Futile Feedback

Often, I wonder if a good vocabulary and the ability to weave the words in a beautiful sentence is a boon or a curse. On a blog, it’s perhaps a boon. People read your posts, feel good about what they have just experienced. The like your post, share it and leave a “wow” comment. Elsewhere in life, it may not always work very well.

Feedback, for example.

In this over-sensitive world we are often reminded about providing constructive criticism. Especially at work.

[I stopped after the sentence above for a long while, thinking about how this post would automatically be construed as insensitive if I wrote exactly what I had in mind. I thought of ways of how I would sensitise the post so that it wouldn't sound insensitive. I spent time searching for what the accepted definitions of constructive criticism are.]

Foot over Hand

Which brought me back to the problem: because constructive criticism, to me, in the simplest form, is to help someone understand what’s wrong and how it could be made better. Our tone and choice of words influence the reception of our feedback (or criticism); fair. Unfortunately, as I see it, constructive criticism has come to mean an endless shower of a niche sugar-coated vocabulary that’s peddled as appropriate. A straightforward no (which means just that) is often seen as harsh and negative as we allow ourselves to become denizens of this over-sensitised sub-section.

The advantage of a straightforward response is clarity. And while the person giving feedback has certain responsibility, the person receiving it has equal responsibility. Words, tone and body language will play their part – feedback is more important to the one who receives it.

Would you like it upfront (and possibly crude and rude) or do you want to buried under a dump of dishonest sweet talk?

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13 thoughts on “Futile Feedback

  1. rude and crude…that’s what i go for with a big smile on my face,Mostly in a sarcastic way. I would like to have it the same way. All the sweat coating is tastes bull shit to me.
    Did 1year in an IT job just like that. :)

  2. Interesting post, and I have a slightly different perspective on this.

    From my perspective, I don’t see it as a binary, and therefore mutually exclusive choice – this is specifically with regard to your last sentence, which concludes your post.

    Constructive criticism does not involve the art of sugar-coating a bitter message, IMO. That would certainly be disingenuous, if not downright dishonest, and would be no different from “politically correct venting”. And above all, it would constitute a disservice to the person being thus criticized (as opposed to being critiqued).

    For one, constructive criticism should aspire to be objective, not subjective. True, it may still be subjective in the sense that it is one’s own personal opinion, but when I say “objective” I mean that it should stay focused on the “object” that is being appraised/ critiqued, rather than the “subjects” involved i.e. rather than express one’s feelings about the object, or about the person responsible for creating that object. The ability to separate these things is a fundamental skill involved in being a constructive critic.

    Further, is important to adopt the goals and frame of reference of the person responsible for the object under appraisal, leaving aside one’s own goals and frame of reference, or even the goals and frame of reference one may think that person ought to adopt. (It is not about “us”, it is about “them”.) Unless, of course, the person explicitly asks – “what would you do in my place?” and in that case one may start by commenting on whether or not one might even set such goals for oneself. That said, the critique should focus on where the object under appraisal falls short of the goals of that person, and balance it with where it already meets or exceeds those goals.

    Then there’s the art of delivering unpleasant feedback. As I progressed through my career and learned to lead large teams, I taught myself how to deliver “tough” messages (mostly by trial and error, and by watching other more experienced leaders) – as a manager is required to do while discussing a team member’s performance assessment. The idea here is to focus on areas for improvement rather than to disparage poor performance, much as one may find the latter very tempting to do. A profound understanding of the fact that nobody is perfect helps in staying focused on this goal. It’s about sharing one’s outlook for the future based on an objective, fair and balanced review of the past. Specificity, data points and examples help in making a solid case for recommendations for improvement. (“Here’s where you can improve and here’s how better to handle it in future”.) Pragmatism and empathy are key.

    Thanks for reading a rather long comment!

    • P.S. The ability to use words well (what you started out with in your post) is a boon when it comes to “the art of delivering unpleasant feedback”, if the objective is to be honest while causing the minimum pain. Which is a good objective to have :)

    • As I said on Facebook, I don’t disagree with what you said – in fact – you have a presented a very practical and usable approach to providing feedback.

      This post was primarily written in the perspective of delivering unpleasant feedback;especially of telling someone that the work wasn’t done well. (After having provided necessary guidelines to get the work done).

      In my experience, it takes two for a feedback to be constructive. Mostly, people receiving feedback are defensive and feel the need to present their side of the story (which is not a bad thing, in fact it lends perspective to the process of feedback). In a defensive state, the choice of words matters less, because usually the the objectivity that you mention is not present on both sides.

      I have seen most managers being ‘trained’ in the art of providing feedback; I have not come across any such initiative to train folks in the art of receiving feedback.

      Also, I have often seen (and been disappointed) that managers are asked to ‘soften the blow’ – and they resort to sugar-coating which buries the essence of the message. My rant was primarily agains that @ sugar-coating – which, as you have put beautifully – “would certainly be disingenuous, if not downright dishonest, and would be no different from “politically correct venting.””

      Thank you for your comment and the conversation it has ensued.

  3. I had a long convoluted thought process within myself as I read this post, and thankfully, Hemant has brought it out so well that I wish I wrote the comment. I agree that providing constructive criticism or honest positively-intended feedback is an art, and is learnt over time. I like it blunt when receiving a feedback, but while providing it I will have to consider the context (the recipient, the setting, the subject/topic, the objective, the surrounding value system, and so on) and decide whether to be blunt or indirect or even sarcastic.

    • Hemant has indeed added zest to this conversation! It’s interesting how you put it – that you like to receive feedback in a blunt manner – but will consider the context when providing feedback. As I mentioned in my reply to Hemant, the problem as I see it, is that very few will ever consider the context of the person providing the feedback. :)

  4. I can’t handle crude or rude. I prefer it sugar coated even if I am aware that there is a sugar coating. It’s just who I am.

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