Not all feedback is made equal. First of all, most of it is probably more damaging than helpful and shouldn’t be doled out in the first place. Either the words are wrong. Or it’s coming from the wrong person. Or the relationship is not solid enough. Or just bad timing. Or it’s the wrong technique altogether. Much can go wrong.
In some situations, though, feedback is requested or needed so what to do? I think it’s easy to forget that feedback can be pleasant instead of painful.
A thought experiment
Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Let’s assume you’re on my software team at the office. And let’s say I ask you to come with me to a meeting room because I’d like to give you some feedback. How does it feel as you rise from your desk to go with me? Uncomfortable? Tense? Scary? I bet that it’s not an altogether pleasant feeling.
Rewind. Now, instead, I ask you to come with me because I’d like to give you some appreciation. How does that feel in comparison? Warm? Exciting? Joyful? I bet it’s a pretty positive feeling.
The magnitude of difference between these two situations might be surprising. Because both are feedback. Appreciation is a kind of feedback, right?
This experiment tells us two things:
- Feedback of any kind is associated with lots of emotions. Feedback is personal and sensitive.
- When we hear the word “feedback” we almost always assume that it’s the corrective (weakening) kind, e.g. criticism, we’re going to receive.
Types of feedback
In theory, many people know that there are two major kinds of feedback; reinforcing, (encouraging) feedback and weakening (correcting) feedback. People often refer to these as positive and negative feedback, respectively, but this terminology is imprecise and I’ll avoid it here.
Reinforcing feedback means either adding something people want, e.g. praise, appreciation, attention, money or points, or removing something people don’t want, e.g. pain killers or lifting oppressive rules.
Weakening feedback means either adding something people don’t want, i.e. punishment, e.g. criticism, mockery, verbal or physical abuse, or removing something people want, i.e. penalty, e.g. distancing, two minutes off the ice or denying a child dessert after dinner.
Funny enough, our minds often assume feedback is always of the latter kind. That we should be corrected because we’ve not been good.
And our brains are probably right! Johanna Rothman, agile thought leader, writes: “Remember that feedback is not always negative!”. Even an experienced leader like Johanna has to remind us that feedback shouldn’t only be of the corrective kind.
Corrective feedback seems to dominate – probably in practice but definitely in our minds. This is very unfortunate.
The effectiveness of reinforcing vs weakening feedback
We often treat corrective and reinforcing feedback like two equally useful tools. They are both good tools, we say. Although, as we saw above, our minds really focus on the corrections.
This equality is wrong because corrective feedback is less effective in the long run, psychologically speaking. Here’s a model I learned from Jesper Bedinger, certified psychologist at Affärspsykologi Sthlm (see graph below).
Assume we have an observable behaviour in our staff we’d like to improve. Without any feedback, it would deteriorate over time (the black curve). If we focus on correcting (weakening) the behaviour it quickly improves a bit but then gets worse again (the red curve). We have to keep coming back and repeat the action. If we don’t act, the staff will fall back into the same behaviour again. Correcting people’s behaviour is a never-ending struggle.
Instead, if we reinforce when the behaviour is working, for example by taking notice of it or appreciating it, we’ll see more of that behaviour. It won’t happen by itself, but with a few, timely actions you may end up with a self-reinforcing loop, where the behaviour is its own reward. So, aside from being more pleasant to both give and receive, creating a more positive and creative workplace, reinforcing desired behaviours is more effective.
Another reason for preferring encouraging feedback over corrective is handed to us by the great systems thinker Russ Ackoff, who said:
“Removing what you don’t want doesn’t necessarily get you what you do want.”
You could end up having other behaviours that are even worse.
How to get started? Here’s an example: You are peer reviewing source code from your less experienced team mate. As an experienced developer you have high standards on the type of code you write and want to see from your team. For example, you really want to see high cohesion in the functions; that they’re short and do just one thing. As you review your colleague’s work you notice that most functions are long and complicated – too long in your book. But instead of complaining about long functions and giving lectures on cohesion you find a few functions that you really like. In the review you express your liking of those functions and clearly explain what you like about them and why that matters to you. The next time you look at code from your team mate, what do you think has happened in the area of function length? My guess is that the method cohesion is much higher. This gives you an even better opportunity to appreciate the work. And so on. After a while, your team mate writes better code. That’s how it works!
Turn up the good
–– Woody Zuill
The next time you feel inclined to give feedback to someone, check to see if your opinion is really called for. And if it is, maybe the right thing to do is to find what’s good and appreciate that?
Or even better, why not start by thinking about what you really believe is valuable behaviour and start looking for those?
 Credit for this thought experiment goes to my colleague at Adaptiv, Måns Sandström
 Building a Team Through Feedback, Johanna Rothman (2012)