When Is Bad Feedback Really Good?

Fahrenheit degree thermostat - 3 inch color

The short answer? As difficult as it may be to receive and give, constructive feedback is almost always conducive to creating a better deliverable. If you don’t know what constructive feedback is, let’s consult the dummies for a useful working definition.

The art of providing and receiving constructive feedback need not be limited to your manager or peers. You can get great ideas for how to make something better from virtually anyone.

As for the longer answer to when negative feedback is good, well….

It’s Make Believe Time

Yeah, I’m not kidding here. Pretend you are not a human being but instead are a Honeywell programmable thermostat. Your entire purpose as a thermostat is to receive feedback in the form of temperature inputs and, when appropriate, initiate a corresponding action. Is the temperature more than 72 degrees? Let’s flick on the air conditioning. Oh, it’s getting a bit chilly? Let’s fire up the furnace.

The thermostat doesn’t take any of this feedback personally. Can you imagine an overly sensitive thermostat with feelings? “Oh crap, it’s too hot in here AGAIN?? This is all my fault. When am I EVER going to get it right?” Nope, the thermostat just exists and operates.

John Walker, founder of Autodesk and co-author of the world-changing computer-automated design software product AutoCAD, provides a great non-technical example of control and feedback systems like thermostats in his book, “The Hacker’s Diet.” You can download a free PDF version here. I will at some point write a separate article on how profoundly this book has positively impacted my physical health. Mr. Walker wrote “The Hacker’s Diet” after leaving Autodesk, getting frustrated by his chronic overweight condition, and then taking an engineering-based systems approach to lose and keep off an excess 70 pounds of fat, which he chronicles in the book. Look at Chapter 4 to read Mr. Walker’s excellent definition of a feedback system.

If I Only Didn’t Have a Brain

ScarecrowNow, unlike thermostats, we human systems have these things called minds, which we use to generate thoughts and feelings. Some are positive and oh-so-many are negative. In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Martin Seligman concludes pessimists take negative inputs such as feedback personally. They think a negative situation is pervasive, in other words, it impacts all areas of their lives. And they believe the situation they perceive as negative is permanent. On the other hand, optimists are more likely to to view adverse situations, including negative feedback, as non-personal, specific only to the situation at hand, and temporary. And the absolute opposite is the case in how pessimists and optimists perceive positive developments. Dr. Seligman based his findings on decades of clinical research.

My personal ‘gut,’ based on no research whatsoever, is that people with stronger levels of self-esteem, which of course include optimists, are more capable of responding positively to negative feedback without getting defensive. I base this on my own ability to increasingly accept and better respond to difficult feedback over time, as I’ve deliberately worked on improving my self-esteem. And as I’ve previously mentioned, there are those positive workplace cultures that are feedback oriented. Employees work very well in teams and are constantly collaborating together to improve and iterate their deliverables, be it software code or a customer presentation to land a multi-million dollar deal.

But I Can Always Turn On My Filter

The other day, when speaking with someone close to me who had just received feedback on a series of her photographs, we discussed how challenging it can sometimes be to accept feedback on personal works of art, even if it is amazingly useful. But, and please pardon the pun, it’s not a black and white world. We can always determine how much feedback we receive that we will incorporate. More importantly, we can take into account the personality, viewpoints and biases of the person giving the feedback.

And in many cases, we can apply this filter when deciding whether we simply chuck out feedback that isn’t actionable, or is really just an insult. Of course there are exceptions where this is simply not permissible. Case in point, your CEO looks at your presentation draft, points a finger at you and yells, “This sucks!,” before shoving his hard copy into your face. And yes, this has happened to me. Hasn’t it happened to you as well? Unfortunately you need to accept this feedback. But that doesn’t mean you need to end the conversation. If you’re not fired on the spot you can ask, “OK great. So what are the first three-to-five things I can do to dramatically improve this and make it amazing?” Admittedly this is an extreme example. But through negotiation skills and an ability to not get defensive, you can most often turn down the heat on the conversation and walk away with more constructive feedback you can use to improve your deliverable before your ass hits the sidewalk and the leasing company repossesses your Lexus.

’Tis Better to Give Than Receive?

So now let’s talk about giving feedback. We can keep this really simple. Practice the Golden Rule. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Be empathetic, ya freakin’ jack ass! (Just kidding. Sorry!) In terms of feedback, I increasingly practice what a former manager called the Hamburger Principle.

BUN: You start with the nice, soft, sweet, white and chewy top o’ the burger. In other words, begin by mentioning something positive about the work being evaluated.

MEAT: Then it’s time to get to the beef. Here your opportunity is to be specific and constructive. Provide suggestions and examples. Limit your discussion to the work you are evaluating.

BUN: And you end by emphasizing something positive, for example, your faith in the ability of the person you’re meeting with to do a great job and an offer of help.

Use this as a way to get your points across while reducing the chances of provoking a defensive or less accepting response. To this end, I recently heard Stanford University Psychology Professor Carol Dweck say on a podcast interview that people with a growth-oriented mindset, such as entrepreneurs, are better able to “non-defensively see what’s not working and take the next step.” I’d submit that as the provider of feedback you can encourage this trait among your peers and subordinates.

Is This Way Too Much Common Sense?

barney3Perhaps we haven’t broken too much new ground for you here. Then let me ask, why is the feedback process so absymally broken in most of the corporate world? I’m not professing that we all need to practice a lovey-dovey Barney style of administering feedback. But meetings that frequently turn into conflicts with raised voices? People who receive tough feedback, break down and cry, and head to the bar? Endless non-constructive back-and-forths that result in a lack of measurable progress over days and weeks? Really? Lest you think I’m dramatizing, I witnessed this at every company I worked at during a 30 year period, even the ones with extremely positive cultures.

Not to get all soap-boxy on you, but we can all get better at this. And we need to, because we are individually and collectively dependent upon feedback to grow and improve.

And here is something encouraging to end this article. Jack Canfield dedicates an entire chapter in his book, “The Success Principles,” to the importance of feedback. And he posits that in the process of our getting stuff done with a high level of quality, we spend more time off course than on course. It’s those bits of frequently doled out constructive guidance we receive that get us back on course and to the finish line. While the journey may seem challenging at times, it’s inevitably part of the process of producing great work.

THAT is my final gift of feedback for right now.

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