In the winter of 1998 at the University of Rochester, I had an 40-minute interview with consulting and marketing company Sapient, and encountered managing director Tim Smith, a seemingly amiable interviewer. I was less than seven months from graduating with an MBA. At the time, Sapient was working on harnessing the emerging power of the Internet to transform businesses. I was well prepared for the discussion–perhaps too much so–because I desperately wanted to get the job.
After a flurry of opening questions I thought I had answered well, Smith pulled back from the conversation and said something that changed my life and my very way of thinking.
“I have some feedback for you,” he said. “First, you made it to the next round of interviews and they will be very hard. Second, you talk too much and had better get more succinct in your answers, or you will fail in the next round and most certainly at Sapient.”
No one had ever given me feedback in an interview before; let alone something so hard to hear. I felt like time was standing still and recognized that I had two choices: get defensive or react with humility. I chose the latter and replied: “Thank you. I really want to get as far as I can with Sapient.”
A few weeks later, Sapient offered me a job, and I worked with them for nearly 13 years. For the first three years, Smith was my supervisor, and his feedback remained as biting, direct, and valuable as it had been in that first interview.
By giving me that direct feedback, Smith was living the culture of Sapient, which at the time involved extreme levels of openness–one of their core values to this day. If I wanted to join his team, then I had to be ready to give and receive feedback.
My company THRUUE hires bright people who embrace the idea of openness and feedback. Openness is our oxygen. In each interview I conduct, I listen closely to the person so that I can offer real-time feedback of what he or she did well, in addition to what concepts didn’t connect with me.
The same holds true for my interactions with my team. I don’t care much about how well they react to any one thing I point out; what matters to me is whether they can accept my reality instead of their own. This is what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.”
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that we feel when our deeply held beliefs do not match what is evident in reality. With all the tumult that swirls within organizations today, only the leaders who master how their minds process feedback and the cognitive dissonance it inevitably brings will survive.
Social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson point to this conclusion. “When people learn to hold the two competing ideas in their heads, they benefit by being able to assess the support for each side of the problem and make better decisions–or correct bad ones after the fact,” they explained.
In this way, accepting cognitive dissonance is a useful problem-solving strategy and is necessary to recognize all angles of a problem. Rationalizing away cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, can lead to many problems that are the result of rationalizing away reality.
This lesson can be seen in General Motors’s soul-searching journey to understand what went wrong. The problem came down to a failure to speak up, share the hard news, and give tough feedback. GM’s downfall ultimately arose from an inability to manage and nurture cognitive dissonance.
To prevent letting such failures be the downfall of your organization, I offer five feedback suggestions:
1. If you can’t do it during the interview, then don’t pretend you will be good at doing it on the job. Have the guts to give honest feedback in every interview. If it’s the last time you ever see that person, then you will know you were truthful with them.
2. Seek feedback from those you work with on a regular basis. Get in the habit of asking: “How am I doing and what I can improve on?” The latter means you “get it,” and see growth as part of the journey of life.
3. Be careful about seeking feedback after moments of glory. If you do this, you will be labeled a praise junkie, and it can hurt your career.
4. Be aware of the fine line between tough feedback and crushing someone’s soul. It’s hard to handle cognitive dissonance.
5. Make time to think about feedback on a regular basis. Leaders get caught up in the day-to-day and have no time to think, but great feedback requires reflection and time to get right.
My life changed for the better after Smith gave me real-time feedback. Today, openness has become the mantra I live by, and I’m proud of my relationship with cognitive dissonance. As a leader, I want to continue to grow through feedback others share with me. The ability to give and receive feedback–one I continue to cultivate–is a metastory of great leaders. Most importantly, it’s the bedrock of a healthy culture that succeeds in dealing with the hard truths.