September 30th, 2019
EPISODE 7: Feedback Thrives at Microsoft with Liz Friedman and Dr. Heidi Grant
It’s among the most heart-stopping questions a person can receive at work: Can I give you some feedback? But research shows it doesn’t have to be so dread-inducing. Done right, feedback can spark transformation. On this week’s episode, Liz Friedman, Senior Director of Global Performance & Development at Microsoft, shares how America’s most valuable company is learning to make self-improvement an active effort through smarter feedback.
Chris Weller: 00:05 I have two questions for you. Don’t worry, they’re easy. The first question is, do you like improving yourself? The second question is, do you like feedback? I’m guessing you probably said yes to question one, and sometimes or no for question two. So what gives? Why do we like getting better, but dread when other people try to help?
Chris Weller: 00:27 It’s a question Microsoft has been solving for the past two years, and Liz Friedman, senior director of global performance and development, has been leading the charge. She’s the one who’s taken the heart-stopping issue of feedback, and made it something to celebrate. So, how does she do it?
Chris Weller: 00:44 I’m Chris Weller, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work, from the NeuroLeadership Institute. In today’s episode, I’m joined by Liz Friedman, senior director of global performance and development at Microsoft, and Dr. Heidi Grant, chief science officer at the NeuroLeadership Institute. Our discussion focuses on feedback, why it’s so hard, how to do it better, and what it looks like to build a culture of continuous improvement.
Chris Weller: 01:12 Liz and Heidi, thanks for joining me.
Heidi Grant: 01:14 Thanks for having us.
Liz Friedman: 01:16 Great to be here.
Chris Weller: 01:18 So, Liz, I wanted to start in a place where we just define why feedback is so hard for so many people. And not just at work. It’s hard to hear from a spouse how you messed up doing any number of chores, and it’s hard at work to hear why you fudged a project, or how you could’ve done better. So, I’d like to hear from you, Liz, first, and maybe Heidi can kick to it afterwards, just why is feedback so hard?
Liz Friedman: 01:43 It is hard, isn’t it? And it’s the fundamental question that everyone starts with with this realization of like, “Wow, this really is hard.” And I’ve learned so much from my neuroscientist friends, Heidi and others, of just what is going on in the brain as far as when you hear someone veering to the space of feedback, or saying they want to give you feedback. It is questioning how you are doing something, and that is threatening. That is scary. So kind of that very primal instinct of, “Gosh, this is putting me into a state of maybe defensiveness or fear or threat, and so, I’m going to react and close off a bit as opposed to being more naturally open.”
Liz Friedman: 02:24 It’s hard because it’s scary. You don’t always know what you’re going to get. Or maybe you do know what you’re going to hear, and you’re scared to hear it. So it’s very fundamental in those brain-driven responses and fears.
Heidi Grant: 02:38 I think Liz is exactly right. I think we would all like to be the kind of people that have an absolute sense of our own worth and abilities that’s independent of what other people think of us. And the truth is that not only is really nobody like that, but we really can’t be like that. Human beings aren’t wired to be like that. We evolved to be incredibly social creatures. We care very much, and for all kinds of good reasons, about how other people see us, their perception of us, because it has to do with whether or not we’re going to succeed in the world, whether or not we’re going to get the things we want. It’s one thing for you to think you’re really great at something, but if nobody else does, it’s not going to get you very far in life.
Heidi Grant: 03:19 So, there’s all kinds of potential threats present in a feedback conversation. There is what we call a status threat, that my sense of my own relative standing with other people, whether or not they respect me and they value me, that’s potentially at risk when we get feedback. Our sense of certainty. As Liz said, we don’t really know what’s going to happen in a feedback conversation, and you don’t know what turns it’s going to take, and there’s something scary about that, and humans are very uncertainty averse in general.
Heidi Grant: 03:46 And then there’s also fairness concerns. “Is the feedback I’m going to get fair? Is this person taking everything into account when they think about what they’re going to say to me?” And when you think about it, it’s sort of remarkable that we ever give each other feedback at all, given … and we need it so much, but given all the things that are at stake.
