How to Get Real Feedback in a World of Grade Inflation

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Everybody’s got a rap sheet. The only question is whether we know what’s on our own.

Finding out can be a surprisingly difficult thing.

Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon was a place where “where all the children are above average.

This is an apt synopsis of the “grade inflation” that we’ve seen throughout our society.  Harvard’s average grade, for example, rose from a C- in 1950 to an A- in 2013. Everybody gets a trophy, etc.

I am personally a tough grader, at least by the standards of today. I don’t like to rave and say something is awesome unless I think there is something truly unique about it. And even the best things ofttimes have areas where they could improve. (I’d say this about myself too).

But even I find myself falling prey to the grade inflation mindset, especially because of things like Uber.

Uber allows riders and drivers to assign each other a rating. This is on a five star scale. That strikes me as odd. How many gradations of quality do you have on a cab ride?

Ebay had a better model back in the day. They simply wanted to know whether you had a positive or negative experience with someone.

In any case, I discovered that Uber fires any driver whose rating falls below 4.6.

So now every time I rate a driver (and the app often forces me to), I’ve got to consider that if I rate him less than five stars (the highest rating), he might get fired. Since I’m not looking to get anyone fired, I always give five stars these days.

Other marketplace type applications appear to function in a broadly similar way. They create a lot of incentives towards grade inflation, while creating the illusion of a nuanced rating score. We have institutionalized grade inflation.

The point is that our feedback for people, companies, etc. is driven as much or more by social considerations than factual accuracy. And that we have a lot of forces that propel us towards rating people and things higher than we honestly think about them.

If we want to actually get realistic feedback for ourselves, we need to design systems in which we can reduce many of the social considerations that go into our decisions to make a ranking.

For example, back in my corporate career, it was obvious that written performance evaluations were puffery. These weren’t really the driver of pay. Rather, salaries were determined via a forced ranking process of departmental employees at the end of the year. This real ranking process was mostly opaque to the employee apart from the final result.

Supervisors wrote glowing feedback in order to avoid having to deliver unpleasant messages, and to avoid creating a paper trail that might undermine their own ability to fight for their employees in the actual ranking meeting.

Similarly, I used to see various 360 degree feedback tools that operated in the same way. These tended to have a bi-modal distribution. Someone who hated your guts for some reason would give you low ratings, but most people, knowing these factored into performance evaluations, tended to give very high marks even for upward feedback.

So how do you structure something that gets you real, useful feedback?

I stumbled onto this through the one formal feedback process I ever went through that delivered real value. It was when I get sent to charm school (aka “executive coaching”).  The person I worked with collected feedback from a range of people and summarized it. It was very tough, accurate, and useful. In fact, to this day I continue to work on various things in it.

Here are some fun quotes:

  • “He stands and sits awkwardly. There’s something about his head.”
  • “Aaron treats people on a project like items to be crossed off a list.”
  • “Aaron undervalues the way people have to change, the effort it takes, and how hard that can be.”
  • “Here’s the bad news: Aaron needs to wear a jacket, every day.”
  • “He fears becoming a sellout”

It went on and on like that. Not all pleasant – in fact there were a number of brutal passages – and not all easy to understand how to take action about, but supremely useful.

What were the structural factors that made this possible?  I put some thought into it:

  1. It was low stakes feedback. This was not going to be use to assess my performance or determine my salary in any way, reducing social pressure
  2. It was conducted by a third party.  To build confidence that it was in fact low stakes, it was conducted by a someone outside the firm (my executive coach).
  3. It was confidential to me.  The person who did it put forth a professional commitment that the results would not be shared with my employer or anyone else. Actually, I think I did give permission to share it with the mentor who sent me to the program, but he was someone I already had high trust in.
  4. The people who offered feedback were curated by a mentor. The person who sent me off to coaching took an active role in recruiting the right people to participate in the feedback process, and coached them to be forthright in their comments
  5. I was not sure exactly who gave input. I’m pretty sure who some of them were, but not all, and this provided some assurance to them too
  6. The feedback was in narrative form. It wasn’t a bunch of multiple choice questions with optional comments, but rather was  captured through a structured one on one interview.

I’ve shared that feedback document with several people I’ve mentored over the years, and it has never failed to make an impression.  It helps give them a perspective on the kinds of things people are probably saying and thinking about them when they are not in the room.

It helps to have the ability to have an outside party do this, though is a luxury many people don’t have.

Another option is a mentor who is willing to shoot it to you straight. Dan Kirner, a former colleague of mine, once said, “A good mentor is one who sings your praises in public and kicks you in the butt in private.”

But few people enjoy having unpleasant conversations where they have to give tough messages to others.  So if you have someone you trust, it helps to really intensively ask for feedback.

If you are not hearing real, serious feedback from people on what you need to do better, then you are probably deluded. If you really already walk on water, why aren’t you the CEO of the company (or in an equivalent position in whatever you do)?

Believe it, you, me, and everybody else has a rap sheet. So we need to make it our business to figure out what it says.



from Aaron M. Renn


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