Do you, like me, have a love/hate relationship to feedback?

I try to be open to feedback, but it’s an uphill battle. I’m a fairly defensive person. Whether that’s due to upbringing or nature, I’ve long since given up trying to find out why. I’ve just learned to manage it (sort of). Probably my big breakthrough moment came about 7 years ago, when I was working with the Portland Police Bureau on re-designing their Crisis Intervention Training (now part of their Behavioral Health Unit). I was part of the initial team running the pilot. After each day, the facilitators would stand in front of the room, and have participants critique each section. It had to be rigorous, because this was the last stop before going live with it. That was what I call now a “no-frills” approach to giving feedback. We needed them to be ruthless and honest, and they were.

It was tough, but it taught me a few things about getting, asking for and making use of feedback.  Recently, I asked you, readers of this blog, for feedback on the blog, as I’m going to be making some changes over the next few months. Reading through your responses (which I’ll share soon), was enlightening, and gave me more thoughts on the feedback process.

Here are some thoughts on giving, getting, and above all, making use of feedback:

  1. Remember the goal. Feedback can be tough, and it’s helpful to remember why you want it. What’s the big goal? Who are you serving? With the police, I found it helpful to remember the urgency behind the process, people’s lives at stake, the human suffering that was the point of the program. I put myself in the shoes of those directly affected, and thought, if it’s not easy for them, why should the feedback process be easy for me? Remember who the ultimate benefactor of the feedback process will be. If there’s a lot at stake, then the feedback process should match that.
  2.  If you don’t know what you’re asking, you won’t know what you’re getting. It’s like a science experiment. If you aren’t sure what’s in the test tube, nor what you drop into it, you have no idea what that bubbling green stuff means. Back to feedback: if you are not specific about you ask, and why you want to know, the answers won’t add anything to your knowledge. In fact, you will interpret the answers according to what you already think. For instance, asking whether a particular training segment was helpful or not, “yes” or “no” won’t give you anything to work with. You have to include “why or why not,” or “what was missing?”  in order to make that information useful for yourself.  In general, I like to steer away from evaluative questions unless they’re accompanied by “why.” Though “why” is frowned upon for various reasons, I like asking “why”? I want to know what people are looking for, what they’re needing, and what specifically works and what doesn’t.
  3.  Feedback should start with the feedback design itself: we need to ask about everything we do, not just about the things we think are important. In other words, there is a lot to what we provide. There is the specific service or product we provide but there is also the way we interact with people. How easy is it for people to access my service? To interact with me? We often emphasize the quality of our core service in our feedback process, but that may not be the biggest takeaway for others. For instance, I may be good at what I do, but I’m difficult to work with: unreliable, slow to respond, hard to understand, etc. Or, I may be great at presenting or facilitating, but afterwards, people are left with questions, or don’t know how to apply what I’ve taught. Feedback should cover all aspects of what we do, not just the things we deem important.
  4.  Those who bother to give feedback have strong feelings. Pro and contra, for and against. Generally speaking, those who bother to take the time have something to say. So, that has to be taken with a grain of salt. And sometimes those who weren’t impressed don’t bother to give feedback so you get a skewed sample. There’s really not much to do to correct for this, except to get more input on a regular basis. Rather than a “feedback process” or feedback form at the end of something, an ongoing process of giving and getting feedback, of checking on how things are going, and making adjustments could make the whole process less clunky and less one-sided.

Those are some thoughts. And I’m aware that there are a lot of arguments that feedback doesn’t matter. It’s skewed, imperfect, and biased. It nourishes short term assessments; it’s subjective; it doesn’t take into account individual differences, tasks, and styles. It fosters rivalry, and basically, it fails the test of construct validity: it doesn’t do what it sets out to do. And there’s the argument that if we’re really self-aware, we should already know the feedback.

The fact is, knowing our strengths and weaknesses doesn’t mean we know our impact on others. Those are two very different things. As I wrote earlier, I know I am defensive. But do I know what that does to those who work with me? Do I know the extra work that causes? Do I know how much time, uncertainty, or stress that causes? Do I know what they don’t tell me, because they don’t want to run into my defensive response?

And the argument that we should be self-aware only speaks to feedback about our skills or style; it doesn’t speak to the problem of goals. Without feedback, we never know if we actually accomplished what we set out to do. Did we meet our goals or not? Did you get what you needed? Did I do what I said I would? Does my walk match my talk?

In short, for me, the most interesting part of feedback is not whether what I do was useful or whether people liked it, but finding out what people came away with. Whenever I ask that, I always hear something  I didn’t expect. Try it. You’ll be surprised.