Performance Reviews

Do performance reviews fill you with anxiety? In this episode of HBR’s advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and host of the podcast WorkLife. They talk through how to handle performance reviews that have mixed messages, extreme criticism, or not enough helpful feedback.

The transcript is given below.

From Alison and Dan’s reading list for this episode:

HBR: What to Do When You Think Your Performance Review Is Wrong by Dick Grote — “Challenging a boss’s appraisal, even in a clear-cut case of bad data, is always a ticklish matter. Be cautious. It’s not easy to say to your boss, in whatever words you choose to use, ‘You’re wrong.’ Don’t lose sight of the fact that your boss probably has a significant investment in the appraisal you’ve decided to challenge.”

HBR: How to Ask for Feedback That Will Actually Help You by Peter Bregman — “Being good at receiving feedback is especially important at work, because your colleagues are less likely to push past your defensiveness and more willing to write you off if they have a hard time working with you. If that happens, you’ll never know why — since you won’t have heard the feedback — so you’ll keep repeating the same mistakes.”

HBR: What to Do After a Bad Performance Review by Carolyn O’Hara — “But research suggests that letting something simmer can make things worse, for several reasons. When we’re stressed, our brain tends to mount a defensive ‘fight-flight-or-freeze’ response—during which there’s reduced activity in brain areas responsible for reasoning, self-control, and forward thinking. And trying to suppress our irritation has been found to make our brain’s defensive response more pronounced rather than less.”

HBR: Let’s Not Kill Performance Evaluations Yet by Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, and Adam Grant — “The long march to the boss’s office to get evaluated—it’s a moment we all dread. Performance reviews are awkward. They’re biased. They stick us in boxes and leave us waiting far too long for feedback. It’s no surprise that by the end of 2015, at least 30 of the Fortune 500 companies had ditched performance evaluations altogether.”


DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.

ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. The truth is that we don’t have to let the tension, conflicts and misunderstandings get us down. We can do something about them.

DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions about workplace dilemmas and with the help of experts and insights from academic research, we help you move forward.

ALISON BEARD: Today we’re talking about performance reviews with Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also the host of the podcast WorkLife. Adam, thanks so much for joining us.

ADAM GRANT: Thanks for having me.

DAN MCGINN: So, Adam, have you ever had a particularly memorable performance review of your own?

ADAM GRANT: Oh, I definitely have. I feel like the six years I spent as a springboard diver, basically every moment was a performance review. I’ll never forget, I had an incredible coach, Eric Best. One day I just felt like I was on. I had the timing right. I feel like I have this really smooth rotation and I come out and hands together, this very clean entry and I can just feel there’s no splash. And I come out of the water and Eric looks at me and he says, Adam that was bad. He had a list of about nine things that I did really poorly. I can’t see myself objectively. I’m flipping and twisting in the air and I actually think a performance review puts you in a situation a lot like the one I was in with my diving coach. It’s almost impossible to operate in any job without blind spots. And so, I think performance reviews are often the time when those blind spots become visible to us, but we don’t want to admit we’re blind.

ALISON BEARD: Well, it seems like you have a very healthy attitude to negative reviews. Let’s see how we can help some of our letter writers. Dear HBR: I don’t know how to handle a brutal and weird performance review. A bad review is one thing. This one reads like the burn book from that teen movie, Mean Girls. I’m a woman and so is my boss. This was my first review with her. I was blindsided by the fact that she included little input of her own, but shared intensely brutal, nonconstructive quotes that she said she got from others. She had the grace not to name who she was quoting. I sincerely believe that there’s always room to grow and that I need to look past the venom for the truth. I said nothing. However, my boss began responding to my silence as though I was resisting the feedback. She repeatedly asked why I hadn’t given my opinion of others. After all this she began to give me positive feedback from my direct reports. She named who it came from, but she did this verbally. None of this was in my written performance review. The part that completely baffles me is that I got an overall rating on meets expectations. I also got a great bonus and an amazing raise. Have you ever heard of this kind of review before? How should I plan for next year’s review cycle?

