Is now a good time for some feedback?

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As passive aggressive conversation openers go, that’s right up there, to which the only sane answer is: “hell no”. My wife has a slightly friendlier version: “the only thing I would say here is … “. In reply I’ve got fond of saying “Thanks for the feedback” , with just a hint of passive-aggression, which does go to show what a minefield this whole thing is. Anyway I digress. Feedback.

Over the last 5+ years I’ve gone from thinking that feedback is the world’s biggest untapped resource to thinking it’s a total waste of time and pretty much everywhere in between. Here I‘ll lay out why that is and finish with three clear actionable positive lessons that I have learnt for how to do it, if not perfectly, then just a little better.

Feedback as the world’s most untapped resource.

Your perspective is incredibly narrow and limited, and your experience usually a tiny fraction of the accumulated experience of those around us. Yet for each of us our perspective is all there is and our psychology actively tries to hide from us the limitations this brings.

Being let in on the secret of how other people view and perceive our efforts is like having access to a secret code. After all , excellence in things like tennis, chess, dance, acting can’t be achieved without a lot of coaching and feedback – couldn’t we all benefit from this in our own lives.

We all have blind spots, big ones, and having them filled is like a superpower – like having huge holes in our vision plugged, big gaps in our understanding of the world filled in, which could help us avoid those costly mistakes we keep making.

As Mark Twain said – “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”. Feedback can help us get on top of the things we know for sure that just ain’t so.

This paradigm of feedback was popularised around 5 years ago by Kim Scott’s Radical Candour and Ray Dalio’s Radical Transparency at Bridgewater Associates. But has this idea peaked? I think it may have.

Feedback as a waste of time

The first issue I’ve found with feedback is purely practical. No-one really wants to give it and no-one really wants to receive it, at least not in helpful ways. We’re social animals, primed for conformity and promoting good harmonious relations with each other while steadily climbing the social pecking order. Real honest feedback risks flying in the face of all that. This makes it hard, hard psychological work, so it doesn’t get done, and is often poorly rewarded – or penalised -even when it is.

So trying to create a market in something for which there are no buyers and sellers is going to be a fool’s errand, but my issue with feedback goes much deeper than that.

Much feedback falls into one of three traps:

  1. The personality critique:

The real problem is that most feedback unknowingly amounts to a re-statement of the dark sides of an individual’s personality type. We all have dark sides associated with our personality: Charismatic becomes manipulative, confident becomes arrogant, shrewd becomes distrustful, independent becomes detached, and so on. Now for sure it’s helpful to know about your darksides – if you’re unaware of them then it’s probably the most powerful piece of feedback you need. And it’s helpful to be reminded of them from time to time, but because this is effectively just a statement of who we are, it’s a fine line between this not really being actionable in any meaningful sense.

Roughly translated, much feedback amounts to: “be less like your authentic self”.

Now, I do believe in a growth mindset, that people can and do expand their skills and capabilities. But commentary on the negative traits that accompany any given personality type is just often not that helpful and could even be counterproductive. It’s like coaching Ronaldo or Messi relentlessly to focus on their defence. It might work, but misses the point and could have some bad negative consequences.

2. It’s not you, it’s me

It’s worth remembering how much of our psychology is built up around the need to be part of a group (it literally meant life or death to our ancestors, so it’s no surprise we’re wired for it). An important consequence of this is a natural unconscious urge to push for group conformity and homogeneity, which pushes back against anyone who stands out too much and applies our own perceptions of what the norms and correct practices ought to be.

This excellent piece in Harvard business reivew cites research that over half of our rating of others’ reflects our characteristics, not theirs. The feedback is distorted.

Again, feedback here looks like “be less like your authentic self”.

3. The Hero Trap

Thirdly, much feedback often amounts to “you’re a hero”, which is culturally damaging over the longer term for several reasons. Things like “ you really went above and beyond” to thank someone for pulling an all-nighter when the far bigger issue was that the project was badly planned, crappily managed or poorly supported by rubbish systems. Re-enforcing a culture of overwork as a reponse to other problems will never fix the root problem, and worse will actually institutionalise resistance to fixing it, as the existence of the problem makes an easy route to the “hero” feedback available. And if this is seen to be rewarded, people will keep on taking it.

Putting overwork on a pedestal as a band-aid for a poorly run firm is cultural destruction in the long term (but we’ve probably all done it, and with the best of intentions).

4. She said WHAT ??

Finally, another downside of feedback is the fact it might actually make you care too MUCH about what other people think , which can lead you forever overcompensating, one way, then the other to try and fulfill other peoples’ version of what good looks like.

The reality is we’ll usually do our best work when being natural, being our true self. Sure, correcting, modifying or adjusting our natural behaviour can often help but we can easily get unstuck down that road.

There you have a paradox though which I can’t offer a solution to – I really believe we can all grow and develop and improve, but we probably do our best work when being out authentic self and not worrying too much about what others think.

So, what’s the solution?

Having put feedback on a pedestal then torn it down, my parting piece of advice to you would be to set expectations for feedback very low and simply this: make it very very specific.

Don’t just shower praise and say what a good job they did , make it specific. First, refer to a particular task, job or report (as the recipient a good tip is to ask for feedback specific to a task, rather than in general). Then, be specific on what was good: was it the on-time delivery you most appreciated, the attention-to-detail or the high standards? Was it the way things were communicated , careful explanations that were given or the clarity of the writing. Perhaps it was the brevity, the focus on what really mattered, the thoroughness or the relentless energy to keep things going. If it can be factual even better: specific steps they should have taken, particular knowledge they need to acquire. A way of thinking about the key issue that might be valuable. You get the idea.

Secondly, keep it short. The temptation can be to keep on going and going, but this risks hiding the real feedback in a load of fluff and leaving the recipient none the wiser. Systems such as Clearreview do a good job of enabling feedback that fits the bill here.

Finally, focus on staying “your side of the net” – focusing only on the impact that the other person’s work or behaviour had on you (not your perception of why they did or didn’t do something). This short clip sums up brilliantly the key concept of “over the net”.

I think the minimum outcome of feedback giving ought to be to ensure that the receiver understands what was good and continues to do what they have done well before. Indeed the same Harvard Business Review piece I metioned earlier cites more research that we actually learn best when building on something we are already doing well.

This falls some way short of the idealised outcome of plugging blindspots and helping others avoid the same mistakes by making their view of the world a little more complete. But perfect can be the enemy of the good here. If you think about it that’s actually a pretty good outcome, and maybe even one worth aiming for.

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