Why The Best Feedback Is Often Wrong

Feedback is a complex topic. Everyone thinks they understand what it means to give feedback, but when you boil it down there are often wildly different understandings of what feedback is and why it’s valuable. I have a lot of thoughts about how to facilitate effective feedback (thresholds, vocabulary, and integrity – I’ll talk about these in much more detail in later posts!), but I felt that the first step in the discussion had to be defining what I mean when I say “feedback” at all.

Many people picture feedback as either a suggestion – “why not do this instead?” – or an assessment – “you did a good job there.” Both of these models assume that the person giving feedback is, in some important way, more qualified to consider the right approach than the person who initially took the action. But this is strange! It’s certainly possible that an external perspective gave someone the opportunity to see things more clearly; but it’s also extremely possible that the outsider is missing some key context around the goals or circumstances that the action was taken under.

For me, feedback isn’t a claim, it’s an inquiry. When I’m giving you feedback, rather than wanting to tell you what’s right, I want to share with you my current best model, so that we have the opportunity to learn from each other. Is my model of the situation wrong? Am I optimizing for the wrong goals? Great! Tell me and I can learn from that. And, if my model is correct, maybe you can learn from me too. But it’s crucial to remember that if you give feedback from the perspective of wanting to convey your opinion in a one-directional way – indeed, if you enter the conversation with any kind of belief that your perspective is right – you are going to get less out of the conversation for yourself, make a less pleasant conversant for everyone else, and ultimately create worse outcomes for the team.

(I want to take a moment to emphasize something: I’m not saying something like “if one was truly qualified, they could give direct feedback, but for those of us who are uncertain, we should be asking questions.” I’m saying there is no such thing as someone who has the right to make assertions about your performance without first discussing it with you, period. The experienced and inexperienced alike are equal when it comes to opening these discussions – perhaps the experienced will find that they contribute more insight than the inexperienced, but in either case valuable lessons can still be learned from both sides! But even if you went to, say, Warren Buffett and to ask for feedback on your investing, the right thing for him to do would not be to start looking over your financials and critiquing; but rather it would be to start asking you questions about your goals, your capacity to manage your investments, etc.)

When I was at Bridgewater, this model of feedback was captured in the claim that “you are always expected to ask questions, but you need to earn the right to have opinions.” I don’t quite like this phrasing – I’d want to change “have opinions” to “hold strongly to, or try to push on others, your opinions”, since I can’t really help but have a best guess in any given moment. But it certainly, palpably, gets the point across.

When I was at Lola, there wasn’t quite so much rigor around defining feedback, but that wasn’t a big problem for me. In terms of receiving feedback, I had to be a bit more proactive than I did at Bridgewater, but I was still surrounded by great people who were more than happy to share their perspectives in a caring way. And I was also able to give effective feedback, even to upper management who could have likely dismissed my thinking as irrelevant. As an individual contributor on the engineering team, they did often place my feedback (correctly!) into a box of “uninformed opinion of someone missing context”, but the result wasn’t dismissing me – instead, it was Lola’s excellent exec team explaining to me what I was missing. My risk here was that I wouldn’t be taken seriously when I did actually know something relevant and new, but frankly, the bar to prove myself at Lola was no higher than the bar to obtain “believability” and the right to hold an opinion at Bridgewater.

At Modulate, I’ve been lucky to surround myself with a brilliant early team of people who are just as invested in personal growth and feedback as I am. But I’ve nonetheless found myself occasionally worrying about, as the team grows, making sure our culture still encourages the right kind of feedback. This is particularly poignant for me as an individual, since my style of giving feedback – stating my opinion, and asking whether I’m wrong – doesn’t work when I have fancy titles like “CEO” or “co-founder.” After all, if a random engineer comes to you and says “Hey, I was confused what the goal of that talk was, can you explain what I was supposed to get out of it?”, that might be a bit difficult to hear but is probably largely positive. Maybe you hoped that they’d get more out of it, or maybe they were a last-second addition just in case it was helpful, but either way it’s easy to discuss with them and understand what went wrong.

However, if you hear those same words from your boss, even in the same tone, it’s easy to get into your own head, and imagine things like “wow, it was so bad that they felt like the needed to step in” or “oh god, I wasted their time, and now I’m in trouble” – or even simply “oh crap, I screwed up.”

My own takeaway from all this is that I’ve started to question the term “feedback” itself. After all, this term is inherently one-directional, while as we’ve discussed, the proper way to give feedback is in a collaborative fashion. As such, I’ve contemplated rebranding the term entirely, to something like “exploration” instead. I don’t yet know if this is the right answer, but I think it’s a step along the right trajectory at least. Ultimately, what I am fighting for is simple – I want to build a team where any feedback is understood not as an accusation, not as an assertion, but simply as a question. Part of that is on the recipient, to understand the context of the discussion; much of it is on the speaker, to correctly frame their feedback as an inquiry rather than something more aggressive, and finally, a good chunk of it is on the company itself, in that we need to establish a culture where people expect others to be sharing their perspectives from a position of caring and wanting to learn together. Only by having all sides of the conversation in alignment can we unlock the growth that we really are after, and ensure that our team will remain strong – and grow even stronger! – as we continue forward.

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