ADAM GRANT: Wow. I think we need a sequel to Mean Girls called Mean Reviews. [LAUGHTER] I don’t even know where to start. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It’s wildly inconsistent and it sounds to me like the manager who delivered it did not think it through before it happened.

DAN MCGINN: My first reaction was she did such a great job of not getting angry, not getting defensive, not arguing her viewpoint. She did a lot better than I would have done in this situation, so I give her a lot of credit off the bat.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I might have burst into tears.

DAN MCGINN: You would have burst into tears. [LAUGHTER]

ADAM GRANT: Well, yeah look. I think at some level keeping your composure is one of the ways that you’re getting evaluated when you’re given a review on how well you take the review. But I think sometimes you need to send a signal back that acknowledges that you’re processing it. And so, one of the pieces of advice that I often end up giving to students and to executives is when you’re giving a performance review, you want to clarify the expectations for how you’re supposed to respond upfront. So, instead of just diving right into the review, you actually want to have a conversation about the conversation, a meta-conversation, where you say look, I just want you to understand going in, what are your goals for the review and I’m assuming like any review there’s some things you’re going to tell me that I’m not doing perfectly or that I can approve on and I’d just love to know, what do you think is the most effective way to respond to that? I don’t want to be defensive at all. There might be times when it’s helpful for me to explain my perspective, but to make sure I’m really hearing it and processing it, is it OK with you if I just listen?

DAN MCGINN: That’s a great strategy.

ALISON BEARD: Absolutely.

DAN MCGINN: I don’t think anybody actually does that.

ADAM GRANT: No, but there’s no reason why you can’t and in fact, it’s actually perfectly comfortable for you to be silent and the other person ends up coming out feeling more understood, more self-aware and also with a less extreme opinion.

DAN MCGINN: The fact that she was blindsided by this, makes me wonder whether this boss isn’t giving frequent enough check in’s, feedback. It’s like a classroom situation where you’re getting grades throughout the semester so you’re not just suddenly hit with an F at the final exam. It sounds like maybe more frequency of feedback would be useful in this situation.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah. I’d certainly, it’s tricky because you don’t want to look needy and you don’t want to create an impression that you’re like millennials often get stereotyped. I’m desperate for feedback every single moment. So, I even want you to tell me how I’m doing in this conversation and then how I’m doing in when I ask for feedback in this conversation. You don’t want to signal insecurity, but I agree with your point Dan that as a manager you failed if anything you say in a performance review is surprising. Because it’s your job to raise the feedback right when the moment occurs, or as quickly as possible afterward. And so, I think a more frequent check-in could be helpful, but to raise it you have to have a confidence that your manager actually sees value in having those conversations.

ALISON BEARD: It seems strange in this review though because it’s almost as if the feedback coming from peers or whatever 360 the manager has done in preparation for this formal meeting stands in direct contrast to what the manager things herself and what even this woman’s direct reports think.

DAN MCGINN: I think there’s actually important data in that piece of it. One of the messages she needs to take away from this interaction is that this might be a more sort of democratic kind of culture than this woman realized and she needs to sort of take that into account going forward.

ADAM GRANT: I think that’s one interpretation. I think another interpretation is that this is a culture that has extremely high politeness norms. And so, people are afraid to tell her their feedback to her face and so, they choose a much more indirect passive-aggressive strategy and that means the feedback is not clear and it’s not put in context. If that’s the case, one of the ways that you can respond to that is you say all right. Well, I have to figure out how to make it safe for people to tell me what they think right to my face. And so, one way you might do that is by sharing the performance review openly with some people that you think might have some views on it.

