We know from personal experience that our capacity for performance is significantly enhanced when our efforts and we ourselves are appreciated. When we believe otherwise, we become easily stressed and soon give up or stop caring. We also understand that people who go out of their way to acknowledge our effort and output, even if only with simple words of sincere thanks, go far beyond the limits of performance appraisal systems or conventional customer-client relationships: they nourish a sense of self-worth, encourage further striving and build intrinsic rewards into the work itself.
Yet it is more common for organisational processes and individual behaviours to methodically search for people doing what is wrong, than for people doing things right.
CONVENTIONAL FEEDBACK: A SANDWICH SHORT OF A NOURISHING MEAL
The people who serviced my car wrote to thank me for choosing them and to say, (you know the sort of thing), “If you are happy with our work, please tell others; if not, tell us.” So they’re constantly soliciting only negative feedback, right? Is that what really motivates any of us?
OK, I get that they intend to limit the spread of negativity about the business, although given what (real) research says about how many people are told about bad service, this is about as effective as trying to prevent the onset of winter. And I understand that they want information on which to base improvements: useful and necessary stuff to help us refine our ability to deliver what customers require. But to reinforce the human tendency to point out only or mainly what is wrong, unleavened by comment on what is also right, is rather like teaching people to play piano with only the black notes: it is not nearly the full picture, not completely honest. Nor does a steady diet of complaints nourish the spirit or encourage the heart, particularly when reported as sweeping generalities, labels and judgements, as is commonly the case.
CHECK IT OUT
How negative? How common? Test this. Write a letter, report, career resume, job application, story or poem and ask 10 people to give you some feedback on it. (You will get very little if you do not ask, even if you put your writing in the public domain.) Four at most will provide you with any positive comment. Of the four who say, “Good! Great!” or “I like it!” two will follow with “But . . . “, and a list of specific things they do not like. Remind the silent six that you really do want feedback. Five at most will actually respond, pretty much as the previous two. Three or four will provide their negative comment in the form of judgements, non-specific generalisations and labels. If you think I am inventing these figures, remember that roughly 68.32 per cent of statistics are made up on the spot. My points are these:
- Unprompted feedback that is useful, is relatively rare
- Spontaneous feedback is mostly negative.
- Where spontaneous feedback includes positive comments, it mostly reports them as unhelpful generalisations and judgements
- When asked to give feedback, most people interpret the request as an invitation to make only negative comments.
- A good deal of so-called constructive criticism or feedback is unhelpful and even damaging.
When I emailed my friend George to request feedback on something I was writing, he reported six very specific negative observations. No favourable comments, so I asked him to also comment on what he liked about it, if anything. He managed, “The whole thing is good; I was just pointing out certain things it lacked.” I tried again, asking him to apply the same precision, specificity and descriptiveness to his positive, generalised judgment, because labels or judgments such as “Good”, do not help me understand what he liked or why. He replied, “If one likes the sound of a motor, one is not likely to pull it apart! Only if one detects something not quite in tune . . . “. He went on to report additional negative judgements: the writing was “Sombre, negative and lacked humour.”
ISN’T IT ENOUGH TO KNOW WE’RE AHEAD?
The exchange with George demonstrated a common practice that flies in the face of commonsense. To be constructive at a practical and human level, feedback must do more than point out flaws: it must encourage the heart and reinforce what we do that is on target.
Author Amy Tan says, “Everyone who writes must wonder at some stage how many readers pose that most fundamental of literary questions: Huh?” As with writing, so in other work: until those for whom our efforts are created respond to them in a way that is rewarding and meaningful to us, some deep need is deeply unmet.
Very many of us work at jobs whose effectiveness and worth we gauge by such things as increased sales, repeat or further business, on being published, on continued employment, on changes to numbers. Of course we have our own opinion of how effective we are, how well we work to contribute to the bigger picture and of how much our efforts support others in theirs. Sometimes we get promoted. But is any of this or all of it, enough?
HOW MUCH ENCOURAGEMENT DO WE NEED?
For some people it is enough. But I have met only three of them. Over 15 years I have routinely asked participants in my training workshops from all levels of many different businesses to indicate if they get as much feedback about their work as they need. Somewhere between 12% and 18% say they do. The rest are clear that they do not and in all that time, only three people out of thousands have responded to this question – “Do you get as much encouraging, positive feedback about your work as you need?” – with “Yes.”
This is hardly surprising. Surrounded by others’ judgements as we grow up, complete our schooling and occupational preparation, we learn to look at ourselves and the world through eyes of judgement, seeking only or mainly what is imperfect, unpleasant, wrong or unsatisfactory. We thus see only a small fraction of whatever is before us.
I have no doubt this is why, during training workshops when faced with hearing from four or five people very specific and descriptive positive feedback about their behaviour during a skill rehearsal, participants often begin blinking back tears ; if they have been making notes about negative feedback, they put down their pens when the positive comments begin. We become confused by, suspicious and mistrustful of the motives or intelligence of those who offer us encouragement, kindness, tenderness, compassion, unconditional positive regard. A good dose of it and we’re emotionally overwhelmed. These tendencies point to a deeply unmet need.
One of the most useful and often shocking discoveries made within training (and other) groups in which sufficient trust and safety has been established for complete honesty, is that almost all of us routinely conceal behind our business, professional, go-get-em, can-do façades, a seething mass of self-doubt and self-attacking judgements. The middle-aged suit is surprised to find this is so for the brash and strident junior marketing assistant. The intern is astonished to find this is true of the suave and elegant CEO she has been in awe of since joining the organisation.
© 2010-2014 Tom Watkins. All rights reserved.
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