Why I'm not giving feedback any more

And I don't much care if you give me any either

For people who know me, this might seem like a bit of a U-turn. I've always been a big feedback advocate, delivering talks and workshops at work on how important it is, and different ways to get it "right". And the company I'm in preaches it too. So, when HBR published an article titled The Feedback Fallacy I pounced on it. If you haven't read it yourself, I highly recommend it.

There are three central arguments, backed up with a decent amount of evidence:

  • That other people are not a reliable source of information on your weaknesses or failings
  • Other people criticizing your weaknesses and suggesting improvements is not a successful approach to growth.
  • Excellence is idiosyncratic, unique to each of us; "constructive" feedback does not help us recognise it.

I'm not going to talk at length about the article here (go read it yourself), but it was a wake-up call for the growing dissatisfaction I've felt with the more widely preached narrative on feedback culture.

I just don't know if it's worth the effort

I could probably make a very convincing argument as to why really high-quality feedback, given from someone with positive intent and kind regard, is still right and valuable, regardless of the evidence presented by HBR. I could list the times when I was genuinely grateful and thankful for the feedback I received, and the times when others thanked me for the feedback I gave them. I could tell you about the hours that I put into writing carefully constructed and nuanced feedback that was delivered with love and caring. I could talk about how receiving feedback is as much of an art as giving it.

All those things are true. And yet, the HBR article struck a chord. Despite many positive experiences with feedback, I still feel ready to give up on it. Why?

For all the feedback I've given that's been gratefully received, there's been much that has mis-landed. There have been so many times that it's just, well, not done much. Despite huge amounts of effort, observation and examples, feedback has failed to resonate, or resonated and hit a wall of denial, or resonated and attempted to change but with no effect. It's even harder to look back on the times when, with good intentions but with shortness of time or energy that leads to carelessness, I've given poor quality feedback, the type that's actively destructive. Where, despite the very best of intentions, the feedback reduced psychological safety, undermined the relationship between myself and the receiver, or dampened growing confidence.

And while I've received feedback that I've been thankful for and learnt from, there have been so many more that have been altogether negative experiences. Every time I get a piece of feedback, it's a huge emotional investment in creating a safe bubble for myself, where I can open myself up to learning despite what wounds may be inflicted. Many times - too many times - I've scoured through the information and found nothing there of value.

After all that effort, the huge emotional load and mental load and hours of real, actual work in both giving and receiving feedback, and the at best hit-and-miss results, I have to wonder... was it worth the effort?

Is it fair to expect people to be "good" at feedback?

I've practiced feedback over and over and over again, both giving and receiving, and I put a huge amount of effort into it. I've researched it and read about it and trialled different approaches.

I've been around a bit and I've got a few battle wounds. I've found peace with who I am, on the whole, and I am privileged to walk through the world with authenticity and clarity on what's important to me. (I am so self-assured that I allow myself to be utterly lacking in confidence at times. It's a whole meta-level of confidence. Topic for another post). I'm not going to be knocked off-course by poor quality feedback. But that's a relatively recent phenomenon.

And yet, we expect everyone to be able to give and receive feedback and for that experience to be positive, enlightening, leading to growth. We preach that all feedback is valid, that you don't have to accept feedback but you do have to listen to it. This feels increasingly naive. We don't address the fact that poor quality feedback can be genuinely damaging. I almost never hear psychological safety be discussed as a prerequisite for feedback. We don't talk nearly enough about how it's possible for a "feedback culture" to be abused.

Feedback should come with a health warning.

Isn't it a bit of an over-reaction to worry about something as innocent and well-meaning as a culture where people share their feelings and observations with each other?

If you're of this opinion, you've never been involved in a discussion in a URM (under-represented or minority) group on how to deal with a problem with a colleague. "How should I deal with this problem?" someone asks; "Give feedback, but only if it's safe to do so" comes the reply. Believe me, it's not always safe to give feedback. Retaliation is, unfortunately, not uncommon and can have a big negative impact if someone is in a relative position of power.

The idea of "all feedback is valid" can lead to people, particularly those in relatively powerless positions, to have no avenue to shut off repeated criticism or even bullying from colleagues. Feedback is seen as so virtuous, that the most barbed and personal attacks can be dressed up as feedback and treated as having some validity.

Feedback is not for performance management

My biggest concern is that feedback becomes the only way for someone to raise a performance issues. There is a very real need to make a distinction between "feedback" intended for personal growth of a person who is at least nominally performing in their role, and raising a performance issue intended to deal with harm (to others/business) resulting from under-performance.

Clear performance escalation routes that are separate and distinct from feedback routes are important because:

  • We preach that feedback is best given face to face and in the moment, but this is not always suitable when dealing with a performance problem that needs more careful handling.
  • We talk about feedback being based on people's opinions and feelings, which leaves too much opportunity for performance problems to be dismissed or minimised. This is particularly relevant when someone is raising a performance issue with someone in a position of relative power.
  • In healthy organisations we talk about constructive feedback not reflecting negatively on a performance review, but if there is a performance issue, then we need to be clear that this will be be discussed at review time. To fail to do otherwise is to create an environment where people feel uncomfortable giving or receiving any feedback.
  • Having no clear problem escalation route can result in junior members of an organisation being left to deal with problematic superiors without support or even management visibility of what's going on. The emphasis becomes on them to fix it themselves, which is often inappropriate and can lead to bigger problems.
  • If there is a performance problem then there's a very high chance that people will not feel comfortable giving feedback in an open and trusting way. They need more protected, secure channels of communication. (As an aside, one of the red flags I look for in performance reviews is not negative feedback but lack of feedback, because this can indicate a much deeper performance problem, especially if feedback is missing from certain demographics or groups of people).

Once a performance issue has been identified and steps taken to mitigate or fix the immediate harm that's being done, then feedback might form part of an ongoing performance management plan to forge longer-term improvement. But feedback should not be the starting point nor the whole picture.

So, you're just going to give up?

I'm dropping out of the feedback cult. I'm done with the "feedback is a gift" attitude. And I'm done with the idea that all feedback, and therefore all opinions, are valuable as long as they're properly structured and well-intended.

I'm going to carry on telling people what I think of their work - I'd probably find it pretty hard to stop. I'm going to carry on using a lot of the good practice associated with feedback, because it's a useful toolbox of techniques to be in possession of. But as a leader - of teams, a role model to some, someone with invested authority in the company - I've become increasingly aware that it's harder for me to share an opinion or a thought. My utterances, regardless of how off-the-cuff or spontaneous, have more weight and are often taken more seriously than others'. I can try to make it clear when it's "just a thought", a take-it-or-leave-it passing idea, but here's the reality - what I say will, often, be taken as fact. That's not to say that I think that I'm right all the time, it's accepting that other people often assume that I am (regardless of what I think) and adjusting my behaviour accordingly. It means I can't just give my best-intentioned perspectives and put the onus on the receiver to respond in an appropriate way.

My focus now is on creating psychological safe environments. I have a strong suspicion that a highly safe environment will naturally result in the kind of sharing of information that all the theory about feedback tries to create thought guidelines and rules. Relationships lie at the heart of all this. And I'm going to carry on practicing and honing my coaching style, which is about questioning with curiosity and enthusiasm rather than informing people of my opinions and judgement.

In terms of receiving feedback, I'm no longer going to make or allow myself to care about feedback from people that I don't care about. I'll try to take more time and opportunity to find guidance and growth from the excellent people who I am surrounded by. Maybe it's just that I've received too much poor quality feedback recently, but this feels like an important piece of self-care that's going to lead to greater growth for me, not less.