ALISON BEARD: And you’ve seen that work because I imagine a bunch of people sitting around saying, oh no, it wasn’t, that wasn’t me trying to still be polite.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah, I actually don’t even care if people respond that way. What I want to do is I want to get their perspective on what’s going on. So, let’s say I raise this and everyone I talk to says, oh I don’t know where that’s coming from. My job is to go the extra level and say, OK. But I’m trying to figure out what I’ve done that might give someone that perception. Do you have any insight into what that might be? And if you were to guess, why are people saying these things about me, I’d really just love to know what I can do differently or better so that people don’t have this perception anymore. And if you have enough of those conversations, people will start to give you at least some educated guesses that could help you get to the bottom of it.

DAN MCGINN: When you describe that I’m struck by in the workplace there are no videotapes of us performing, so it sounds like going to objective colleagues is the next best thing we can get for that outside look in.

ADAM GRANT: And the other thing you can do is you can review some of your equivalent of the game tapes so you do have access to all your emails. You can start to go through them and look for patterns. You could even ask somebody who doesn’t even work in your organization to look at a bunch of emails you sent and see if they can pick up on anything that might be creating the impression that apparently you’ve created.

DAN MCGINN: Is it good or bad that the actual negative feedback she got didn’t lead to an actual poor, fails to meet expectations rating, on the one hand, that’s great because she didn’t lose any money. On the other hand, it sort of takes the teeth out of the whole process.

ALISON BEARD: Adam, what do you think? Was that a bad move on her manager’s part to give her everything that she wanted?

ADAM GRANT: I don’t think we have enough information to know. So, it’s not a bad move if that’s a bunch of gossip from jealous colleagues who are threatened by her.

ALISON BEARD: But then why would she even share it?

ADAM GRANT: Well, because, just because people are responding out of jealousy doesn’t mean that they’re entirely wrong. So, if, let’s say you’re in a situation where she’s an excellent performer. She’s an excellent manager, but there are some people that she’s rubbing the wrong way. It could be useful information for her to know that and for her to think about it and imagine how to change her behavior a little bit to address it.

ALISON BEARD: Right. Or, they’re causing her to, maybe if she could have gotten exceeds expectations had she managed her peers better.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah, I mean look there are a lot of mixed signals here. I would say though that one thing that’s clear is that organizations send signals about what they value through the decisions they make about hiring and firing and rewarding and punishing and promoting. And so, if she finds out that this is a high-performance rating or this is a high bonus than that signals that net, she’s valued and this other information is either not being taken as totally credible or it’s not seen as central to her performance and contribution. And then the opposite, if she finds out that this is in fact not as strong as she thinks.

ALISON BEARD: I think you raise a good point. She’s come into this review process sort of not knowing a lot about how her organization does these things and what certain ratings mean. So, how can she find out more about how things work?

ADAM GRANT: Well, this is a lot of the sort of the untaught skill of reading organizational cultures and politics, of trying to figure out what norms and expectations are when oftentimes the people setting them and shaping them aren’t that clear on what they want them to be themselves. And so, one thing worth doing is actually going back to her manager and asking, what’s the distribution of performance ratings? What do you think of the meets expectations? Does that mean I’m doing well or I’m doing OK?

DAN MCGINN: Is that the first step in preparing for next year’s review cycle?

ADAM GRANT: I think it probably is. I think, I mean the conversation with the manager has to, the follow-up discussion has to be the first step. And then from there, it’s sort of, it’s a decision tree depending on what she learns from the initial discussions. But I think the other thing that might be worth thinking about for the next performance review is to formalize a 360 process and say, all right, instead of having these kind of one-off comments that are being collected and read verbatim, can we systematically gather people’s insights on what I’m doing well and where I can improve and that way I can get a much more comprehensive sense of how important this feedback is and how representative it is.

DAN MCGINN: That would make it feel a lot more scientific and less ad hoc. Sort of reminds me of a Yelp review about her as a person. [LAUGHTER]

ADAM GRANT: Yeah, a little bit.

DAN MCGINN: Good. Alison, you want to sum up?

