Feedback is Relative and Relational

Feedback is Relative and Relational

In their article "The Feedback Fallacy,"1 Buckingham and Goodall make compelling, scientifically supported arguments about the misconceptions of feedback. One, they explain that feedback is relative and always relational to the person who is providing it, meaning it is not fact-based or objective. So, "all we can do is share our own feelings and experiences, our own reactions." That is, how the other person's behaviors impact us personally. Therefore, feedback statements are not truth, but only our truths.

Two, they point out that neurons grow where we already have the most neurons, meaning our brain grows where it is already strongest. Therefore, "focusing people on their shortcomings doesn't enable learning; it impairs it." Critical feedback inhibits neural circuits. Conversely, they say, paying attention to strengths creates learning—we should notice when someone behaves in a way that positively impacts us and point it out to them in the moment. Again, this points out how feedback is relative to the person providing it. They end with a wonderful summary statement, "We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works."

So, feedback is not truth; it is perspective—another person's perspective of you. It is all relative to them and what is important to them. They can only tell you how they see you, experience you, and what they feel. This is valuable—it tells you how you can be more effective with them; it is not the truth about what is better. It is merely a clue about what is better for them. Remarkably however, they often don't realize that their feedback to you is merely relative to themselves.

Further, from our experience conducting thousands of 360 interviews, the feedback provider rarely knows what they actually do want from you. This takes work. They may readily see what doesn't work well for them. However, it takes intention to move past the negativity bias, to identify what they'd prefer you do instead; how you could be more effective working with them. This is key—helping people progress from what not to do, to knowing what to do.

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  1. Buckingham, M., and Goodall, A. 2019. "The Feedback Fallacy." Harvard Business Review.