Mar 24, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest (about Feedback)

In psychology, BioFeedback was found to be meaningful in terms of improving health and personal performance. I have never tried it but I am fascinated by the concept that we are able to view our behaviors (to be more accurate our physiological responses) and to affect them (manipulate). Another example is the work of several research groups at the MIT Media Lab are developing devices that sense behavior (examples: herehere and here) and provide social and behavioral feedback to the tested individual, and there are companies that are doing incredible work on measurement of behavior in attempt to be able to affect it.

Some day we will be walking with sensors on and around us all the time, and be able to measure and improve ourselves on the fly. This day is getting closer and closer whether we want to or not... (read: Smartphones). Until then, I think that we'd better remember the importance of interpersonal feedback as a tool for improvement of ourselves and our peers.

Feedback is so important! It is a tool that enables us to change and improve our behavior, when done correctly.Why is it so hard to provide and to receive feedback?

Many people treat feedback as criticism - it shouldn't be this way! One way to do this right is to focus the feedback on specific behaviors and patterns, rather than to personality traits which are harder to change. There is a higher chance that the receiver of the feedback will be able to improve or adjust behavior, compared to changing their personality. Another challenge is timing. Feedback should be provided close to the observed behavior, similarly to any reinforcement-based learning activity. Lastly, you need to know HOW TO provide and receive feedback (practice helps!) 

Last week I facilitated a workshop that dealt with feedback. No matter how you decide to approach it, people always feel as if feedback is something that you just know (or don't know) how to do, and can’t be taught. Well, this is not true. Not everyone knows how to do it well from the get-go, and there is a lot we can do to improve. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to practice feedback in a sterile environment, since, as in any simulation, it is “not the real thing” and does not represent actual real-life challenges.

In general, feedback serves two purposes:
  1. Reinforcement of desirable behaviors
    (which as a byproduct builds self-confidence)
  2. Improvement of behaviors which are not desirable.

Would you rather be told that you are doing something wrong in your work, with all the discomfort that might involve, or would you rather wait around for a promotion that will never come? Would you rather hear from a potential employer or recommender what you are doing wrong, so that you can improve, or to get a polite and bland response that wouldn't make you feel so bad but would leave you in the same place you were beforehand?

I would rather get earnest feedback, targeted at what I can do to improve, with all the difficulty that might come with that. What would you prefer?
Seek feedback, and deliver it whenever possible!


  1. So what is a good way to practice giving feedback?

  2. I think that what makes a feedback to be a good one is the way it is presented and it should be thoroughly prepared (and not be done if you are light-headed). I think the way you put the words together is very important.
    For years I was told in my annual feedback that I am cynical. And I didn’t understand what they wanted. “This is who I am” was my obvious response. What they actually wanted me to do is not to write cynical emails that caused other people to get hurt from the way I presented things. It was hard for me to treat the feedback in a serious way as long as they were presenting it in this way. They all meant one thing but said another thing.

    My second comment is about good feedback. I think we tend to focus on bad behavior that needs to improve and underestimate the positive feedback. If we remember to give on the spot good feedback, it might be easier to receive the “bad” feedback and not consider it a criticism.

  3. Zachi, this is a great question. As in many other situations, it is better to practice in a familiar and safe setting. To be more precise, practice should be done in an environment that enables learning. Practice with someone that you feel comfortable with, it could be your spouse or a good friend someone that you can practice role playing with. Try to provide feedback and then asses how you did by receiving feedback from your role-playing partner. You will find that you get different comments from different people. Try to bring the comments you receive to your awareness and use them to improve your ability to provide and to receive feedback.