Liz Friedman: 04:05 Absolutely. And I was thinking that, too, Heidi, of just part of what makes it so hard is that it’s not something that we can correct for on our own, because of the dynamic you just talked about. It takes two to have a conversation. And so, while I might be doing okay in addressing all of those fears and concerns, I can’t count on the other party necessarily coming to the table the same way, and that’s part of what makes it so hard.
Heidi Grant: 04:30 Yeah.
Chris Weller: 04:31 Liz, I know that you’ve done a lot of work at Microsoft, trying to either override those fears or live with them or cope with them. I mean, how do you think about the way that the organization has been working with feedback to get better at it? Is it a matter of rolling with the fear? Is it to cope with it? How do you deal with it, and what’s been the impact you’ve seen so far?
Liz Friedman: 04:57 Sure, and I definitely don’t think it’s about overriding it, because it’s there. So it’s more about, I think, acknowledging it and maybe the source of it, and then tackling it, or just working with it. When we were looking at feedback, in partnership with NIL, we were saying, “Okay, what can help us address that fear?” And we just looked at the different components of feedback and said, “Where, at different stages, can we try to reduce the threat?” It’s not eliminate the threat, but to reduce the threat and to help get to people into a better space.
Liz Friedman: 05:35 And that was where there was the big breakthrough in the research, which was, instead of waiting for feedback and just waiting for it to land on you, to take actually the front foot and to go after it, and to actually ask for it. So, rather than, again, waiting and seeing what was going to come your way, actually go out and say, “Hey, I’m looking for this,” and help address threat in that way. Because it helps with yourself in terms of, “Okay, I want to get better, and a way to get better is to learn from others. I want a growth mindset,” which is very fundamental to our culture here at Microsoft, and one of the research-proven ways of activating a growth mindset is by learning through others.
Liz Friedman: 06:16 So say, “Okay, I want to do that. I want to activate my growth mindset, learn from others. I’ve got to start getting some feedback. Well, I can do that by asking, and in asking, I’m able to maybe set the guardrails a little bit about what I’m even looking for, and therefore it’s less threatening to me because I am actually pursuing it and asking for it.”
Heidi Grant: 06:39 I think part of what Liz and her colleagues at Microsoft are doing so well is taking a really realistic approach to feedback. So the way we’ve been traditionally going at that is trying to get to do a lot of training with managers, in particular, on how to give feedback well. And there’s all kinds of models for that. It’s a feedback sandwich. Start with something positive. There’s all kinds of theories about how to give feedback well.
Heidi Grant: 07:08 The problem that no one ever really tackled head-on was the problem that no one wants to give it. I can spend hours and hours of training about how to give feedback, but I can’t get them to necessarily want to do it. And that’s the elephant in the room that I think Microsoft’s approach has been really realistic. It says, “Look, we’re never going to solve for people not wanting to give feedback until we make it more comfortable for them to do that.”
Heidi Grant: 07:34 And the way you do that is by getting people to ask for it. And a lot of things happen when you make that shift. It’s not just people need to be more comfortable getting feedback. It’s everybody in that situation needs to be more comfortable. And we did some really interesting research at NLI that we were able to show that people, when they are asked to give someone feedback, their stress levels are much lower when they are asked to give feedback than when they have to give it unsolicited.
Heidi Grant: 08:00 And one of the things that results from that, apart from them being more willing to give it, is that the feedback is actually better, because people are actually willing to be more candid, more constructive, more detailed.
Liz Friedman: 08:13 And there’s so many other things tied up in that, too, that you just make me think of, Heidi, as you go through this. Which is, we talk about asking well, and part of that is being specific, but it’s also trying to do so on a regular basis. And also thinking about, who are you asking for feedback? Is it someone who will have something to share because they’ve worked with you enough, or interacted with you enough to have something meaningful to share?
Liz Friedman: 08:39 Because if you’ve identified people who can give you some valuable feedback and you actually have a positive feedback exchange, you are building the road for more feedback from that person, and maybe others going forward, because you’ve had a success story. You can build on that success. It feels good to say, “Wow, I got something that actually made a difference, and I can see the difference. I’m making a bigger impact as a result.”
