If your boss puts an hour in your calendar titled “Feedback”, you might well not be able to focus on anything until you hear the news.
Many of us have an inbuilt fear of being given feedback. It feels big, formal, serious, scary - and like it’s usually bad. It’s a dark and unpleasant surprise to be dreaded.
But feedback is necessary, useful, and we should see it as a valuable force for our own personal success. If we want to be successful, better at doing what we do, respected and valued by the people around us, then we need to care about the feedback we get.
We need to reset on what feedback actually is, to unwind its negative connotations, and we need to adopt a better internal model of how to classify the feedback we get. Then we can lean into feedback, seek it out, and make use of it - rather than shying away from the things that could help us most.
Let’s take a step back and shrug off the instinctive dread response we have when someone tells us they’re going to give us Feedback. What even is feedback?
At its core, it’s someone else’s reaction to an action we’ve taken. It’s an insight into how someone else feels about something we’ve done.
I only have direct access to my own inner world: my intentions, my perceptions, and the impact things have on me. Other people have their own perceptions, intentions, and feelings about the impact things have on them. And when someone explicitly gives me feedback, they’re granting me access to a part of their own inner world, to a fact that is otherwise inaccessible to me.
When we consider feedback in this way, it becomes clear that actually we get feedback all the time. In pretty much every interaction with have with other people, they give us some insight into their own inner world.
Not only this, but their inner world is no more objectively accurate than our own: they’re equivalent to one another, they’re both just a perspective, neither of them fully and accurately represents some objective reality.
If we mentally label instances where we get feedback, and remind ourselves that feedback is how someone else feels about something we’ve done, we can start to understand why it’s completely irrational to respond with dread when someone offers us feedback.
For example: I really enjoy cooking. Whenever I prepare a meal for a group, I get a lot of feedback from every single person who partakes. When someone adds extra salt, this is feedback that the meal is not salted to their preference. When someone takes an extra helping, this is feedback that they are enjoying the meal and that the originally served portion was insufficient for their appetite. When someone compliments the meal, this is feedback that they particularly enjoyed whatever it was they singled out for compliment (whether that’s the combination of textures or flavours or how effectively I accommodated everyone’s dietary requirements).
And this is valuable: I don’t have direct access to other people’s appetite or palate or preferences, but through the feedback they provide - even though it is not explicitly labelled as Feedback - I learn to be a better host, and better at cooking meals that my friends enjoy.
It serves us well to remember that every insight we get into someone else’s perceptions, intentions and responses gives us feedback, and to mentally label it as such. There are two reason this helps: firstly, it helps us identify more feedback for ourselves than other people will ever label for us; and secondly, it helps us to train ourselves to seek out feedback instead of avoiding it.
Feedback is just information
Feedback is neutral information: it is insight into someone else’s inner world, rather than some objectively true reality. We can do as we please with it.
The cooking example lends itself to a model of thinking about feedback as neutral information, because what we like to eat is a really clear example of neutral personal preference. There’s no exact and objectively correct amount of spiciness or crunch to add to a meal - it’s contextual and personal.
I’d argue that all feedback is, at its heart, an expression of personal preference or expectation.
This neutral view gets complicated when we take it into a work environment, because status comes into play. When you’re getting feedback about the personal preferences and expectations of someone who has the power to materially affect your earnings and status, this naturally takes more weight than feedback from other people, like your friend’s new partner who came over to dinner at your house, or a toddler having a picky eater phase.
However your boss’s feedback itself is still neutral information, because it’s still fundamentally just their personal preference or expectation. We can believe that it’s neutral and still give additional weight to their perspective. This is partly due to the power dynamics, and partly (rationally) because our goals should be aligned with theirs, and because the set of expectations that their feedback comes from are known to us.
Ditching “positive” vs “constructive”
In work environments, the explicit, externally-labelled feedback that we’re given is often framed as being either positive or constructive. This is a false binary, with a million exceptions, and is a counterproductive mindset.
“Positive” feedback is characterised as praise. “Constructive” feedback is characterised as a request that you improve on something. And yet there’s a ton of other explicit feedback that doesn’t fit into these two buckets: “be more leaderly”, “you’re not technical enough”, “I don’t understand what this means”, and I’m sure you have your own examples.
Trying to categorise feedback you receive into these two buckets is harmful, because the categorisation serves no purpose. As humans our brains are hardwired to categorise, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective and is often really helpful. Categorising things helps us understand what to do with them, how to respond to them, how to feel about them. But there’s no fundamental difference in how we ought to respond to “positive” or “constructive” feedback, nor is there is a difference in the shape of the information.
As a person trying to improve myself and to be generally useful, all feedback that I consider valid and aligned with my interests is useful to me, and I’m taking note. It’s helpful for me to know what I’m good at, where I’m being helpful, where I’m adding value or making people happy; it’s also helpful for me to know where I could be better at meeting others’ expectations or preferences.
Consider again my cooking example earlier: if one of my guests asks for extra salt, I have received feedback on the salt level, and will keep this in mind for next time I cook. This we’d categorise as “constructive” feedback. If one of my guests thinks the meal is perfectly seasoned, I have received feedback on the salt level, and will keep this in mind for next time I cook - and yet this we’d categorise as “positive” feedback. Both are equally useful, both are about the same thing, and both provide an information point to keep in mind for future.
