Two common misconceptions about feedback

After high school I studied Social Work for somewhat over a year and in that period I heard the word “feedback” more often than you can imagine. In fact, we had a whole class dedicated to giving eachother advice on how to improve ourselves (calling that ‘feedback’) and acting on it. Now myself, I was a strong-willed (read: stubborn) girl and I distinctly remember how during one of the first sessions I asked our professor:

“But what if I don’t agree with the feedback? Why do I *have* to act on it?”

I never got a satisfying answer, but soon enough I realized it was the only way to pass that class. And so I did, tweaking my personality week after week, until I became somewhat more friendly, a lot less me, and still nowhere near perfect. As I kept practicing this way of dealing with feedback over the years, feedback started feeling like one of those three-headed dragons: you chop one head off, and three new ones instantly emerge in its place.

What is feedback, really?

It took me years of self-annihilation before I finally understood what bothered me about the ‘Social Work’ approach to feedback. The problem is that our common use of the word, though infinitely handy for teachers and employers who try to shape us in a certain way, implies certain norms about the way we should handle feedback. Simply googling the word “feedback” returns the following definition from Miriam-Webster as result #2:

“Helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, etc.”

Sounds like our usual understanding of feedback, doesn’t it? The implications are bigger than might seem at first glance. First of all, the information or criticism is about improving, so it’s advice. Second, it’s supposed to be helpful, which implies we would be crazy not to listen to it.

But is that what feedback is really about…? Let’s check out the definition from the #1 Google result, Wikipedia:

“Feedback occurs when outputs of a system are routed back as inputs as part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop.”

… which sounds a lot more mechanical, but is in essence exactly what feedback is. Feedback is a stream of information you get in return for your actions. Information that informs you: “action in certain situation has particular consequences”. No more, no less.

Two common misconceptions about feedback

Wikipedia’s definition is very useful in helping us understand the nature of feedback. It’s also a great way to bring to light two assumptions about feedback that are so deeply rooted in our system, we hardly ever stop to think about them:

  1. Feedback is something people actively and consciously give you, such as telling you how a certain action affects them. Wrong. Okay, not wrong technically, but certainly incomplete. Just because it’s not verbal, it doesn’t mean it’s not feedback. And I’m not just talking body language, which is definitely feedback as well. But there is more to it: the way people behave is feedback too. For example, if you notice someone is avoiding you, this is also very much feedback. It’s just feedback without words, which means it’s often harder to interpret. Interestingly, feedback is not even necessarily about people. For example, you leave your books outside while it’s raining. You return to find the rain soaked the books. That’s also feedback. After all, it’s a stream of information following your actions.
  2. Feedback is about telling you how to improve yourself. Nope. Feedback is NOT normative. It is not about ethics or doing the right thing. Or adjusting yourself to meet others’ needs or wishes. It’s about knowing that a certain action has certain effects. No more, no less. It’s up to you whether you want to do something with the information and I’d say that depends a lot on what you want to achieve.
    I recall a conversation I had with a guy from work a couple of years back… We were on the same team and while he was very detail-oriented and technical, I mostly enjoyed working with people and aspired becoming a project manager. He showed me an article about introverts and we started talking about the differences, and then at some point he said that I should really engage with introverts on our team more actively, because not all of them would do it themselves. At the time, this idea frustrated me. I told him they were just as responsible for interaction as I was and that my being an extravert is not an excuse for them. That made sense to me (it still does :)). But then my colleague, B., said something I hadn’t expected. He said: “It’s not about who’s responsible. You need to understand that when you’re a project manager they won’t always actively engage with you themselves. This will be your problem, since you’ll be the manager, and so it will be up to you to find a way to deal with that.”
    So he wasn’t telling me what to do: I was free to do whatever I wanted. But he was giving me very valuable information about my interaction with the world. He was giving me feedback.

Feedback allows us to expand our mental models.

Of course, this is exactly why feedback is so very valuable. It allows us to make our mental models more accurate, teaching us more of how the world around us responds to our actions. We learn that some of our actions are greatly appreciated, while other actually alienate people. And some might actually achieve the exact opposite result of what we’re striving for. Yet all the time we have the choise to act on this knowledge, or just let it be. That’s the beauty of it: feedback, even though often phrased that way, is not advice. You don’t have to do adjust your actions accordingly. You can decide for youself and let it help you become the person you want to become and reach the things you want to reach.

Feedback helps us refine our mental models

Bewaren

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