ALISON BEARD: Sure. She did a great job by not reacting in an emotional way when she got this negative feedback. Next time she might want to talk to her manager before she goes into that meeting about what’s going to happen in the review and the fact that she would just like to listen. Going forward she should ask for a conversation with her boss to get more information. She should make it clear to her boss and everyone else that she’s willing to take honest, real-time feedback all the time and possibly institute some sort of ongoing 360 system. And then she should also just develop a better understanding of how her organization works, how people are reviewed, rated and compensated so that she knows what to expect next time.

DAN MCGINN: Next question. Dear HBR: I work in Egypt in a senior management position, responsible for projects for my company. Well, at least until recently. That’s when I resigned after getting my first ever poor performance review. Here’s what happened. When I joined the company, one of the project manager positions reporting to me was vacant. We hired a guy with little skills and experience. I warned people that he was not properly qualified, but due to time constraints and no other candidates being available, we agreed to hire him, as long as the company got him some project management training. The types of projects he was supposed to manage were one or two days at most. I thought this should not require extensive experience. Early on I monitored the unit delivery through its key performance indicators. The projects were on time and there were no problems. Six months later a project coordinator reporting to this guy took another internal job. I asked the project manager to take care of delivery details until we could replace the coordinator. This is when it became apparent the project manager was incompetent. Nothing happened for about 90 days. I started working with him on every detail and tried to coach him, but other people in the organization started having serious conflicts with the guy. He wasn’t mature enough to address these problems so I went to HR and came up with a performance plan for him. Three months later the problems were still there. The sales team blamed my team for the delayed deliveries. My manager told me that I did not provide this guy enough attention and didn’t teach him the ropes efficiently. During my performance appraisal, my manager blamed me for this problem. I’ve never had a poor performance evaluation in my career, so I resigned. Am I to blame? Was it my mistake to not give this guy a poor evaluation during his probation period since the delivery was excellent during his first few months? What did I miss? What should I have done better?

ALISON BEARD: Adam, what should he have done?

ADAM GRANT: I don’t know. There’s so much missing information here.

ALISON BEARD: I feel like there’s so much information.

DAN MCGINN: That’s what makes this fun. It’s like a mystery.

ADAM GRANT: I want to know way more. So, where did this guy fall short?

ALISON BEARD: I think his first mistake was —

ADAM GRANT: The hire.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, exactly.

ADAM GRANT: The hire yeah. The hiring decision was a bad call, but it doesn’t sound like it was his decision.

DAN MCGINN: It sounds like he pushed back as much as he could, given the situation.

ADAM GRANT: He did and so, it’s unclear why he’s being held accountable for that decision when it wasn’t his and he didn’t even support it.

ALISON BEARD: Well, then there’s the second mistake of not paying attention to the team dynamics. So, because everything was going well he didn’t realize that the project coordinator was the person keeping the trains running until that person left.

ADAM GRANT: Yep. That’s huge and so, it’s, I guess there, the should have done is to make sure that you’re separating individual contributions from the overall team results.

DAN MCGINN: See, I think you’re both wrong. I think his biggest mistake was quitting.

ALISON BEARD: No, I was getting to that. I was doing the mistakes in order. [LAGUHTER]

DAN MCGINN: Well start with the big one.

ADAM GRANT: We’re going chronologically.

ALISON BEARD: I know. I feel terrible for him because you can understand that reaction in the moment. I’ve never gotten a terrible review. You believe this is all my fault. I’ll fall on my sword. I get that reaction and I wish he had had the control of our first letter writer to not do something so drastic in the moment.

ADAM GRANT: I’m not totally convinced.

ALISON BEARD: That he shouldn’t have quit?

ADAM GRANT: Yeah. I mostly agree, but there’s a part of me that wonders, OK, if he’s going to be blamed for a situation that he thought he had handled pretty well, and it’s going to affect his performance that significantly, if I’d been a star everywhere else I worked, maybe this is not an organization where I’m going to be successful.

ALISON BEARD: But he didn’t even try to have a discussion with his manager about what had actually happened.

