Feedback? you're soaking in it...


We are soaking in an ocean of feedback.

Each year in the United States, every school child will be handed back as many as 300 assignments, papers, and tests. Millions of kids will be assessed as they try out for a team or audition to be cast in a school play. Almost 2 million teenagers will receive SAT scores and face college verdicts. At least 40 million people will be pursuing love online, where 71 percent of them believe they can judge love at first sight. And after we meet one another … 250,000 weddings will be called off, and 877,000 spouses will file for divorce

Despite this barrage of feedback, we hope and believe all of this is good for us and that we develop. Many people hate it anyway. We avoid giving it and receiving it.

I have to admit that I have a long and frustrating history with feedback. Most feedback I view as negative even if it is aimed at something positive.

This shouldn't surprise me too much since we are hardwired to resist negative feedback. Research show how our brains hold onto negative memories longer than positive ones - so the negative stuff always hurts more. When we hear something negative, it sticks with us more than when someone tells us something positive about ourselves. We also tend to dwell on the one piece of negative feedback way more than on the positive feedback

In my role as a manager when I give feedback, I notice that the recipient doesn’t always like it very much (despite my best intentions). When I receive feedback, I often feel that the giver is terrible at giving it. Add to this the fact that I often interpret it as unfair and many times just plain wrong.

What makes this more frustrating is the realisation:

I know that the only way to master something is to get and learn from feedback

So we need to get feedback to improve. We fool ourselves into avoiding the immediate sting of feedback and ignore the long term benefits by telling ourselves that we know enough and the status quo is OK. The thing is, maintaining the status quo is not OK.

We know that a large part of individual human motivation is from learning and developing. So Happy = learning.

The authors from Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well  sum it up very nicely:

The key variable in your growth is not your teacher or your supervisor. It’s you.

So here are some of the major areas that often hold me back from getting the most from my feedback and what I am trying to do about it.

I am a perfectionist

I aim to be good at most things I focus on. So when I hear negative feedback about myself, it conflicts with what I think is true… and it makes me push the feedback away. Perfectionist often view things in a ‘all or nothing’, ‘Success’ or ‘Failure’ “Complete everything” or ‘Don’t do it at all’ type of dichotomy.

In the real world, no one achieves success smoothly without failure. And no one produces great work without first struggling with their tools and producing some kind of lousy work. In reality, everything happens in progression, not in an all-or-nothing manner.

To manage this I usually try to put the feedback in the context the progression of learning and to focus on my accomplishments not others. Social media is both an inspiration and a curse in this area.  It can give us access to many others to learn from but at the same time we only see their ‘best’ and most accomplished self which can sometime distort the challenges of their journey.

Allow yourself to do things incompletely, imperfectly, and imprecisely. Things are not going to be perfect the first time. - dont expect that. That’s how you can then progress to the state of completion and precision. Focus on maximizing progress every step of the way, including experimentation and failure, as that is the surest way to guarantee your fastest success.

Evaluation or coaching?

Very often I take most feedback as a form of evaluation. This is not uncommon and some psychologists suggest that we associate negative feedback with criticism received in school or from our parents growing up, and that’s what prevents us from hearing negative feedback. Very often we misinterpret when people are constructively trying to coach us through a problem and view it as judgement.

I usually really try to divide most things I hear into one of two groups - coaching or evaluation. To evaluate each group I ‘try on’ each group in my head. I assume for a minute it was intended as evaluation.

If you run through this sorting exercise a few times you’ll notice a couple of things.

You’ll realise that you can hear most feedback either way. If you hear feedback as coaching, you’ll notice that your identity reaction from evaluation is much less or gone. A much better feeling.

You’ll start to notice patterns how you react. For me, I quickly came to the insight: Wow, I tend to see most feedback as evaluation. This has often led to overcritizing myself when I really didn't need to. Although this has been challenging I realise that there are enough real challenges in life. You don’t need to create imaginary ones.

You are not your feedback.

Bad things trump good things for most people . When we receive negative feedback our impulse systems go into red alert. How we recover from this system determines how long we reflect over the negative feedback. The longer it takes the more this information can snowball and we start to draw biased conclusions. One piece of negative feedback can begin to spread to other areas of our life and suddenly everything we do is bad. We start to assume that this negative feedback is a fixed reflection of our future.

We go from doing a poor presentation at work to dying alone in a one room apartment.

I often find it is helpful to categorise feedback into ‘what the feedback means’ and ‘what the feedback does not mean’

As you rope off the things it’s not about, it’s easier to see and learn from what it is about.

For example: You apply to give a talk at a conference you are super interesting in and you aren't accepted. Your first thought is: I’ll never get to communicate my ideas for my peers in a large scale. Now, break it down into the two columns in the chart. What is this not about? It doesn’t predict your future. It doesn’t tell you will never get another talk accepted at a future conference. It doesn’t say that you will less qualified or that you are less accomplished as those accepted.

What feedback means...

What feedback does not mean...

That my proposal wasn't as strong as it could have been. for the themes of the conference. Whether I am competent in my field, smart and a valuable team member.

Feedback is hard. We are all both givers and receivers of feedback and need to master both roles. To learn and grow as individuals we need to actively seek out feedback despite the discomfort we experience. We need to take control of the feedback we get, explain context and say we are looking for ways of reaching the our intended goals. The bottom line is feedback is a skill. You need to practice giving and receiving. Good luck.