Liz Friedman: 09:08 And even better, when you can share the impact of someone giving you that feedback back with them because then they’re like, “Oh, I did a good thing in going to that uncomfortable place or sharing what I was seeing with someone, and they’re now better.”
Chris Weller: 09:20 Liz, I’m curious. Do you have a story or two to ground this? I’m curious what you’ve actually seen, like what the day-to-day looks like when feedback is easier, maybe when it’s more challenging? They’re different skills, maybe. I’m curious what you’ve seen.
Liz Friedman: 09:34 In looking at all of our data, and we’re seeing data from surveys and in focus groups and in verbatims back from things, what we’re seeing is that when it works best is when it’s happening one-to-one, in the moment, in person, where you come out of a meeting and you grab someone and say, “Hey, I got a funny feeling in there about something I said. Can you tell me what your perspective is on that?”
Liz Friedman: 09:59 And those types of things that are more tactical, in the moment, tend to be a little better, because they’re more regular conversation. It tends to get harder when it’s, “I’ve really been thinking about this, and I would like your observations representing how you’re seeing things over time,” more thematic feedback. And part of the reason why that’s harder is, one, it takes time to be thoughtful about that. And we’re all challenged for time. And while I think everyone has really good intentions of trying to share thoughtful feedback, it’s just in which hour of the day can I take the time to be thoughtful about this?
Heidi Grant: 10:36 It’s also harder to give feedback that isn’t in the moment because the truth is, human memory for non-remarkable things is pretty poor. So if you’re asking me generally how well do I do X, and X is not very memorable, like it’s not a really remarkable thing, I might actually have a hard time really landing on details that are going to be useful to you. And that, in and of itself, makes me now more nervous about giving you this feedback.
Liz Friedman: 11:09 Something else that’s interesting is in just looking at what people want, we see that people very much want feedback, and they want feedback that’s in the moment, and they want thoughtful, written feedback. Like, there is definitely this pent-up demand for feedback. I think I have yet to meet somebody who was like, “Nope, I’m all good and I don’t want to hear more.”
Chris Weller: 11:31 Yeah. It’s a supply problem, for sure.
Liz Friedman: 11:33 Exactly. Exactly. And so, it’s interesting because, as Heidi mentioned, we focus so much on the person asking, and in many ways, that’s the easy part. And it’s this giving piece that, while people understand, “Yeah, I’d love to get the feedback myself,” it is so hard to just satisfy that demand. And that’s what we’re looking at now even more, which is to say, “Okay, people are asking really well, but we’re building a new problem which is that all of these people are asking but not getting responses, and so they’re feeling like it’s not working.”
Liz Friedman: 12:10 And so, how do we help to actually increase the level of responses?
Chris Weller: 12:15 We’ll be right back with Liz and Heidi for a closer look into how Microsoft is transforming feedback through everyday conversations. Stay with us.
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Chris Weller: 12:51 So, I’d like to go into a little more depth of the solutions and the practices that has worked for Microsoft, Liz. I’d be curious to hear, what were the early steps that really paid off, and what were the major insights that gave you that momentum to keep going, both personally and just also as an organization?
Liz Friedman: 13:12 So, one of the things that we did very early on, before we made a statement about, “Hey, we’re focusing on feedback and here’s the approach we’re taking,” is we just built the business case. Like, why feedback? Why does it matter? Why should I pay attention? And it came down to the culture that we are looking to build at Microsoft. And our culture is fundamentally based in growth mindset. Anyone has the capability to learn and to grow and to change.
Liz Friedman: 13:45 And, in looking at a culture of growth mindset, we wanted to help people figure out how to activate a growth mindset, because we were hearing employees say like, “Get it. Yep. Makes sense. How do I do it?” And one of our first answers to that question was, “Well, if there are different ways of activating a growth mindset and one of them is to learn from others, we know that one of the best ways to learn from others is to ask them what they think. To ask for their perspective. To ask for feedback.”
