You’ve heard it. That awful moment when the speaker’s mic comes a little too close to the amplifier and that ear-shattering screech rings out through the auditorium. That’s feedback. Right? No, Feedback is a superhero, a former member of the team Beta Flight. Dig out your Marvel Comics. Unless you’re into hip hop, in which case Feedback was Jurassic 5′s last album. It’s also an annoying but essential process of being a participant in eBay, a studio EP by the rock band Rush, and a 1972 album by the rock band Spirit (remember them? Neither do I).
Most people would rather look up the many diverse definitions of feedback than actually put themselves through the agony of giving it or receiving it.
Actually, feedback is an incredibly stupid term. I’m sure it was invented by some management theory enthusiast who thought it sounded more intelligent, more B-school, more commercial than the plebian “hey, can we talk for a minute?” Feedback is the process-ized, depersonalized, anti-literate term for a mere element of the human process known to most of us as communication.
The idea is good. The idea is that we should be telling the truth in our organizations, and that by telling the truth, we avail ourselves of information and insight that will enable us to do a better job. Believe it or not, that idea is revolutionary. Though that begs the question – can an idea whose time has come again, and again, and again still be revolutionary? Hans Christian Anderson alluded to the importance of truth-telling (or our lack of willingness to engage in it) in 1837 when he first published The Emperor’s New Clothes. Shakespeare plays with it in Measure for Measure and Alls Well That Ends Well (actually, it’s a major theme throughout his work). Boccaccio loved a sexual masquerade, Jesus of Nazareth tried to express his concerns about it in the early days of the Christian calendar, and both Socrates and Plato devoted a hefty part of their storied lives to holding forth on the topic.
Yet most of our early memories of truth-telling consist of our mothers telling us not to tell Aunt Etta that we love the way the skin on the underside of her arm jiggles when we touch it; of our fathers telling our mothers “No! I never think you look fat!” and then winking at us; of our early lessons about never telling the boy or girl you like that you actually like them; and of our parents’ Sunday brunch discussion about how Pastor Williams’ sermon was so much hokum, when we clearly heard them tell him what a great sermon it was as we exited the church.
If centuries of philosophy, religion, social and political discourse have not led to comfort with telling uncomfortable truths or indeed, hearing them, then I think it is possible that the notion of truth-telling at work is, indeed, revolutionary.
Our discomfort with truth-telling leads us to say we like things we don’t actually like. Such as your girlfriend’s chicken tortilla soup, which tastes like soggy flour. But you can’t say that, so you eat it while cringing inwardly. When does she find out? When she’s been your wife for two years and suddenly you can no longer tolerate it and you blurt out that you absolutely hate that stuff. The risk that was avoided during the courtship was not the risk of hurting her feelings. Not really. It was the risk of mustering enough courage to say what you thought in a kind and loving manner. If receiving feedback is difficult, giving it is more so.
Most of our failures to tell the truth are due to cowardice rather than sensitivity for others. That cowardice hurts the deserving recipient far more than the information from which our pseudo-sensitivity was protecting them.
In business this cowardice leads to employees who don’t realize they are doing a terrible job until their annual review – at which point it costs them a raise and causes a probationary period, demotion, or possibly termination. The same cowardice results in senior executives being shielded from important information from the field, because it’s risky to provide information that hasn’t been asked for, or, even if it has, might prove to be irritating. Cowardice leads to failure to provide a peer with an observation about how their performance could be improved, how they could make a better impression, or about a mistake they made. Could malice drive some of that? Probably, but I’d wager not as often as cowardice is the culprit.
So. Feedback. It’s a dumb word. But if we could all develop a knack for kindly, with empathy, and a genuine desire for the betterment of another person and the enrichment of our relationship with them – develop a knack for telling them the truth, we would enjoy a more nuanced, more productive work experience. And maybe we could even un-name it after a while. Maybe the word feedback would go away, a silly historical reference to a time when communication skills were bereft of an effective means for telling one another about what is real.
(c) 2008. Andrea M. Hill