Recently a young lady I mentor told me of some negative feedback a senior manager at her workplace had given her. It’s fair enough to say that both she and I placed the label of “negative” on that feedback. The feedback came from a place of negativity, there was nothing uplifting or positive about it, it was delivered in a shitty fashion and in my opinion the person giving the “feedback” had ulterior motives. In the world we live in, people are always saying, “Feedback is a gift,” when what they mean is, “You must take whatever mean-spirited bullshit I throw at you.”
I do agree though, feedback is a gift and often that gift is an insight into the person handing out that feedback.
When Is Feedback A Gift?
Feedback is something in which I revel. Often I seek it out actively and encourage it after every meaningful interaction. As I constantly and openly strive to be better every day, I welcome scrutiny and commentary on my style, skills and output. At the same time, much of the feedback I get is absolute nonsense and I disregard it entirely. The purpose of feedback is to help people grow, it’s to tell them things that they may not know, to let them appreciate the impact of their actions.
Feedback is helpful when:
- It’s from someone in a position to deliver it
- It’s from a place of positivity
- It’s from a place of expertise
- It’s specific
- It’s relevant
- It’s timely
- It’s toward the behaviour rather than the person
These are in no specific order and little explanation is necessary.
My son tries to give me feedback sometimes. He doesn’t phrase it like that, but in setting boundaries for children one doesn’t always make oneself popular. “Dad, I don’t think you let me have enough time on my X-Box.” He’s in no position to give me feedback that I’ll take seriously.
If someone angry gives me feedback, I rarely take it seriously and if it’s vague or nothing to do with me I tend to thank the person very much and go about my business. When it’s from so long ago that even remembering the situation is difficult, learning will prove difficult too.
The last one on that list is important to me and should be important to you. I often critique people’s public speaking and presentation skills. Most people are terrified of this activity unless they’re well-practised and much of that fear comes from what they believe people are thinking about them. If the feedback around this particular skill is directed at the person, you might as well kiss any chance of improvement bye-bye as it’ll merely increase their nervousness. Talking to the behaviour is a different story. People easily understand that they aren’t their behaviours (you might have to tell people this), especially in a self-help space because people striving for self-development are eager to change their behaviours.
“If you had to name one behaviour you could change to improve your performance the most, what would it be?”
Nine times out of ten, you’ll get the correct response and then you haven’t had to give any bad news, negative or constructive feedback, even indirectly. You haven’t demotivated anyone, in fact, quite the opposite. People who think of their own solution are far more likely to own their solution and successfully achieve it. This is the essence of great coaching and when feedback truly is a gift.
When Feedback is Not a Gift
Sometimes, it’s not super frequent, but it’s more frequent than I’d like, after I give a talk or presentation or chair some sort of meeting, there’ll be someone who wants to re-affirm themselves who wants to know if they can give me a bit of feedback. As previously mentioned, bring it on, every time, but you can just tell when it’s gonna be one of those times where the person isn’t doing it out of genuine concern for me. Not once has one of these unsolicited pieces of advice been useful. Not once has it come from someone who has a single clue what they’re talking about. Feedback is definitely not always a gift:
- When the purpose of the feedback is to manipulate feelings. I don’t even mean your feelings, I mean those of the person delivering the feedback. It can be out of spite, a feeling of perceived superiority, an attempt to find significance. Instead of facing one’s own feelings head-on many will try to make them go away by trying to cause other people to feel inadequate or grateful, thus bolstering, temporarily, their own self-esteem. This is not an effective way of dealing with your feelings.
- When the person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. In the self-development arena the majority of people don’t know what they’re talking about, even amongst the people who sell self-development. This is not a problem until they start shoving their ill-considered opinions in other people’s faces. An incredible example of this is when someone, in the workplace, gets a promotion. They’re a manager now and they have a new sense of self-importance and they have the responsibility for succession planning and helping other people in a development journey. Suddenly, they’re a fucking expert. Well, how the hell did that happen? I’m all for changing one’s own identity to match an inner desire, but you just can’t immediately be great at something you’ve never done before. If it’s part of your identity, or job role, to be an expert, make sure you actually live up to that instead of merely talking the talk. Quite a common thing people say to me is, “Great speech, Rand, loved it, super inspired etc, but you know, I think you move around too much and you’re a little irreverent.” “Really, Bob? Well, thanks so much for that feedback and for taking the time to deliver it. You must have done a lot of public speaking yourself, why don’t you tell me about some of your biggest successes in that area?” Tumbleweeds.