Categorising feedback into “constructive” and “positive” doesn’t simplify how I should think about the new information. It’s a demarcation that serves no purpose.
Adopting “usable” vs “vague”
Categorising things should help us understand how to manage information. The first step is mentally labelling interactions or observations as feedback; and there are two helpful subcategories that we can apply to help us make better use of this feedback.
Some feedback is usable. That means it’s clear what we would do if we wished to take this feedback on board and change to better accommodate it. It’s helpful for me to know what I’m good at so I can do more of it, and what I’m bad at so I can improve or avoid it. I’ve written about how to work with usable feedback here, focussed specifically on the redirecting, corrective, critical type of feedback.
Some feedback is vague. That means there’s not enough information to know how to respond or what to do with it.
Usable feedback includes “can I have more salt?”, “I loved the slides in your presentation”, “thanks, I appreciate that you shared this with me”, “I don’t understand what this means”. We add more salt; we continue to spend time on clear or fun presentation slides; we continue to share apposite information with the person; we try rearticulating our message. It provides a direct steer (whether you want to adopt it or not!).
Usable feedback can be appreciative or reinforcing, like the ‘do more’ or ‘keep doing’ part of retros. If you tell me I’m a great listener, I’ll continue putting the effort in to listen deliberately and actively, because I know it’s valuable to other people, and I’ll consider deploying my listening skills more often. If you tell me I showed great leadership in a difficult situation, I’ll feel encouraged to step up and address difficult situations in a similar way in future.
Usable feedback can be redirecting or corrective (“constructive”), like the ‘start doing’ or ‘stop doing’ part of retros. If you tell me my writing is hard to follow, I’ll put effort into structuring my narrative or my sentences so that they are clearer. If you tell me I just interrupted you, I’ll apologise and be more mindful to give you space to finish your thoughts.
Vague feedback includes “be more leaderly”, “you’re not technical enough”, “I don’t like this part”. This needs a different treatment - the only useful response is to ask questions, like “what does ‘leaderly’ mean”, “technical enough for what”, and “why?.
Our goal, as recipients or observers of feedback, is to shift all feedback into something usable. These two categories, then, help us know how to respond: if it’s usable, we can do one thing with it; if it’s vague, a different approach is required.
Hunting for treasure
Feedback is something we should value and appreciate: the more inner worlds we can access, the bigger a picture we can build up of how our actions and behaviours affect other people. This is particularly important when we consider that a lot of what we do is for other people. We have stakeholders, customers, people we want to make happy or have some other positive effect on.
It’s often said that feedback is a gift, but I don’t think the analogy holds up. Gifts are given to you, often unprompted, by other people. It’s considered rude to ignore or reject a gift even if you don’t like it; it’s also pretty rude to go around asking people for gifts.
We’re better off thinking of feedback as treasure. Sometimes it’s unexpected; sometimes we have to seek it out.
The treasure mindset is how we can turn vague feedback into something usable. We need to dig in to the vague feedback to find the gem of something usable in there. And once we’ve found something usable, we can acknowledge, understand, and assess the feedback in order to determine what we want to do with it.
We’ve pretty much all been trained or told, at some point in our lives, that when you give feedback it should be non-judgemental, focussed on actions or behaviours, specific, and include examples. However, we know by now that that’s not even how all feedback is delivered - not even everything that’s externally labelled as feedback takes that shape, let alone the breadcrumbs or statements or actions that we’ve considered in this post as examples.
Our task, as recipients of vague feedback, is to dig for the treasure within the vague statement or reaction, until we reach something that’s specific about the actions or behaviours; something that tells us what impact these had on the person; and something that gives us enough information that we can work out what a desirable future course of action would be, in the eyes of the feedback-giver.
We do this through asking questions and making space.
First, it’s important to make it clear that we’re engaging positively with the person: we acknowledge what they’ve shared, thank them, and let them know we’d like to understand their perspective better.
Second, we need to ask open-ended questions, and keep that openness: it’s crucial that they don’t feel like they need to defend themselves, else we’re setting up obstacles against them giving us feedback in future. It’s helpful to ask open questions to get as much information as you can:
- can you talk me through what prompted that?
- how did you feel about that?
- is there anything else I should know?
- tell me more about that.
- could you tell me about how you would have approached that?
- who does this really well?
- do you have any advice for me in future situations?
Thirdly, we should thank them again for their time, and recap what we’ve learnt! This will help to sow the seeds of a positive feedback relationship, because they’ve now seen that you care about their opinion and you’re open to learning about their perspectives and observations.
If we want to get more feedback, we can literally just ask for it.
I’ve noticed that “do you have any feedback for me” usually gets an awkward silence, so I prefer to dig for feedback. Once I’ve found an opening topic, the technique we use with vague feedback works really well.
My usual openers take the form of:
- how could X project have gone better?
- why do you think Y happened?
- what could I have done differently when Z cropped up?
- which particular strengths of mine do you lean on the most?
- which of my skills do you think the business could use more effectively?
- which of my weaknesses should I most try to develop?
- who do you think is particularly good at [weakness of mine or thing I’m interested in developing]? could you expand on that?
Fundamentally, if we believe feedback is important and valuable, it serves us well to get as much as possible.
As with most things in life, we’re more likely to get it if we’re looking for it and putting in the thought and effort to make it as easy as possible for other people to help us.
Building a virtuous circle of learning by appreciating the criticism we get.
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