Feedback is important but it's not objective.
Written by Ed Cook
For much of my corporate career, I have heard: “feedback is a gift.” I think it is a gift I’d prefer to give back. Apparently, I’m not the only one. In their new book, Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall discuss the growing distaste for feedback, at least feedback as it has been practiced for the last several decades. They point out the charged and emotional nature of feedback and how that can be detrimental to guiding improvement. I have certainly had the butterflies-in-the-gut feeling spread through me after hearing, “I have some feedback for you.” My anticipation is that the next phase will not be about how wonderful I am but rather a portrait of my shortcomings. With my emotional wall up, almost nothing of any value can penetrate. But maybe that protection is good. After all, what is feedback? It is certainly not an objective and universal view of my performance. At best, it is a perspective that provides insight for me. At worst, it is simply wrong.
There are two people involved here the feedback giver and the feedback receiver. In a slight nod to Lois Lowry’s cautionary book, The Giver, I’ll refer to these two as the Giver and the Receiver. Let’s look at feedback in a different way. First, from the Receiver. I’ve come to think of feedback as this:
A reflection of how your actions compare to my idealized self.
This has a few important points worth considering when you hear feedback. First, feedback is not objective. It is not even about how the Giver would do something. It’s how they would want to do something if they could do it at their hoped-for idealized level. This certainly does not make the feedback invalid, but it does not make it The Truth. It is simply a point of view.
Second, from the Giver. Nine Lies about Work has something useful to say. Only give directive feedback when it is about the facts or the steps in a process, like “our process is to always call the customer back within 3 hrs.” As long as that is objectively true (as in written down somewhere) that is useful feedback. If not clearly verifiable, then the Giver would do better to describe the impact it has on them, as in, “I feel like I get a better result when I call the client back in 3 hrs.” This is not directive. This is an expression of feelings. It lands softer and is easier to take on.
Feedback will continue to be an emotionally loaded topic. So perhaps we would be better off thinking of it as explicitly so. Instead of taking it on as The Truth, the Receiver can recognize that it is laden with the emotions of the Givers’ notion of an idealized self. Instead of giving it as The Truth, the Giver can recognize the power of expressing the impact the Receiver’s actions have had had on them. With these subtle changes in perspective, something more useful may transpire.