Is Feedback Really A “Gift”?

Image Credit: © Jérôme Rommé— stock.adobe.com #223862658

It’s difficult to imagine how any practitioner could improve without seeing, seeking and considering feedback1.  There’s an often cited phrase that you’ve probably heard before, it’s the kind that adorns LinkedIN memes and motivational posters.  It is:

  “Feedback is a gift”

It’s difficult to argue with the underlying intent of this statement—it takes effort for someone to explicitly consider a situation and provide their feedback, and this is something we should be grateful for.  However, in this short blog I want to consider:

  • Is all feedback a gift (is it always consciously given)?
  • Is feedback always a gift?

Most Feedback Is Tacit

Gifts, I would assume, are consciously and explicitly given, they might be wrapped up with a bow added to make them look pretty.  When giving somebody feedback, there is often a similar temptation—feedback is (quite rightly) packaged into a neat box using words that are deemed constructive and appropriate.  

Yet in many cases feedback is tacit and some may even be unconsciously given.  If you or I were facilitating a workshop and  80% of the attendees didn’t return after a short coffee break then that is a form of feedback!.  The people leaving are sending a signal, even though they may not consciously be intending to provide ‘feedback’. The fact you are reading this article now (as opposed to other articles on this blog) is a form of feedback; indeed there’s an entire discipline behind understanding web analytics and continually optimising websites.

The trouble with tacit feedback is:

  • If you don’t look, you don’t see…:  Tacit feedback signals aren’t neatly packaged up, it’s necessary to look for them.  Some are fairly obvious, some are subtle.
  • It’s virtually impossible to interpret without follow up: However, even when these signals are seen, it’s hard to know how to react.  For example, if people did leave halfway through your presentation, you’d probably be very upset and might think it’s to do with the content you were presenting.  However, if it’s a physical meeting it might equally be to do with the temperature of the room, flickering lights, a clash of meetings or any number of other things.    The only way to know for sure is to ask, or carry out further research or testing.  Else it would be very easy to react to the situation in a way that doesn’t ultimately help.

So it’s useful to look out for tacit feedback and use it to form a hypothesis of what might be happening, which can be tested and refined.

Is All Feedback A Gift?

A few years ago I was just about to give a presentation at a conference.  I was due to start in about 5 minutes, and the audience was still filtering in.  As anyone who has ever given a presentation will tell you, those 5 ‘pre-presentations’ minutes are crucial; it’s necessary to ‘stay in the zone’ and remain composed in what is an incredibly nerve-wracking environment.

I was chatting with some people in the front row (as I often do, I find it easier to have some friendly faces in front of me!) when one of the audience members collared me and started to give me feedback about:

  • How he would run IIBA UK Chapter differently (I was a volunteer board member at the time)
  • A presentation I’d given somewhere else a year or so ago
  • How the conference structure ought to change, and how he had ideas that would help

I can remember the conversation vividly, because I had to cut him off mid-flow, and say:

“Thanks, this is all really useful feedback, but I need to focus right now—can we discuss this another time?”

He was fine with that, I took a deep breath, composed myself and started the presentation. However it nearly knocked my focus…. It certainly didn’t feel like a gift!

There’s A Time And A Place

I’ve no doubt that the person giving feedback had the best of intentions, they just didn’t appreciate that the timing wasn’t great.  When giving unsolicited feedback, it’s good practice to say something like:

“I’ve got some thoughts about XYZ, would you like to hear them, and if so is now a good time”?

We never know what the other person is going through, they might be dealing with any number of different types of trauma.  Someone who is currently dealing with moving an elderly relative into care (and all the administrative and financial burden that this entails) might not be in a place where they’re ready to discuss whether they ought to have used 4:3 or 16:9 slides during their last presentation.  So surely it’s best to ask first?

Conclusion: Giving Or Receiving Feedback Requires Thought

Thoughtful feedback, given appropriately really can be valuable.  As practitioners of change, to make the most out of receiving feedback we should look for tacit signals to follow up on, as well as the explicit feedback that people give us.   We should also feel comfortable in stopping or deferring feedback if we’re not in the right state of mind to receive it.

When we have feedback to give, unless we know the person extremely well and know they’re ready to receive it, we should ask.

After all: gifts are usually very graciously received.  Unsolicited gifts from people who the recipient isn’t close to might be treated with suspicion.  Perhaps the same is true with feedback?


Footnotes

1.Throughout this article, I am using the term ‘feedback’ in a loose and general sense, rather than in the more precise sense that some systems thinking disciplines imply.


What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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3 thoughts on “Is Feedback Really A “Gift”?”

  1. It depends who’s giving the feedback and why. I’m a member of Toastmasters International and at the end of each speech I receive structured feedback that helps me develop my public speaking skills. I’m also an amateur actor and the feedback one gets in a performance is immediate. When all is going well, the positive feedback from the audience ‘give’s you wings’ as the Red Bull advertisement goes, and helps you to time a line or a laugh.

    But the feedback from a disinterested manager who is merely ticking the box to satisfy HR for an annual appraisal is, in my experience, a waste of time. As the great W E Deming said ‘Evaluation of performance, merit rating, or annual review… The idea of a merit rating is alluring. The merit rating nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, [and] nourishes rivalry and politics. It leaves people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior.’

    This Dilbert cartoon say’s it well: https://user-images.githubusercontent.com/19977/42587024-618b13d4-84ee-11e8-83ed-e506d6385f8e.png

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