I recently wrote about a time at Facebook when I got some hard feedback that changed the course of my career. It was so severe that it took me a few days to internalize the feedback. When I finally absorbed the feedback, I was angry.
I wasn’t angry about the feedback — that was spot on — I was angry that I hadn’t gotten it sooner.
Everyone knew I was hard to work with. Everyone except for me. It was so widely accepted that it was entirely uncontroversial in conversation but somehow nobody had ever told me. I went for a walk around Palo Alto with my long time friend and colleague James Wang and asked him why I was the last to find out. “Honestly Boz,” he said, “I think we all just assumed you knew.”
Most people I talked with about it were shocked to hear I didn’t know about my own reputation. A few said they assumed somebody else must have told me by this point. One admitted that they felt it wasn’t their responsibility to tell me.
It was hard not to be hurt but I had to respect where they were coming from. People found me intimidating, so by definition they weren’t enthusiastic to tell me how I affected them. But even for other feedback most of us just prefer to avoid conflict. Even as confrontational as I was back then, these conversations made me realize that I was also guilty of withholding valuable criticism.
Feedback is better late than never but every second of delay denies the subject an opportunity to get better. This is one reason I believe in management, something Facebook lacked at the time. Strong managers have a stated responsibility to collect and disclose the kind of feedback I needed. Performance reviews are time consuming but they ensure no employee ever goes as long as I did without being told how to improve.
Still, management and reviews work at a slow pace in my experience. The impact of feedback is greatest when received as close as possible to the behavior in question. If you have feedback for someone and don’t tell them, then they don’t have a problem. You have a problem. It only becomes their problem once you tell them.
It takes skill to have hard conversations, but it can be studied, practiced, and improved. And if you master that skill you will find that people want to work with you because you make them better. And at the end of the day we all just want to be better, even if we don’t always show it.