Feedback is a part of life, and necessary for self-improvement – so why are so many of us resistant to it?
We know traditional feedback is largely founded on three theories; the theory of truth, which states that others are more aware of our own weaknesses than we are, and therefore feedback is necessary to reiterate those weaknesses to you. The second theory is the theory of learning that teaches us we need certain abilities to achieve excellence and others are needed to teach us, and a third theory is the theory of excellence, that suggests great performance has a universal standard and so the knowledge of how to achieve it is transferable.
But the aim of feedback is to help us to do better, and we don’t always get this in traditional feedback and the ways it’s delivered. Instead, we get instructions on steps to follow and the factual knowledge we might be lacking. And to be fair, this is useful; but it only half accomplishes any goals of self-improvement.
When we talk feedback, we’re talking about the judgement we cast on someone and whether or not what they’re doing is good enough. Negative feedback, or feedback we feel might be disingenuous, sticks with us. Furthering the problem are the shortcomings of the three theories of traditional feedback.
First, humans are unreliable raters of other humans. We’re not objective by nature, and our own sense of ‘good’ is the product of our own experiences and beliefs. No matter how receptive to feedback we might think we are, we often struggle to see ourselves as others do. Too often, the feedback is more meaningful to the person giving it than to the one receiving it, and so not only can we fail to see its value, we can become distrustful of a person we feel is unqualified to give us feedback on ourselves.
Second, the way in which we learn isn’t about adding something that’s not there; and more about building on what is there instead. In other words, we play to our strengths. What’s easiest to learn is what we’re already good at. When we instead – as the theory of learning suggests – focus on fixing our weaknesses, we can accidently stunt our own growth. Research has shown that negative feedback, especially that which is highly critical, activates our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and narrows what information the brain is able to intake.
Third, is that excellence has no set bar. Again, because we’re uniquely subjective, excellence is not universally defined, and neither can we define it. Great performance looks different for all of us, and we’re each capable of our excellence in our own, specific ways. We can’t measure people against one generic set of standards, and when we do, we might fall into the trap of calling their good performance a failure. For example, to say that a big ego makes a leader a failure is subjective. Some of the greatest leaders have big egos, but use them in service of others, not themselves. We can’t rely on knowing and eliminating our failures to help us learn how to perform well.
Feedback works far better when we focus on growth mindset and our strengths. When we point out what someone does well, we reinforce the behaviour we want them to repeat. Focusing on what we do right, and not what we do wrong, is becoming the norm, and for a good reason – it’s feedback that works.
The point of feedback to is help others grow. We want them to learn. To make sure of that, we need to develop a better understanding of why people resist feedback and what we can do instead.