Why feedback matters
Written by Tim Eebes on 12th July 2017
In this article I will try to convince you that feedback might be hard to give and receive but that it is a vital instrument for everyone. Not only for those people that like to constantly improve themselves, also for every team member of any team.
Here at Spindle, all colleagues share one thing. Even more so, we all share that one thing. Everyone else we know, we ever heard of and we have ever seen. We are all human. Being human means we are capable of many things. Send karts to Mars, exterminate harmful diseases, open heart surgery, and in our case, create open software for communication.
However, it also means we all have a lot of incapabilities. We are all aware of our physical incapabilities. We can’t drive a nail into a stone wall with our bare hands. That’s why we invented hammers. But when it comes to our mind and our mental capabilities, it is less clear what we are capable of and incapable of.
Looking at ourselves
One of our incapabilities is to look objectively at our own being. It is just as impossible for a knife to cut itself as it is for us to see how we behave in our daily situation. In daily life that might not be so much of a problem, maybe in your relationship, maybe not, but when it comes to work and colleagues it becomes a different story.
Usually (I assume) it is the task of your manager to make you think of what you want to achieve and what goals to set. As Spindle works with Holacracy, we all operate autonomously. This basically means that we can do whatever we like as long as it adds some kind of value to the company.
The scary end of the year talk
Being autonomous is great. But as with everything, it has a darker side as well. It means that nobody has the job of telling me what I do well and where I could improve. Yes, once a year we have a moment of evaluation in our reflection document and we write our own ambition plan for the upcoming year. But (for me at least) it’s like Christmas decorations, I forget about it most of the time of the year and dust it off when Christmas is coming.
To be honest, it’s always kinda scary that towards the end of the year people get to say something about how I did my work for the last 12 months! If I could improve something, I would have liked to know earlier, for example, at the moment it occurs. Then I can handle it, so it doesn’t happen again instead of at the end of the year.
From immediate to delayed feedback
Leonard L. Martin is the founder of the I-D compensation theory. His theory says basically that for thousands of years humans lived in small groups in harmony with their surroundings. The work they did gave them immediate feedback. The wood gets chopped, the pile of firewood grows, the berries get plucked and eaten immediately. In this era, most of us work in an environment with no immediate feedback. Projects are big and we all work on some bigger purpose that is fulfilled somewhere in the future. The side-effect of this delayed feedback is that it gave a chance to our ego to evolve.
Our inner spin doctor
The ego became our biggest problem for self-expansion. And we all have an ego. It is our inner spin doctor. It makes sure that whatever happens that could do harm to our image, is not our fault. Problems that have occurred that might do harm to our image are not our fault – the problems were external. The wind blew from the wrong direction, the referee was biased, the economy was in a crisis, etc. etc..
The ego is so sophisticated in telling us how good we are that it also tells us that the qualities we have are very important, and besides important also very rare in life. And it tells us that our lesser sides are common, mostly human anyway and not important in daily life.
Our ego is on autopilot. It is impossible to shut it off. It is always in the back of our head making sure the image we have of ourselves is a very positive one.
Professor of Social Psychology Roos Vonk gave the following example in her book:
The ego is such a strong voice in our heads that when participants were asked to put their hand in a bucket of ice water, they could endure it much longer when the briefing said that only healthy people could do it. When the participants were told that only unhealthy people could put their hand in ice water, the water became unbearably cold.
So, we often don’t get feedback from our surroundings, and if we do get feedback the ego has advanced ways of telling us that what was said is nonsense. Does this mean that giving (and receiving) feedback is completely useless?
Deceiving the ego
No, there is hope. Because the same research that teaches us about the ego also tells us there are ways to deceive that ego. We all know “the hamburger”. Start with a compliment before you move on to the part where you want your colleague to improve. We deceive the ego with some compliments and once we are through the defensive lines, we strike. Is it that simple? No, of course not. But we do know that this way the feedback actually is being heard and remembered. And maybe, if we do keep giving feedback, the person might do something with it.
With all things, what you do often gets less scary. Receiving and giving feedback is no different. Give and receive feedback often and you will find that it becomes not scary at all anymore. Then you will move from self-perpetuation to self-expansion.
This is, in essence, why we built Flindt the way we did. We give feedback every 2 weeks to a colleague on one of his or her roles. You start with one or more positive points about how this person executes this role. After this, you give feedback on how he/she can improve in this role. We deceive the ego with some compliments, and after that, we give some points to improve.
When the person receives the feedback, we ask him or her to rate the feedback via three simple questions: “How valuable is this feedback?” and “How recognizable is this feedback?” Give this a rating from 1 to 10. The third question is “Are you planning to do something with this feedback?” This way we give a helping hand for people to think about the feedback they have received and go from self-perpetuation to self-expansion.
Value members of the team
So, there you have it: the professional part of giving feedback. But, as in many organizations, we also care about our colleagues and quite a lot of us have become good friends. Therefore, we also ask everybody to give feedback on a colleague on an individual level once a month. How does this person behave in the group?
We do this by asking a different (usually metaphorical) question, like: “If this person was a superhero, what would his superpowers be?”. These questions are not easy to answer. That means that you have to think about it, use some imagination, and think outside the box. Our theory is that in this way the feedback is still valuable but wrapped in a nice readable package.
Conclusion: we all benefit from feedback
It is in our nature to defend ourselves against loss of face. Our ego is a strong mechanism. As much as we need a hammer to drive a nail into a wall, we need feedback from peers to get some insight about our behavior.
So, what are your thoughts on giving and receiving feedback? Let me know in the comments below.