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?