the room and not being engaged.

What the topic was that day is of little consequence. What matters is that I took a big swing and missed. Badly.

In most companies, you'd quietly feel this. But at Bridgewater, I could see it vividly pouring onto my screen in a giant sea of red flags:

  • 1 - Woof. Tough start.

  • 2 - Dave can't synthesize.

  • 1 - Dave is really missing the big picture.

  • 1 - I can't believe Dave is wasting our time like this.

  • 2 - Dave's ability to separate big from small is pretty weak.

  • 3 - I can imagine what Dave's trying to say, but he's not saying it.

I got a charity positive 8 from my chief of staff for "taking feedback well," but otherwise, it was a river that ran blood red.

They say that feedback is a gift. At Bridgewater, it's the gift that keeps on giving the whole year round. You might think this is the meeting was my last one. Far from it. This was simply how we did business.

When it comes to crafting and delivering effective feedback, let's just say I've got plenty of data to work with.

My Pain. Your Gain.

The upside to immersing yourself in that much feedback is you quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. We devote a full module of the MGMT Accelerator to building a rich picture of your people and giving empowering feedback to help them reach their full potential.

Join us for our last cohort of 2023 on October 5th.

What We Get Wrong

Before I give you the formula to get it right, let's examine how we can stop getting it so painfully wrong.

Honest Intentions

There is only one reason to give feedback, and that is to help someone produce a better outcome. When they do something excellent, we praise it so they'll repeat it in the future. When they do something poorly, we provide our perspective to help them improve.

If we're giving feedback for any other reason - to get something off our chest, to share our frustration, to vent - we have failed them before we even started.

Until we can return to that single intention, it's best to hold off.

Secret Expectations

What is a critique? It's holding a picture in our mind of what we expect to happen and then comparing it to what actually occurred. The most extreme differences shape our critique.

But what often happens is the person receiving your feedback had a very different picture of what they expected to happen. We might both share the goal to get to California by next week, but while we might hop on a flight, they might hitchhike. We optimized for speed; they optimized for adventure. The risks, costs, and tradeoffs have dramatically different shapes, but we end up in the same place.

Feedback based on your secret expectations will produce an antibody response. Starting back at mutually shared expectations will produce immunity from this overreaction.

Arrogant Assumptions

Our heart is usually in the right place, but our minds love to match patterns and draw conclusions, which can lead us unwittingly into confrontation.

You can't know why someone was short with a customer, why they made the wrong strategic choice, why they showed up late. But instead of asking, we assume to know the answer.

Except we fail to realize we're seeing it all through lenses clouded by our experiences, preferences, and biases.

The Feedback Formula

The formula has 3 parts:

  • The Question

  • The Observation

  • The Response

But before we break down how to use each element, I'd like to start with a shared understanding of What Excellent Looks Like for feedback.

The ideal scenario is when our employee self-assess accurately and uses that insight to inspire an immediate, effective change. This is simple and intuitive—our top performers instinctively do this. So we're trying to simulate this scenario as closely as possible.

This is why the formula starts with...

The Question

"How did this go compared to your expectations?"

Instead of putting them on the defensive, we're allowing them the chance to share their point of view first. We'll learn if we have shared standards and if they're accurately seeing how they measured up to those standards.

And here's a surprise. In 75% of cases, this is the whole formula. They saw what you saw. They know they came up short and have already decided how they'll improve.

By leading with a question, you leave the monkey with them, and they're dealing with it. And we came darn close to our ideal feedback scenario.

The Observation

Sometimes we need to provide the stimulus and be the mirror that helps them see themselves through our eyes. When that's the case, we tend to ramble, rationalize and overreach.

To avoid all of the above, I use this:

When you ____

This is what the camera saw—facts and nothing else.

I experienced ____

This is what you perceived, how you felt, your opinion of the situation (not them). Because it is objectively yours, it cannot be debated. As long as you don't drift into Why they did it.

That resulted in ____

These are outcomes, ideally as close to measurable business results as possible. "Losing the account" is clearer than "a sense that maybe the client didn't get it."

Once you provide this feedback, call upon your allies: restraint and silence. Let them process and respond. Resist the urge to pile on or hedge. The former adds emotion. The latter confusion.

The Response

We want to check that the feedback was received and the message was high fidelity.

I'll often ask one of these two questions:

  1. "Just to ensure we're on the same page, what's the key feedback you're taking away?"

  2. "If that feedback makes sense to you, what are the next steps you're considering?"

The answers do not have to be perfect, but they need to be sensible. If there's too much daylight between what we said and what we hear in response, it's worth realigning.

The Leader's Locker

🐦 Wes Kao's popular Twitter thread on feedback that doesn't suck. (3 min)

🎥 Julie Zhou's presentation on feedback from her #1 NYTimes Bestseller (20 min)

🔄️ Why needing to give feedback is a lie by Author Marcus Buckingham (6 min)

🔎I wrote a thread about making feedback more human last year (3 min)

Call the Play

Help us build: A number of you have asked for just-in-time bite-sized MGMT Boosters. Instead of our month-long, comprehensive MGMT Accelerator, these would be event-driven, on-demand guides. We want to test this concept in April.

What MGMT Booster should we build first?

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Help us grow: Were on our mission to positively impact 1,000,000 leaders. If this playbook would help someone on your team more confidently deliver feedback, please take 5 seconds and forward it to them. It would mean the world to us.

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