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The Second Score: How to Receive Feedback

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

I'm a sucker for these "pop" psychologists. They take solid psychological research and then package it in an easily digestible message for us dummies. One of the more recent psychology superstars on the scene is Adam Grant. He's only a few years older than I am and has already acclaimed national recognition as a top educator, written three smash-hit books, and has done consultation work for companies including Google and the NBA. To top it off, he recently launched a podcast through TED called "Work Life" which I'm certain is going to be fantastic. At the time of writing this post there has only been one episode, but it's worth checking it out.

In the episode, Adam interviews some folks that he wrote about in his best-selling book "Originals" (or it could have been Give and Take but I'm pretty sure it was Originals). One person he interviewed in particular was billionaire Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, the world's largest hedge fund. One of the key factors of Bridgewater's enormous success was their philosophy of radical candor. This is where everyone and anyone in the company, not only has the right, but also the obligation, to give criticism to anyone else, including to him. They make mention of an e-mail in which one employee tells Dalio, the CEO, that he appeared unprepared for his most recent presentation to the staff and proceeded to give him a D- rating.

In most companies that might mean instant disciplinary action, but at Bridgewater this type of feedback is desired. No one, not even billionaire Ray Dalio, was given a free pass. Everyone was looking to help each other progress by spotting weakness and mistakes that the others were missing.

Given what we know of human psychology it is often significantly difficult to evaluate our own output. We're most likely to over-evaluate our performance but it's also possible to be too hard on ourselves as well. Either way, we miss the most important details which are where and how we fell short. We need other people's critical eye to help us identify our blind-spots and shortcomings.

The problem of course is that we have terribly fragile egos and very few of us can withstand much constructive criticism without retreating to our bedrooms with a quart of ice cream. Additionally, many of us have been taught the painfully ineffective practice of sandwhiching your criticism between two compliments. This often comes off less than genuine and doesn't motivate much change.

However, when in an organization where the prevailing ethos is that criticism comes from a place of genuine care for that person, it becomes a much easier pill to swallow. When we can trust that the one and only reason anyone would criticize our work at all is because they care deeply about us and our achievements, and they wish us to have even greater success, we not only tolerate more criticism, we crave it!

Nothing teaches us better than pain but we don't want to suffer just for the sake of suffering. It also needs to be accompanied by thoughtful self and peer reflection, after which progress becomes inevitable.

Pain + Reflection = Progress

Another key practice to keep in mind while receiving feedback is the "second score." This is the idea that your performance has already been evaluated in one way or another by someone else giving you your first "score." Sally feels my presentation was a solid 6/10. My inclination might be to defend myself and rationalize why it should be closer to a 10. I might get defensive and question her judgement. What does Sally know about presentations anyway? My reaction to her feedback is what she evaluates next. This is my second score. There is nothing I can do to change her first evaluation, but if I remember that what she is now assessing is my reaction to her feedback then I can better guide my behaviour to maximize the odds of me learning something and improving. So, even though she gave me a 6/10, I might respond by thanking her for putting the time and effort into giving me an evaluation. I might ask which aspects of my presentation she thought were lacking. I remain grateful for her criticism and I could then ask, "How well did I do taking your feedback?" The better we are at reacting to criticism the more productive the whole process will become.

Adam Grant proposes that while everyone needs a support group, we should also have a challenge group in which we feel free to liberally challenge one another to improve. If you can surround yourself with people who have strong "second scores" while working on improving your own second score, progress is highly likely to ensue.

Those who avoid criticism will plateau when it comes to skill and aptitude, but people who seek truly constructive criticism will eventually, and inevitably, excel.

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