ADAM GRANT: Well, that obviously I think is a disappointment. But I think if you play that out there’s the possibility that you still end up saying, you know what? I want to find an organization that I feel appreciates my skills and doesn’t point fingers when something is not handled perfectly.

DAN MCGINN: So, you’re not saying, you’re not defending his quitting on the spot? You’re saying that with some reflection, time and sort of making a deliberate decision that this was not an organization that he wanted to be with for the long term, you’re not saying, yeah he might have wanted to quit on the spot like that.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah. I mean look, he got a negative report, performance review and he gave them a negative review back and voted with his feet.

ALISON BEARD: I think leaving is such a terrible idea. What is the story he tells in his next job interview? I got a bad review after my team missed all its deadlines and so, I quit?

DAN MCGINN: It would have been better if he cried like you would have. [LAUGHTER]

ALISON BEARD: So, what could he have done to either involve his manager earlier on or show that he was doing his job?

DAN MCGINN: I would have hoped that would have been the outcome of this poor review instead of our guy quitting, that they would have looked back at the root cause of the poor performance which is they hired the wrong guy and no surprise, his performance isn’t very good. It brought the whole team down. Let’s get rid of him.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah. Although long before that there was a request, OK, look, if we’re going to hire him we have to give him project management training.

DAN MCGINN: And it’s not clear that happened at all.

ADAM GRANT: Right, but if it did let’s have a stage gate there. In other words, I would have made that a contingent hire and said, you prove the capability before we bring you on fulltime.

ALISON BEARD: Right. I also worry about our letter writer’s sense of urgency. The waiting for 90 days while nothing is happening seems really problematic to me. And in that sense, his boss had every right to ding him for poor management. That to me is way too long to wait.

ADAM GRANT: And I find that 90-day delay especially surprising because in the letter he says we hired this guy because there were no other suitable candidates and we needed to move. And so, if you have so much urgency that you deliberately hired somebody who was underqualified, then you ought to feel that urgency in managing that person’s performance too.

ALISON BEARD: Or, spend the time looking for qualified candidates.

DAN MCGINN: Yeah, that should have been in the never-ending, hire the guy, but keep a job search going quietly in the background.


ADAM GRANT: That could be helpful.

DAN MCGINN: I really saw this as a cautionary tale. I felt very badly for this senior manager who’s left his job. It’s a reminder that the manager is going to be held accountable for the performance of the team even if the team consists of somebody you didn’t want to hire in the first place. It feels really unfair, but it really is the reality in a lot of places.

ADAM GRANT: Well, I don’t know if it’s unfair. Being a good manager is not having a bunch of people say you’re a good manager. Being a good manager is meeting your goals. And as a manager, your goals have to do with what your team accomplishes. You know, in organizational behavior there’s a great body of research on what’s called escalation of commitment to a losing course of action. Barry Staw has done a lot of research on this at Berkeley and what he shows is if you’re responsible for an initial decision to bring someone in, you’re much more likely then when they’re underperforming to say, all right, but I got to prove to myself and other people that this was a good decision and try to turn them around. And our letter writer here didn’t really make the decision to hire him so he’s free from that pressure to escalate, but he clearly feels responsible for trying to make it work since the hire was forced on him in the first place. And so, trying to coach him, making a performance plan, at some point that becomes escalation. That the expected value is negative here. And so, it’s time to have that conversation much sooner and say look, I’ve worked my hardest to coach this guy. Is there anything else we can do and if not, we do need to be looking for a replacement.

DAN MCGINN: So, now that he’s resigned from this job and he’s presumably looking for his next job, how should he try to spin this?

ADAM GRANT: I don’t actually think it requires a lot of spin. What I would do if I were in his shoes is I would be forthcoming and saying look, I’ve had excellent performance reviews throughout my career. I’m a senior manager. And I got into this situation where I was concerned that this guy was not qualified to be hired. I was asked to hire him anyway. I agreed. We trained him. I tried really hard to coach him. I didn’t succeed and then I ended up with a poor performance review. And so, I decided to leave the organization to find another organization where my strengths were more appreciated and where I felt like I could make a contribution.

