Roy Keane is a master in the skill of giving feedback.
In 2002, Roy was one of the world’s most gifted footballers. And he had the opportunity to express his skills on the world stage, potentially cementing his status with significant achievement at the World Cup in Japan. But he wasn’t happy with the way the Irish team was being run, culminating in this famous tirade at his manager, Mick McCarthy.
"Mick, you're a liar… you're a fucking wanker. I didn't rate you as a player, I don't rate you as a manager, and I don't rate you as a person. You're a fucking wanker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your bollocks."
We’ve all been on those training courses about giving feedback and, it seems, so had Roy (or perhaps, like his football, he had an intuitive grasp of it, requiring little formal training). This feedback is specific, actionable (although with some discomfort) and delivered very much in the moment. Roy’s done well.
High-performing organisations take feedback seriously, as they should. A learning organisation gives feedback regularly and trains its people to deliver it well. And this often works. People often rather like telling people what to do, where they’ve gone wrong and how to do better. It can be rather satisfying, as I’m sure Roy would agree.
The other side of this equation is, however, much less discussed, rarely trained and far more important. It’s the invisible factor that results in not enough feedback being given at all (either in the right way or the wrong way): how to take feedback.
I’ve seen this in action twice very recently. A pitch team given feedback by their boss after a client check-in meeting; all perfectly reasonable stuff about how we could have done things a little better, a little differently. This then resulted in days of grumpiness and soul-searching from the team, who are perhaps used to the standard agency feedback of high-fives and positive platitudes. They couldn’t take it.
A creative team who looked daggers when approached after a client meeting, who then didn't get the honest appraisal of their ideas because the account team didn't want to get into a big argument – it was easy just to let that team’s ideas die and go somewhere else for the answer.
In both cases, the team on the receiving end of the feedback have missed the chance to be better at their job. It’s not because their colleagues are bad at giving feedback. They’re probably excellent at that. It’s because those teams haven’t developed the skill of being open to receiving feedback.
If you want to be really excellent at your job, it comes at a cost. That cost is not just in hours and study and focus; it’s in effort and ego. Because, to be excellent, you need to make it really easy for people to give you feedback. You need to create the conditions where giving you feedback is the most enjoyable part of their day. You need to think about how you can make it feel fun and rewarding for them. To never judge them for what they say and to think about how it feels to tell you things they may assume you don’t want to hear.
The trick here is in remembering that you don’t need to do everything they think you should. You have the power to decide that their feedback isn’t useful for you and that you disagree with it. And, crucially, it’s in your gift to embrace all the feedback without it crippling your self-confidence or destroying your sense of self-worth (because, of course, that’s why we fear it).
Of course it’s easier not to hear it. Easier to put up the barriers that result in positive platitudes or affirmations, because people are too scared to tell you how you’re really doing. And then you’re mystified about why you didn’t get that pay rise or that promotion, or why you’ve just lost your job. You’re angry and you blame them for not having told you earlier. And you’re partially correct because, yes, they probably should have. But if you didn’t put in the effort to put them at their ease and make criticising you really enjoyable, then I’m afraid this is on you.
You can give it. But the real skill is in taking it.
Craig Mawdsley is joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO