The culture of feedback

Pedro Pereira

Over the last weekend of February, three other classmates and I were in Barcelona for a three-day case competition hosted by IESE and sponsored by Roland Berger. Less than two months into the MBA and there we were: our first competition facing teams of MBA students of five other world-class institutions in the US, Europe and Asia. It was a humbling experience to exchange with brilliant people, and it was thrilling to practice solving a complex case under such a short time constraint.

Even though we have not come out of the competition as winners, hopefully we represented our school well and left as better MBA students and business professionals. As one of our best P1 professors often repeated: “you need to make sure that you control the process, not the outcome”.

As an engineer working for a large corporation, I was never really immersed in a “culture of feedback” (we’ll get to what I mean by that in a moment). Sure, there were regular performance reviews, but those had strong limitations, the main one being that they were employee-manager interactions. This power hierarchy meant that the feedback was unidirectional, and the main purpose of the performance review was to check which percentage of one’s goals had been achieved to calculate the end-year bonus.

No, it's not that kind of feedback either

The feedback that I refer to is aimed towards improving oneself and others. As nice as this may sound, giving and receiving meaningful feedback can be painful and therefore requires trust, empathy and respect.

During our competition in Barcelona, we would often stop and say “okay, feedback time”.

It could be after a brainstorming session, over a coffee break or dinner. The feedback could be about anything: energy levels, body language, efficiency, leadership style. We had already learned in the Organisational Behaviour course that it was important to frame the feedback as "Situation, Behaviour and Impact". At the end of the day, however, what really mattered was that we genuinely cared about each other’s personal development, and ultimately wanted the short and long-term success of each individual.

An enormous advantage of the INSEAD MBA experience is the psychological safety of the learning environment, which makes it possible to experiment and exchange meaningful feedback.

I would argue that this working style will still be relevant for our careers. A couple of our classmates who worked as management consultants have told me about the strong open feedback culture in their firms, and that it is essential to enable the very steep learning curve of the job.

As you dive in the application process, or prepare to be part of the incoming class, bear in mind that the admissions criterion of “ability to contribute” is not only meant to look pretty on your essays. You should be able to contribute to the learning of your peers and require them to participate in your own.