ALISON BEARD: Adam, I’m going to have you do all my interviews from now on. [LAUGHTER] That was brilliant.

ADAM GRANT: I mean look, no I mean I’m just summarizing what he said.

ALISON BEARD: In a really eloquent way that makes you sound so good.

ADAM GRANT: No, I think the other thing that I would advise him to say in the interview is to say, here are the two mistakes that I made during this process. I think in retrospect I should have reported much earlier that my coaching of him was ineffective and that I wasn’t making progress and I was really determined to show that I could do it and I didn’t succeed and it took me too long to admit that. And I’ve learned from that and I’m not going to make that mistake again. And then, instead of being too patient I was too impatient and hasty in making my exit decision and I’ve learned from that too. And again, as long as you can share growth there I don’t have a problem with that.

ALISON BEARD: Great. So, Dan, what are we telling this man?

DAN MCGINN: First we’re saying we feel especially bad for this gentleman. He’s out of work and we wish this hadn’t happened and we’re wishing him all the best. In terms of his specific question, what should he had done better? If he really thought this project manager was not qualified it was a mistake to agree and go along with his hiring. That’s the first thing. The second thing is at the six-month mark when the project coordinator quit, he needed to recognize that was the moment at which the performance problem started. He needed to do a better job of communicating with his manager throughout this so that other people were aware that his coaching was not paying off and they could have made a decision to replace the project manager earlier before it even got to his performance evaluation. And then finally, we think if he’d been able to manage his emotions in the face of this negative performance review, there might have been a way for it at the company. In terms of his job hunt, if he can explain what he’s learned from the situation, make clear that this was the first time he’s ever had a negative performance evaluation and that he’s learned from it, we think he’s going to have a lot of success in finding a great new job and we hope it will be a better fit.

ALISON BEARD: Let’s go to the next question. Dear HBR: I’m a young female associate at a large accounting firm. I work directly for three partners. They’re all very busy people. They’re all bad at giving concrete feedback. I find it difficult to get the support I need from them to successfully do my job. One form of feedback in my line of work is through what we call review points. Those are essentially direct comments about what needs to be fixed on a project before it becomes a final deliverable to the client. My most recent experience with this ended with a partner placing all the blame on me for a project gone awry. It was highly technical with a short deadline. I got no formal review points on what needed to be fixed. Then, weeks later when the project was over the partner called me to his office. He said that he had to change several things and that I put him in a bad spot. I responded, I was in the office all weekend working. The rest of the team wasn’t and it was difficult for me to be successful in the short timeframe with the little help that I got. We do have a formal annual performance review process too. One of the partners won’t complete any sort of review but will give candid feedback if you ask for it. Another will sit down with me about once a year. And the other one does a great job of giving formal feedback. Thankfully this partner didn’t give me a terrible review after that project went poorly. But these experiences make my work environment stressful and make it hard to learn new skills. I enjoy my job and I believe I have a lot to learn from these partners, but it feels like herding cats. How do I help them help me while also being cognizant of their busy schedules? I have requested better feedback, but nothing ever seems to change.

ADAM GRANT: Welcome to life in a professional services firm. Look, I think that the situation here is pretty clear. We have someone who wants more timely and more useful feedback. Probably the best way for her to get it is to show that it has an impact on clients. It becomes a much higher priority to partners than hey, I want you to take time out of your busy schedule and invest in my development.

ALISON BEARD: What do you think of her reaction in the moment with her boss when he told her about the changes?

ADAM GRANT: Oh, I think it’s a totally understandable reaction and I sympathize with it. It’s probably not the most effective impression management strategy. So, if she wants to manage up well, a safer way to express that sentiment would be to say, I worked really hard on this and you have my commitment whenever you need it to work on something until it’s right. And is there anything I can do moving forward to make sure it is right so that I’m investing these extra hours in a productive direction?

