“Is All Feedback Relevant?”

A beloved mentor of mine once asked me, “Franc, is all feedback relevant?”. My initial answer was “I think some is and some isn’t”. He then challenged me on my answer… “Why is some feedback not relevant?” he asked. “Some feedback is not always given with full context or might not be right” I answered.

He then clarified one of the most misunderstood elements and goals of feedback: “Franc, I did not ask you if all feedback is TRUE, I asked if all feedback is RELEVANT.

The goal of feedback is to receive data and observations from someone other than ourselves. All of it is RELEVANT, especially if it’s not true. This means the giver of feedback may have a gap between their perspective and actual reality… or maybe we do!

Our brain attaches meaning to everything we experience so we generally filter our feedback to others through our own biased points of view based on those experiences.  In other words, when an event happens to us, our memories influence how we react. Memories have emotions attached to them, and it’s those emotions that create meaning and consequently drive the corresponding behavior. It’s how we make sense of the world and interact with it. 

  • Good memory – Good emotion – Good meaning – Good behavior
  • Bad memory – Negative emotion – Negative meaning – Negative behavior. 

(You can thank the limbic system for all of that processing, and research has shown that it can do all of that in as little as 0.085 seconds…)

For example: If I say the name “Mother Teresa”, most of us will recall good memories and thoughts about her name which leads to positive emotions.  Now if I say the name “Charles Mason” this will bring very different memories and experiences and consequently very different emotions. It is those emotions and the meaning we assign to them, that helps drive our actions.

My personal relationship with feedback could be characterized as “strained”. You might know of individuals who have great difficulty receiving feedback. You know the ones… To be honest, I was/am one of those individuals. Now let’s be clear, I am mostly talking about negative feedback as I do really enjoy positive feedback (more on that in a bit). 

Long story short, when I receive feedback, my limbic system gets triggered because for my brain, negative feedback means I am not good enough and if I am not good enough, I will not belong…my deep-seated big trigger.  Here’s why, growing up I changed schools every year between grade 2 and grade 7 and language of instruction three times (French to English and back to French). This gave me great skills, but also some deep-rooted issues.

Why is any of this important for you to understand about yourselves and your teams?

As leaders and managers, we need to give feedback as part of our responsibilities. How often we do it and what we say is critically important. University of Akron researchers (Medvedeff, Gregory & Levy, 2008) found that feedback involves more than a simple evaluation of whether someone performed poorly or well. They found there are 4 general categories of feedback:

Positive Outcome Feedback – “Good Work”

Negative Outcome Feedback – “This work is unacceptable”

Positive Process Feedback – “Great work, you built a great team”

Negative Process Feedback -“This work is unacceptable, your team was dysfunctional”

The Centre of Creative Leadership published a white paper in 2017 (Busting Myths about Feedback) and found that the proper ratio of positive to negative should be at a minimum of 3:1 positive to negative and ideally 5:1. They also found that when these ratios were maintained, employees wanted more negative process feedback over negative outcome feedback. 

If we look back at our brain discussions from earlier, the negative process feedback provides specific context and content to improve.  This forces the brain to focus on the specific skill or process to improve vs negative outcome feedback that does not provide context. This process also happens when positive feedback is given. Positive outcome feedback provides context and content to the feedback that is more valued than positive outcome feedback.

Over all, we as leaders must understand that all feedback will create emotion in the person receiving it. We must be intentional in how and at what frequency we deliver that feedback so we can accomplish the ultimate goal of bettering performance and engagement from those we lead.

So, is all feedback relevant…YES…and how we give it and receive it matters.

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