When you hear the word ‘feedback’ what do you think of? Do you have images of a stern-faced line manager, a piece of A4 paper separating the two of you on which your entire career is mapped out in clumsy HR/performance review speak? Or maybe you think of a twisted colleague who ‘helpfully’ volunteers ‘feedback’ on everything you’re doing wrong at work. Rarely do we think of it as a positive, life-enhancing thing. And yet, feedback is one of the simplest and most transformational tools out there. But here’s the thing: it’s a bit like sex – it’s only transformational if you’re getting it from the right person at the right time.
When it comes to feedback we are a culture that cowers. We don’t like giving it and we sure as hell don’t like receiving it. Most of us were raised under a parental cloud of overpraise. Motivate kids, our parents were told! Lift them up! Make them roll through life on casters of confidence and high self-esteem by telling them only what they are good at. And if you do have to give real, critical feedback, temper it with at least three positive things. Sound familiar? Surely you’ve experienced this claptrap before? I know I have. I’ve received it and, for my sins, have tried to dole it out for years.
But here’s another reason why we don’t like feedback. Feedback reveals who we really are. Feedback offers you a direct portal to your weaknesses – and not everybody wants to take that journey. The truth is, most of us have spent a lifetime constructing a narrative of who we are. I am ambitious. I am kind. I am brave. And we go looking for signs and signals to confirm this about ourselves. And this is fine...if you plan on spending the rest of your life in complete isolation with no one to challenge that view. But if you want to get on and get ahead? You’re going to have to step into the discomfort zone and learn how to take feedback.
Entering the feedback zone
Tasha Eurich is something of a feedback expert. Most days you will find her sitting with a frowning CEO hunched over his or her desk, perplexed as to what they are doing wrong. And, in her lovely, warm smiley way, she will tell them.
She’s not always popular for this reason. After all, nobody likes to hear all the ways in which they’re failing at their job, particularly not those at the top of their game. After all, if they need improvement, how did they get to be the boss in the first place?
Tasha sees this sort of confusion all the time. In her fifteen years as an organisational psychologist, she has been flown around the world to work with leaders who have never been given feedback. That’s a problem not only for them but also for the people and the companies they lead.
‘So many of us use the excuse that we’re waiting for feedback as an excuse to not seek it out,’ she tells me. ‘People often think if no one has told them then they’re probably not doing anything wrong. For example, I once coached a man in his fifties who was by all accounts a terrible leader. One of the things he told me when I was giving him this feedback was: “How have I been doing this for twenty or thirty years and nobody has ever told me.”’
Here’s why: entering the ‘feedback zone’ is hard and scary. ‘The same reasons we don’t ask for feedback are the same reasons we don’t volunteer it,’ Tasha tells me. ‘It’s evolved over time back to the days when we were hunter-gatherers, living in groups. If the group had voted us off the island, to use the more modern term, we would probably have died. As a result, we have evolved these social impulses. First of all, we don’t want to learn from the group that it doesn’t like us. Secondly, other people don’t want to rock the boat by giving it. So we’re living this charade. And it’s stopping us from getting feedback that could help us be much more successful.’
A great example of where feedback has built better, stronger, more successful individuals is in sport. Take tennis players, for example: today some of the game’s most celebrated players are also its oldest. Roger Federer, one of the tennis world’s most artful and skilful players, is also one of its oldest (in 2017 Federer was one of the oldest players to have ever won Wimbledon). In fact, take a look at the age of most of the super-elite tennis players participating in today’s top-tiered competitions – Andy Murray (30), Jürgen Melzer (36), Serena Williams (37) and sister Venus Williams (38). Thirty years ago, tennis players that had been on the circuit for almost a decade were considered ‘veterans’. That or ‘over’. Is it pure coincidence that some of the best players in the world are also the oldest to have participated at grand-slam competitive level? What is going on?
The answer is: feedback. It’s notable that all the players I have mentioned came up through the ranks at a time when elite coaching was the norm. That means these players have been able to perform better and for longer because of the constant feedback they have benefitted from. In fact, the introduction of elite coaches into the world is perhaps one of the contributing factors as to why sportsmen and women now outperform those athletes that came before them (and have longer, more prosperous careers). It’s not that they are any more talented but because they are forced into the discomfort feedback zone time and time again. And that results in one thing: getting better.