DAN MCGINN: Adam, you said earlier, welcome to life in the professional services industry. I think of the big accounting and consulting firms as doing a lot when it comes to talent development and making sure that young associates are taught the skills. Shouldn’t there be other resources within the firm that would help her so that she’s not so dependent on these three individuals to teach her everything?

ADAM GRANT: Of course. And so that’s where in any organization, but especially in an organization that hinges on knowledge work, there should be some central resources available that she can go to and say, hey, here’s the project that I was on. I realize that in a time crunch I didn’t have time to pick up the skills or knowledge that I needed and I didn’t even know what skills and knowledge I needed. Do you have resources available for me to get up to speed and what, again, what would you suggest that I do in the future? And ideally, they can provide some support. So, I think actually her first step is to think about the three partners and figure out which one is the most invested in developing junior people. And then go to that partner and say, hey, I’d really love your advice about how to navigate situations moving forward where we’re in crunch time and I’m not sure if my work is on track, what would you suggest I do? And then the hope is that the partner gives her some good advice or points her in the direction of some people to talk to or sets her up with a good, either training program or mentor, or even talks to the other two partners and gets them onboard with the idea that they can make a bit more time for her.

ALISON BEARD: More coordination between the three partners is a good idea, but I couldn’t quite figure out how this woman could suggest it.

ADAM GRANT: No, I don’t think she can make that happen. I think the gentle advice request is probably her best option. I love Katie Liljenquist’s research on this where she shows that when you ask people for advice you flatter them. Because we all admire the wisdom of people who come to us for advice. They have great taste. They knew to come to me. And then, you also force perspective taking and you get them to look at the problem from your vantage point. And that means that because they’re feeling good about you because they understand your perspective, they’re more likely to help you and advocate for you and even if they don’t do that, you’ll at least get some good tips and recommendations from them.

DAN MCGINN: I think she also needs to recognize that even though she says that these guys are terrible at giving concrete feedback when you get them in the right environment, she says one will give candid feedback if you ask for it. Another will do it, but only once a year. The third one is actually really good at it. This strikes me that there’s a little bit of a glass half full, half empty situation here and that she needs to say, this might not be ideal and it might not come at the right frequency, or just the right moment, but there are plenty of people who have way worse bosses when it comes to feedback than she does.

ADAM GRANT: Oh, yeah.

ALISON BEARD: I think the problem is though, it’s not ongoing feedback that she needs, sort of on an ad hoc basis. It’s, there are specific times when she needs their attention and she’s not getting it exactly when she needs it. And I don’t really know how to work around that in this high pressure, accountancy environment in a way that doesn’t anger the bosses and sort of make them wish they just had someone more competent who could do it without asking for help.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah, I think that’s a huge risk.

ALISON BEARD: So, how does she do it?

ADAM GRANT: I don’t know. I just study this stuff, right? [LAUGHTER]

DAN MCGINN: Come on, you’re supposed to be flattered that we’re asking you for advice here Adam. [LAUGHTER]

ADAM GRANT: Well, I don’t know that there’s a silver bullet here. I think one place to start would be to go to a partner and not just have the advice conversation, but also say look, I just want to level with you here. I realize that there’s sort of a catch-22 where if I spend the time asking questions and trying to learn what I need to know to be helpful on this project, there’s a possibility that I’ll hear from any of the partners, we should have just done this ourselves or hired someone more competent. And yet, if I don’t do that then there’s a good chance that I’m not going to do a good job. And then they’re going to think that they should have someone more competent. And I would like to be in neither of those situations. So, what have you seen other associates do to navigate this dilemma? And I guess, you have to figure out whether it’s safe to have that conversation with one of the partners. If it’s not you go to the person who hired you or recruited you who was your champion or advocate —

ALISON BEARD: Or, a peer.

