March 27, 2006


I had this experience in January in which I got told that I'm bad at taking feedback. Outdoor ed organizations are kind of obsessed with feedback, with having it happen all the time, and having the people I was about to be working for think I was bad at taking feedback did not enhance their desire to hire me.

The thing is, I was bad at taking the feedback I was getting, mostly because it was inaccurate. In two years of getting formal feedback (a page and a half, in writing) every week and informal feedback nearly every night that I was working, I'd heard a bunch of times that I was good at taking and getting feedback. Which I think is pretty much true, with one caveat that I'll talk about later. But if feedback's inaccurate and you say so, you're being defensive. It puts you in this terrible double-bind where your boss can think stuff about you that hurts your status, and if you challenge it you get more feedback that you're defensive, and if you challenge that it just gets worse.

So. This got me thinking. The place I'm working now has this culture about feedback in which people say "if you have any constructive feedback,1 I'd like to hear it, but I don't really care about the positive stuff." I hate that attitude, and I don't think it's just because I like getting compliments. Positive feedback does three really important things for people and organizations.

1. Positive feedback helps people keep doing things right. People don't always know exactly what they're doing that's effective, and they need to know. These things change from person to person and situation to situation, and we all need that positive reinforcement. Sometimes those things aren't even conscious, and positive feedback does the great service of allowing us to choose to keep doing things we were unconsciously doing well.

2. Positive feedback is a clear demonstration of noticing and caring. Seriously, when someone you just met says, "I'm criticizing you like this because I care about you," do you believe it? I don't. I need evidence that this person is paying attention to me and caring about me before I'll believe it. Some people I trust to give me critical feedback, because they've already shown me a thousand times that they care about me; with people with whom I don't have that trust, positive feedback helps create it.

3. Positive feedback makes people feel happy and appreciated. Everyone likes praise. Most people will work in order to get it. Usually, people in good spirits do better work.

Don't be so damn macho, people.

1. Constructive is the euphemism for critical/negative. I personally dislike that euphemism, as I dislike many euphemisms. Shouldn't all feedback help you learn and grow as a person?

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