- If they feel they should give feedback and that’s the only reason. If you’ve ever watched any of these TV shows like X-Factor you’ll know that all the judges have to respond. They can’t just shrug or have no opinion. Part of the attraction is to watch a famous person give their expert opinion on some wannabe. Were they to stay silent or fail to have any feedback they would be useless. This isn’t the case in real life. If you observe someone carrying out a task, even if you are an expert in that field, you aren’t absolutely required to frantically dredge your brain for something to say. The amount of times I’ve seen this is phenomenal. Your peers have all made some pithy commentary about something and to save face, at least in your mind, you must come up with something witty and insightful. Which of course it won’t be, nor will it be helpful and might even be the opposite.
- When they have a hidden agenda. In the example I opened with, I believe the senior manager had an ulterior motive and it’s the least savoury motive one can imagine. He wouldn’t be the first senior member of staff to try to impress a young female team member with his experience and knowledge, nor will he be the last. I can’t express strongly enough that doing the right thing is always the right thing to do. If someone gives you feedback that doesn’t feel honest, it probably isn’t honest. If it’s unsolicited from someone who wouldn’t ordinarily give you advice, think about what their motives are.
- When it’s just an insult. Feedback without a ‘here’s what I think you can do about it’ is nothing but an insult. Imagine going to watch a friend on stage and telling them something like, “I didn’t think you were very good, your acting was rather wooden actually.” That’s not feedback. That’s telling them that they suck. Who’s that helping? People often defend this mean-spirited behaviour with excuses like, “just giving you my honest feedback,” or “that’s my truth.” Go away. I suggest removing people like this from your circle, they don’t have your best interest in their hearts.
How To Deal With Unhelpful Feedback
If you have bulletproof levels of confidence unhelpful feedback won’t make a difference to you, but how many of us have absolutely untouchable self-esteem? I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I don’t have and I’m really confident. In reality many people struggle to even have a reasonable level of confidence about themselves and their abilities. When they’re given advice or some sort of critique by anyone it can have far reaching implications.
How many of us won’t try a thing again because when we did, we got an unwanted response. “Not doing that again!”
A friend’s daughter recently told me that she doesn’t wear dresses because she’s got fat ankles. She’s literally 110 pounds. She’s never had a fat ankle in her life. A bully at school, years ago, told her that she had fat ankles so she believed it. If someone had to resort to something that obscure to get to me, I’d be like, “The rest of me must be pretty awesome if that’s all you can come up with,” and I’d disregard it. Not so a teenage girl. We might all carry things like this with us, and here’s a couple of tips to deal with it.
- Most importantly, other people’s opinions don’t really matter that much. Bullies are mostly complete morons so cannot be counted upon to give credible feedback.
- Consider the expertise of the person giving you the feedback. Are they an expert? If not, who cares?
- Anyone can say any words. Mostly. English people shouldn’t say “whatever” in a faux American accent, but generally words are easy to spout. They are nothing. Mere sounds. My driving style often causes people to mouth things at me from their vehicles and my passengers revel in pointing it out and if they don’t know me well, laugh at my supreme indifference to it. There’s no name anyone can call me that can bother me. I know who I am and yes I have certain less than positive qualities, but virtual strangers have no information that I don’t.
- Remember well that people who deliver unsolicited negative feedback are generally coming from a place of insecurity. Why would someone mention that you’d picked up a couple of pounds? If it’s your personal trainer, take the hit, but a family member? A ‘friend’? What’s their motive?
- Take the positive from it. If it’s bullshit feedback, you know who you’re dealing with. You’ll understand that person a little bit better. Maybe you’ll know to take everything they say with a pinch of salt. Maybe it’ll clue you in to their poorly hidden agenda. If the feedback is true, delivered poorly, you’ll be able to work with it in the way that you desire.
Keep in mind that self-development doesn’t mean that you need to fix every little thing about yourself to suit everyone else. In fact, the better you are, the more unsolicited, spiteful and stupid feedback you’ll get so please don’t feel that you have to accept or even listen to anyone’s feedback but your own.