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The X-Caliber Project Case (B):
Giving and Receiving Feedback

Confidential Instructions for Sebastian

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12/2015-5871

This case was written by Kriti Jain, Assistant Professor in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources at IE
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Business School, and Heather Grover, Negotiation and Strategy Consultant, under the direction of Horacio Falcão,
Senior Affiliate Professor of Decision Sciences at INSEAD. It is intended to be used as a basis for class discussion
rather than to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation.
Additional material about INSEAD case studies (e.g., videos, spreadsheets, links) can be accessed at
cases.insead.edu.
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COPIES MAY NOT BE MADE WITHOUT PERMISSION. NO PART OF THIS PUBLICATION MAY BE COPIED, STORED, TRANSMITTED, REPRODUCED OR DISTRIBUTED IN
ANY FORM OR MEDIUM WHATSOEVER WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE COPYRIGHT OWNER.

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You are Sebastian, one of Experia Corporation’s youngest managers. You have worked your
up the corporate ladder with purpose and precision. You relentlessly pursue growth
opportunities, set ambitious goals, and do whatever it takes to meet or exceed your objectives.
You believe continuous improvement is key to success and eagerly seek out and absorb
candid feedback from others. You are passionate about being the best at what you do and are
confident in your abilities. You hope to become one of the youngest partners at Experia and

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your boss has indicated you are on the right track. Your hard work, focus and dedication have
paid off and you don’t want anything to derail your plans for rapid advancement.

Delivering the best possible project outcomes is a top priority. Not only do you find
significant personal satisfaction in achieving high-quality results, you know that maintaining a
solid track record and a strong portfolio of happy clients will help secure your early
promotion. You recognize the value of building your team’s capabilities and have made it a

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priority to nurture the talents of others, often going the extra mile to support the growth of
your colleagues and staff. You encourage your team to collaborate, show initiative, and seek
out professional development.

Two weeks ago, you and your team concluded the final deliverables of a large and complex
project, X-Caliber. With the client-facing components of X-Caliber successfully completed,
the team is enjoying some down time. You, however, still have significant work to do on the
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internal wrap-up and are under a lot of pressure from your boss to get it done quickly.
Administrative closeout is your least favourite aspect of any project: while you know it has to
be done, you find it tedious and time consuming. You want to finish the closeout tasks for X-
Caliber as soon as possible to ensure your boss is pleased and so you can focus on your next
projects.
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A few days ago, you received an email from one of your direct reports, Diane, requesting a
meeting before the end of the week to discuss her performance on X-Caliber. She is a
hardworking and dedicated employee who brings a great deal of value to your team. However,
at times she can be self-centred and pushy, and tends to put her own needs before everyone
else’s. Though you are extremely busy right now and won’t be able to prepare all the feedback
you would like to share, you set a meeting with Diane hoping to keep it short. Her request
could not have come at a worse time – with your boss breathing down your neck about
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finishing the X-Caliber close-out – but you feel obligated as her manager to hold the meeting.

Diane has been an Associate with Experia for four years and is expecting to be promoted
soon. You believe she has strong potential and have invested quite a bit in her development.
You regularly staff her on high-profile projects and shape her role to ensure she is challenged
and paired with people from whom she can learn. She normally lives up to your expectations,
but recently she has fallen short.

When you first assembled the X-Caliber team, you told Diane that she needed to demonstrate
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proactive leadership to help build the case for her promotion. As a key task lead on the
project, you expected her to provide guidance to her team members and to motivate them to
achieve greatness. Instead of engaging and inspiring her team, however, she seemed to be
‘way down in the weeds’, focusing on the minute details and taking on tasks that should have
been delegated. At one point, you stepped in to remind her of the overarching purpose of her
role and of your expectation that she show initiative as a leader, but her behaviour did not
seem to change. As a result, you were unable to devote as much attention to managing the

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client and the partners as you had wanted and the team failed to deliver the stellar
performance you had hoped for. True, the project was a success and there were some isolated
instances of excellence, but overall it would have been better if Diane had more effectively
managed her team.

Diane consistently delivers high-quality results on time and within budget. More than once

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she has gone the extra mile to handle unexpected client requests and contribute additional
value to her projects. In fact, on X-Caliber she provided several particularly helpful insights
for the final report and single-handedly built a tool for the client to evaluate future outcomes
under different market scenarios. The client was really impressed and proposed incorporating
the tool into their decision-making process. She clearly is a solid contributor and has
substantial technical expertise, but she doesn’t seem able to translate her individual strengths
into team successes.

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Teamwork is a core company value and it is essential for managers at Experia to inspire their
teams to work together in a creative, innovative, and highly productive manner. Beyond
having technical expertise and market knowledge, managers are expected to be able to
leverage the full strengths of diverse teams, coach and mentor staff with patience, and model
effective collaboration and communication. Leaders at Experia need to be able to drive results
that are more than the sum of the individual contributions of each team member. They need to
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be able to achieve success through their people, not in spite of them.

