The sad truth about feedback

Feedback is an interesting phenomenon. We’re used to giving and seeking feedback on products and services that we purchase especially those purchased on-line and yet we’re not so keen on seeking or giving personal feedback. This is especially curious given that feedback is deemed essential for anyone looking to achieve success whether in their career or their personal life. Success gurus such as Stephen Covey liken feedback to your car’s Sat Nav. When you go off course it tells you and recommends a route to get you back on track. It also gives you options allowing you to avoid roadblocks and to get you to your destination faster.

A Globoforce Survey conducted in 2011 revealed that 1 in 4 people dread their performance review (the most usual platform for receiving and giving formal feed- back in the work environment) and 55% said that the feedback they received was unfair or inaccurate. 

Even in business, whilst we recognise that we need to review how things are performing against what was expected so that we can remain competitive, the fact that business failure rate, according to the Office for National Statistics (UK) is 57% within the first five years suggests that businesses are perhaps not seeking relevant feedback to enable them to adapt and ensure their survival.


Our fear of feedback

Research conducted by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor suggests that 43% of entrepreneurs in the UK, as opposed 30% of entrepreneurs in the US (where feedback is purportedly more welcome), identified fear of being perceived a failure or anything less than perfect is as a major hurdle for them. Psychology Today adds that for some this fear is so pronounced that they will do what they can to avoid being judged and this includes avoiding feedback. To put it simply a good number of people would prefer to bury their head in the sand rather than seek feedback that will provide them with solutions. 

It might be useful at this point to get a definition of the term feedback so that we can unpick what makes it so scary. According to the Oxford Dictionary, feedback is “information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task or their behaviour which is used as a basis for improvement.” 

Seth Godin in one of his recent Blog’s suggests that lack of subjectivity might be the issue. He notes that whilst we are often able to spot things that are wrong or could be improved when we are ‘dispassionate observers’, we find it harder to view our own work as objectively and tend to skew the truth.

Those who achieve real success though actively seek feedback, recognising that it is ‘the one thing’ that can help us to continually improve.  Jack Canfield, author of ‘The Success Principles’ and multi-millionaire has a mantra that he shares with his students which is ‘ask, ask ask’. We all have blind spots in our own performance and behaviours and unless we are open to removing the blinkers, we will carry on blindly and limit our opportunities to improve. 

Carol S Dweck, in her brilliant book, ‘Mindset’ suggests that those who achieve success are those with a growth mindset as these are people who believe that we are not born with set skills and traits but rather these can be learned and developed over our lifetime. Given this line of thinking, those with a growth mindset will be focussed on the ‘basis for improvement’ element of the dictionary definition whilst those with a fixed mindset will be focussed on the ‘reactions to a product or performance’ and therefore see feedback as a mechanism to highlight their flaws (which they believe they cannot improve). Rather scarily Dweck’s research suggests that around 40 % of the population identify with a fixed mindset with a further 20% identifying that they have fixed mindset moments – depending on the situation.


The problem with feedback 

In their book ‘Thanks for the Feedback’ Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen suggest that part of the problem stems from a disconnect between the expectations of givers and receivers of feedback. Their research has shown that givers are more likely to provide feedback based on specific outcomes that they have experienced or observed, whilst receivers tend to assess performance based on their intentions and often the two don’t meet. 

In addition to the above disconnect, Stone and Heen found that problems occur where the receiver doesn’t recognise the truth of the giver. This could be because the giver isn’t able to provide examples that clarify their experience or perhaps because there is a disconnect in understanding that we all experience situations differently – dependent on our own paradigm. 

Credibility of the person giving the feedback is also a factor that affects our willingness to accept feedback. If the person is not seen to have sufficient knowledge of the person, situation or subject then their contribution is unlikely to be valued. 

Internal triggers also play a role in how we respond to feedback. Where we already subconsciously feel vulnerable the act of having flaws pointed out will hit a raw nerve. 

If we take fear and lack of subjectivity completely out of the equation though, we could consider another possibility to explain why we avoid or reject feedback. I know a number of people who have risen to the top in their career, and who are seen as experts in their craft, but their ability to positively take on board feedback about their performance or impact on others regularly falls on deaf or incredulous ears. 

Why? Because when we assume we have mastered our craft, those without clear goals (some 87% according to Harvard Business School) and who feel they have ‘done their time;’ often make the assumption that as they sit at the top of their field they are good at what they do and don’t need to reflect. further. 

However, if Daniel Priestley in his book Key Person of Influence is to be believed when he says that ‘Your best thinking five years ago is your baggage today’. then I would venture to suggest that there is no point in anyone’s career where feedback isn’t absolutely essential.


How to constructively give and receive feedback 

Feedback doesn’t have to be a chance encounter though and successful people plan for both giving and receiving feedback as they recognise that unless they know what they are doing wrong, they can’t correct it. And, as we know – if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always got. 

So, what does this mean in practice? 

  1. They are clear and concise about their intentions when asking for feedback. For example, they will clarify whether they are seeking to learn about their performance; or whether they have succeeded against certain measures. They may be looking to learn how to do something new or simply to check in and see whether their efforts are appreciated? And, they take nothing to chance. When feedback is given, they qualify what they have heard, receiving specific examples to provide them with real learning opportunities. 
  1. Equally they will check specifically what the recipient is looking to learn before they give any feedback, ensuring that they have examples to justify their comments and planning the language of their feedback so that it is provided as subjectively as possible. 
  1. They recognise that feedback doesn’t have to be complicated or strained. I know of firms that pay a fortune for other organisations to create complex staff and customer surveys that they then pay an equal fortune to get analysed. What they don’t realise is that most people are turned off by long winded questionnaires and survey fatigue can and often does impact on the quality of the feedback people give. 

A very simple but effective method I learned from my Success Principle training is to ask – how would you rate x on a scale of 1-10 (this could be your service; your work performance; your personal relationship). This will give you an indication of where you sit and then ask the direct question. What can I do to make it a 10? Bang! You don’t need to analyse anything. You’ll be given the answer on a plate. Of course it’s your choice whether to take it on board – but at least you will know how the other party feels and if you lose a customer, the promotion, your partner you will only have yourself to blame. 

And this is why feedback is like oxygen to successful people. They recognise that with feedback they are in control of their destiny. It allows them to be accountable for their actions. It means that they know failure is never permanent because they can continue to adjust and adapt their path until they achieve their goals.

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