Liz Friedman: 14:15 And so, it was a very quick theory of the case of activate growth mindset by learning from others, learning from others through feedback, let’s figure out how we get more feedback flowing at the company. And so, that put us in a strong standing of saying, “Yes, we’ve got to invest and understand.” And then when we got the breakthroughs with NLI of the neuroscience of what’s happening in your brain and how can you go in and start to address threat, then we had some real tangible ways of teaching people not just how to do it, but why we’re doing it in that way.
Chris Weller: 14:50 Yeah. I love that, and I think that the point about mentioning growth mindset is essential, because you can’t enter into any feedback conversation thinking that who you are and your skills and abilities are just, “Well, that’s what they are.” And if you have a rating at work and that’s your rating and you’re never going to get any better.
Chris Weller: 15:06 So, the whole point is, “Well, maybe I’m open to growing. Maybe I’m open to getting better at something, and we can go from there.” I love the bit that you mentioned a little bit earlier about getting people’s perspectives, because we did say that feedback has such a charge to it. I’m curious, Heidi, will feedback always carry this emotional charge? Is it worth abandoning the word altogether? Can we really be like excited all the time to get it?
Heidi Grant: 15:31 Sure. I mean, “excited” is maybe not realistic. But people can know that they need something and know that it’s good for them and know that they will benefit from it and still not be excited about it. There’s lots of things in life look like that. When somebody is a professional marathoner and they train running endless hours every day, they’re not doing that because it makes them happy to be doing that. They’re doing it because they feel really effective, deeply effective, and able to reach their goals and make things happen that they want to make happen. They’re making progress. They’re growing and improving and they feel effective because of it. And so, feedback is a really, really key ingredient for anyone to feel effective.
Liz Friedman: 16:16 Yeah. And I think when, in talking about what word do we use? We talked about that quite a bit. And my answer at the end of the day is that, you’ve just got to speak in a way that is authentic and that resonates with people. And if you try to avoid the word “feedback”, people aren’t going to know what you’re talking about, because feedback is just a word that we use in our daily lives all the time.
Liz Friedman: 16:38 And so, I think it is more about talking about feedback, offering suggestions about how to approach it, interspersing words like “perspectives” or “point of view” to help take some of the threat out. But sometimes you just got to be clear about what it is you’re talking about. And another thing that I notice, even in the course of this conversation, is we and every woman associate feedback with negative, right? That what I’m going to get when I ask for feedback is always going to be about things that I don’t do well and that I need to fix.
Liz Friedman: 17:14 And yet, there is a whole side of feedback and sharing perspectives that is all about identifying things that other people see that you are great at, and that they’d love to see you do more of. And so, when we think about learning from others, there is a whole, wonderful side of, “I want to learn from others what they see me doing really well, so that I can leverage it further and be more successful.”
Liz Friedman: 17:41 And that tends to be a lot easier to give, and yet, we’re often not satisfied when that’s what we get back, because we’re thinking, “No, no, no. I need to know what I need to fix.” So we have this funny relationship with feedback where it’s actually really good for us to hear the things that we’re doing well and can keep doing, and that’s actually very constructive, in and of itself. Because sometimes, there are surprises in there, or sometimes it just reinforces things that you may have already thought and just want validated.
Liz Friedman: 18:09 And then of course, there’s the side, too, of, “Hey, can you tell me anything else that I might not be aware of that I might want to rethink?” But one of the things that we’re trying to emphasize going forward, and have been trying to emphasize, is that it’s a balance and that it’s not only about identifying things that are broken and, in many cases, there’s not much that’s broken, but really focusing on those strengths as well and getting a good balance.
Chris Weller: 18:36 Great. I think that’s a wonderful place to end here. Liz and Heidi, thanks so much for the conversation. It’s exactly what I thought it was going to be.
Heidi Grant: 18:45 Thanks so much, Chris.
Liz Friedman: 18:46 Thank you so much.
Chris Weller: 18:53 Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer for Your Brain at Work is Noah Gelb. Danielle Kirshenblat is our editor. Gabriel Berezin, our associate producer, and [Brian Cribbins 00:19:10], our sound mixer. Original music is by Grant Zubritzky, and logo design is by [Catch Wear 00:19:15].
Chris Weller: 19:14 A special thanks to Liz Friedman and Dr. Heidi Grant, and to you for listening.