You wonder if maybe Diane just doesn’t have what it takes to be a manager. If she is not able
to demonstrate leadership skills, or at least capable of further learning and development, she
will not be promotable. And with the company’s culture of “up or out”, you may end up
having to fire her.
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When you have personally observed Diane’s work style, you noticed that she tends to isolate
herself and work a little too independently. She rarely asks for help or advice and, while you
appreciate her “can do” attitude and efficiency, you are concerned about behaviours that
negatively impact her colleagues and her team’s results. She likes to have full control over
what she is doing and doesn’t share responsibilities, knowledge or information as well as she
should. You feel this is preventing her and her team from achieving superior quality results.
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Diane’s team members on X-Caliber reported that they found her inaccessible. They noted she
often worked from home and had her phone off. When she was in the office, she mostly kept
to herself and seemed too buried in her work to engage with anyone. They complained that
Diane made them feel disrespected and demoralized, citing that whenever they asked her for
help, she would simply take over and do it for them. Some team members felt frustrated and
disempowered; others were concerned that Diane thought their work just wasn’t good enough.
Consequently, they avoided soliciting her input until problems got out of hand. There were a
few crises during the project that could have been averted if they had gotten her help early on.
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You believe that sharing this feedback with Diane would be useful, but it will likely be quite
difficult. Her feelings get hurt easily and she has a hard time accepting constructive criticism.
She is a little insecure and tends to seek only positive reinforcement and recognition. In the
past, when you told her about things she could have done better, she was emotional,
defensive, and quick to blame other people. In one such instance, after the closeout of a
previous project, you told Diane that her team had found it extremely difficult to coordinate

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with her during a critical period because she was working from home. Diane burst into tears,
saying that it was only three days and that even though her baby was very sick, she had still
worked almost 15 hours each of those days. She lashed out against her team, angrily accusing
them of being insensitive and rude. Unfortunately, she had failed to mention her family
emergency to her team; they had no idea why she was working from home or was slow to
respond to emails and phone calls.

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In another instance, when you told Diane that some of her colleagues felt she was not a team
player, she got very upset. It took some time to calm her down enough so you could explain
the incident which led to this perception: she had offered to assist a new employee who was
struggling to meet his deadline, but then abruptly left the office, forcing other senior
colleagues to stay and help him. Diane angrily insisted that she had asked her colleagues to
step in upon realizing that she had a deadline of her own to meet. Even so, it is unacceptable

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to offer to help a junior staff member and then back out suddenly without a better explanation.

Based on her performance on X-Caliber, you think Diane is not yet ready for promotion. If
she is to have any chance of convincing you she’s manager material, she needs to persuade
you that she can accept and incorporate suggestions on professional growth. If she can
demonstrate that she understands what she needs to do and show improvement within the next
six months, you would promote her 3-6 months after that. It won’t be easy—she would have
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to meet some very clear developmental milestones within a short period—but you truly
believe she can do it.

You also need to be explicit with Diane that if she continues to fall short of expectations, you
will not be able to recommend her for promotion at all. You are worried about how she might
react to this warning and hope she won’t have another emotional outburst, get defensive, or go
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on forever with some lengthy justification as to why it’s not her fault. Really, she should be
grateful for your honest feedback and all your efforts to help her improve. You wish people
wouldn’t take feedback so personally and could just see it as a valuable opportunity for
learning.

Also on your mind is your staffing plan for three new projects you have coming up, including
a prestigious project for a European energy sector client. It is critical to your own professional
advancement that you ensure a huge success on this one and you cannot risk having an
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unreliable leadership team. You are thinking of staffing Diane on one of the other two lower
priority projects instead. Continuing to place someone who is underperforming in such visible
leadership roles sends the wrong message to the rest of your team. Further, this might be the
safest way to allow her to work on applying the feedback you gave. On the other hand, a final
‘trial by fire’ may be the most effective way to determine whether to continue investing in her.

You also want to know if Diane has been exploring opportunities with other companies. You
heard from secondary sources that she was talking with one of Experia’s competitors. At first,
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you were furious. After all you have invested in her, how could she be so disloyal? Why
would she seek other opportunities? Is this why her performance has dropped? But then you
considered that it might just be a hallway rumour. You would like to figure out the truth.

Your ideal outcome for this meeting would be that it ends quickly so you can get back to the
close-out activities for X-Caliber and that Diane leaves feeling genuinely motivated to exceed
expectations on her next project assignment. You wonder whether she really wants

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constructive feedback or simply reassurance of her value and ego-stroking. It is inconsiderate
of her to push for a meeting right now, when she knows you are super busy with close-out.
You hope she will come ready to listen and learn, rather than resorting to tears and excuses.

Prepare for the meeting.

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