Have we reached peak feeback?

I think I knew something was wrong when my dentist asked me recently if he could give me some feedback on how I was interacting with him during our appointment. All positive (not surprising as I was paying!) but, once I had stopped laughing, I started wondering about all the ways in which I and others misuse and abuse the term, especially at work and how it affects us and others.

I’m not denying that feedback is a useful term in its place but, like Japanese knotweed, it has escaped from its confines and is threatening to strangle conversation at work.  As with other words which have crept into our work vocabulary, it has its roots in science but has come a long way from its beginnings. Wikipedia tells us it was originally popularised in electronics research early in the 20th century.  As time went by its meaning evolved.  Those early scientific theorists defined it as circularity of action and from there, more practically, it came to be used to describe information on performance of elements in a system or process used to inform and improve results.  The psychologist Kurt Lewin brought the term out of pure science, using it in his studies on group dynamics and behaviour in the 1930s and 40s but it was still very much a word belonging to research and academia 

From there it is easy to see how it fits into the systems theory of organisations.  It has a history as a term used in learning and, where objective feedback can be obtained, is helpful in improving the way we do things. Where it has crept in more widely and where it is much less helpful is when managers and HR people talk about ‘feedback’ when what they mean is ‘opinion’, ‘observation’ or ‘perception’. 

Thinking about it, I can’t remember the last time someone asked me for my opinion or view on how they have been doing, rather than my feedback on their performance!  We are constantly told that we should seek and give feedback at work more often, so much so that it seems there is scarcely time to get on with the work itself!  Is this necessarily something to worry about though, when surely we all know what we mean, don’t we?  Well, I think it is, especially when it comes to conversations about performance.  Why?  Well, primarily it de-humanises the way we talk to each other at work – the dreaded management-speak which becomes a substitute for normal conversation.  Describing views as ‘feedback’ gives them the aura of objective data, perhaps because of the scientific pedigree of the term.  There’s a big difference in saying to someone that most people have expressed this or that view about them compared with the pronouncement that ‘the evidence from the feedback we have collated shows that …’  It is pseudo-scientific language which distances the giver from the information while making it much harder for the receiver to question or express a contrary view; maybe that’s why managers like it so much!

Now like all good HR people, I have lost count of the number of times I have said and written that feedback says as much about the giver as the receiver and helped people to give and receive feedback constructively.  The fact that we are still saying it makes me wonder if we wouldn’t do better to change the language and reserve the term feedback for times when we are truly sharing data and not opinion.   So next time someone asks me for my feedback, I’m going to say that I can’t do that but I’m happy to give them my view.  What do you think?

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7 thoughts on “Have we reached peak feeback?

  1. No feedback just my view. Like most things at work, we’ve over-engineered this to be as machine-like as possible in an attempt at being neutrally helpful.

    I’m a bit sick of it too: “Can I give you some feedback: is often a shrouded way of playing a power game. So how about we just chat about what happened and MORE USEFULLY what the future might look like when we’ve both learned something we can share.

    I like learning. I’m not such a fan of feedback. Marshall Goldsmith has a “feed-forward” approach which I quite like. More helpful in projecting into a possible future scenario and what might help someone more than a forensic retrospective perhaps?

    I guess my thoughts turn to the obsession that is “fail fast” and iterative development. How does feedback work there? Good or otherwise? I guess you can’t move on until you’ve assessed how well your first iteration did in hitting the mark set out by your product manager’s specification.

    Feed forward might still be more appropriate than feedback in that case as the evidence – whilst it happened in the past – is helping you design better for the future.

    I liked this post. My view, not feedback. So I hope writing it gave you a sense of future-focused usefulness.

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  2. I agree it’s a much misused term; without pursuing the acoustic analogy too far it has overtones of being accidental, loud, unpleasant and is followed by being turned off.
    Assessment or evaluation fit better but then we are back to “who assesses the assessor?”.

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  3. The Larsen effect frequently produces an unpleasant screeching scream that people recoil from and I fear that many in the workplace suffer a similar reaction when told that they will be given “feedback”. I hadn’t really contemplated why before, but I suspect that you are right – it is easy to hide behind “feedback” as it is usually offered as though it is a fact, when in most instances it is simply an opinion. The demands and pace of the modern workplace, combined with increasingly automated systems, risk our losing humanity at work as we rely on impersonal processes and ways of interacting to get things done. This, combined with the fact that many people shy away from having difficult and/or emotionally charged conversations (in my opinion, one of the main reasons why performance management is so unpopular, with the traditional annual appraisal process being viewed as a something to dread) explains why “feedback”, which is just part of a process, is so disliked. People hiding behind the process and claiming that the information provided by colleagues is factual – this can be demoralising, no matter how well it is presented, as it offers no debate. Feedback risks discouraging discussion rather than initiating an open conversation and potentially enabling positive learning. Thank you for making me think (and that is a fact not just an opinion).

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  4. A wondering… Do we perhaps need to separate that chain of process, intent and experience which seems to have been wrapped up in a single word? Overuse of feedback as a process, or dubious intent in feedback has been highlighted as relevant issues/gripes. Yet, I suspect we’ve all been struck by what we would actually call valuable feedback at some stage or another. A moment where someone has shared their observations and experience of us. Valuable data and perspective but still an opinion of one. Still feedback in our receipt of that insight.

    It doesn’t feel as though the genuine need or value is for what we’d call “data” or “a view” but instead is for sharing our experience of each other. That’s the intentional human work we’re talking about isn’t it? I just worry that we get stuck on the words when we need to help people get stuck into that human work.

    Genuinely a wondering, with my best intent.

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