ADAM GRANT: Exactly. You go to somebody, one or two years ahead of you in the associates’ program and you describe what happened and say, OK, what’s the received wisdom about how to navigate this? And then you hope there’s a way around that tradeoff.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I think going to peers for advice is a great idea. I also am trying to solve the mystery of which partner she should talk to and I’m torn. One part of me wants her to go to the one who is just great at giving feedback and seems like the nicest. The other part of me wants her to go to the one who’s most critical, the one who blamed her.

ADAM GRANT: Oh, well I think this is easy. You do both and you do them in order. So, you first go to the really supportive partner and you ask for advice about how to navigate the conversation with the more difficult partner. And then you go and have that discussion with the difficult partner.

DAN MCGINN: Your response on the first letter that you need to be careful about asking for too much feedback. You have to be careful to avoid seeming needy. Did that thought cross your mind as you were reading this?

ADAM GRANT: It did. I thought about it largely in light of Sue Ashford’s research on feedback seeking which shows that people who fish for compliments are judged negatively, but people who reach out and ask for criticism are usually judged positively. And yet, that ladder finding, it ends up being curvilinear so that you can ask for too much feedback. You can ask for feedback too often. And so, I think one thing that as a junior associate especially is important to keep in mind is to say, OK. What do I think is the ceiling in how often I should be seeking feedback, per partner? And knowing also that these partners might talk to each other. Is it once a week, is it once a month? And I’d want to have that overall guideline in mind and then try to make sure that I’m consolidating whatever questions and feedback requests I have within that window so that it doesn’t seem like it’s a constant flurry of, kind of, I need more from you. I need from you. Because after all as a junior associate you’re there to help partners, not vice versa, according to the way that their work is structured.

DAN MCGINN: I’d also want her to start thinking about her life beyond these three current bosses. It sounds like she would really benefit if she had a partner who was especially good at coaching and teaching. And at a big firm like this, there’d have to be some bosses who are, some partners who are renowned for that. So, she might start to try to identify who they are and begin trying to plot a course that gets her from working for these three partners that she’s herding like cats and over to this boss or partner who’s known as an extraordinary teacher and mentor.

ADAM GRANT: I think that’s a great idea and the Heath brothers would call it finding the bright spots where you say look, large organizations can be bureaucracies. They can be full of red tape, but one of the advantages is that they’re just more people. And so, your odds of finding somebody who stands out positively on any dimension or greater if you have 1,000 people than a hundred. That’s a great suggestion for her. The challenge of it is that she may well need to succeed with the current partners before other doors open. And so, I wouldn’t want her to neglect the current situation as she’s trying to find a greener pasture.

DAN MCGINN: So, Alison, what are we telling this young accountant?

ALISON BEARD: First, because this is such a dynamic environment she should be careful about how much she’s demanding from her bosses. She should see if she can learn by doing and glean as much from the feedback she does get as possible. It does seem that at this stage it might benefit her to have some direct conversations with at least one, if not all three of her partners and in that she should be more specific. She should explain to them not only that she needs feedback, but why, when and how she needs it in order to yield the best outcomes and definitely frame this as something that will help to better serve the clients. Last, she should draw on the other resources that there are in the organization, whether it’s training programs or her peers who have gone through similar situations and might offer some good advice about how to do her job better.

DAN MCGINN: Adam, thank you so much. We’re giving you only positive feedback for your performance.

ADAM GRANT: That’s disappointing, but it was fun to be here anyway.

DAN MCGINN: That’s Adam Grant. He’s an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School. He’s also the host of the podcast WorkLife. Thanks to the listeners who wrote us with their questions. Now we want to know your questions. Send us an email with your workplace challenge and how we can help. The email address is On our next episode, we’ll be talking about getting the complications of family businesses. To get that episode automatically, please subscribe.

ALISON BEARD: And if you like the show, please give us a five-star review.

DAN MCGINN: I’m Dan McGinn.

ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Thanks for listening to Dear HBR:.

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