Feedback would happen all the time if… it wasn’t so damn complicated

Feedback would happen all the time if….. it wasn’t so damn complicated

The post forms part of the #FeedbackCarnival that Helen Amery @wildfigsolns suggested and has been curating for a couple of weeks.  This post has been a while coming for the same reason that feedback can take a while coming and why it can often not get done at all.  This post was a bit like that for me at times, easier to walk away from.  When I have looked at this topic, for my own purposes and for this post, the more I look the more I see and the more complex it becomes.  I wasn’t sure how to structure this post to make it; a) easy to read b) sensible in length c) helpful to those that take the time to read it.  I have landed on a number of sections that I will explore and hopefully link to make a good sort of story.  The sections:

The element(s); identity, relation(ships) or the work

The reactant(s); power, distance and intent

The method; equations, sandwiches and meaning


1) The element(s); identity, relation(ships) or the work

I thought it may be good to start with the topic of the ‘feedback’ as often that is what we concentrate on.  We can go to great lengths to create what it is we want to say without really considering what it is we want to say.  There’s a very clever man at Lancaster University (Paul Taylor) who looks at the world of communication, and interpersonal meaning in particular, through some different lenses. These lenses are:

Identity – Our sense of self and the stance(s) or face(s) we take or how we see/position ourselves in the world.

Relation(ships) – The extent to which we are (or wish to be) close to another and/or the attention we are paying to how we are getting along.

The work – This is more of an ‘instrumental’ aspect and will include communication of choices and facts.

What he suggests we need to get our head around is that all of these are all in play, to greater or lesser degrees all the time.  Let’s look at some typical feedback scenarios and play it out:

Scenario Identity Relation(ships) The work
X did a piece of work that wasn’t to the agree standard (crap) and X is a peer that you have to work with to succeed. Maybe Yes Yes
Y is behaving in a way that is distancing themselves from their peers and creating dissatisfaction within your (the) team. Yes Yes Maybe
Z is thought of as a technical expert and the ‘go to’ person for system/process issues.  You don’t really know Z or work with them often, none the less, their recommendation was incorrect and caused delays in work being done. Yes Maybe Yes


We could keep going, my point being that there are often at least one (if not more) of these aspects at play.  Which one(s) do I address?  These factors can have a sizeable impact on the choices we make in terms of what we address and more crucially, HOW we address them.  If we really wanted to have some fun and to make it more like real life, we need to add a further dimensions.

2) The reactant(s); power, distance and intent

Often when we are discussing feedback it is from a line manager or team leader to member(s)of their team.  With that comes inherent power and that could be instrumental or influential.  From a line manager perspective it is often instrumental power as being part of the hierarchy and being given the title of ‘manager’ or ‘leader’ gives you that power.  If I change(d) the characters in the table above to be your manager or boss, how would that affect the way you dealt with it?  That choice may range from; ‘not deal with it at all’ through to ‘it would make no difference’ with maybe ‘softening the message’ somewhere in between.  My point, power can matter and change things.

By the way, did you spot that in my question in the above paragraph, I made a presupposition?  I presupposed that making the characters your manager/leader would change things for you.  That is a small example of influential power where I am using my language choice(s) to influence your view(s).  If this sounds like showing off, my apologies.  I wanted to use a practical example to distinguish between inherent and influential power.  I hope that it did the job well enough.

The workplace is a place made up of individuals that come together to make a group and as such have relationships as we discussed above.  Distance then relates to the extent to which you feel ‘close’ to the other person.  If (like with power) we made each character your best friend, would that change your approach?  Two researchers, Tae-Seop Lim and John Bowers did some interesting research where they found the closer the relationship the more effort the people in the study used to ‘manage the message’ when giving feedback.  They hypothesised that the closer people feel themselves to be (to each other), the more they care about the long term relationship and so work harder to deliver feedback in a way that is likely (in their view) to prolong the relationship.

I often hear people talk about ‘intent and impact’ when person A can give feedback that person B can take in a different way to the original intent.  This (in an academic research world) is often called Speaker (S) intent vs Hearer (H) meaning.  There are two aspects that can skew this reactant and they are; ambiguity and individual differences.

The second one is the easier to define, in that we are all different.  We have different experiences, personal lexis (the words we know, choose and use), preferences, emotional triggers etc etc.  What may have little or no meaning for me can mean a lot to you.  For example, if anyone were to say in the process of feedback that I had let them down, I would be distraught, work hard to stop crying and not be able to listen for a while.  When you read this, you may thing ‘really?’ as it wouldn’t do that for you.  That’s my point, the intent from the person giving the feedback may be to explain the gravity (to them) of what has occurred.  For me, it is one of the worst possible things that can happen, EVER.  Individual differences are important.

Now then, ambiguity, that is an interesting one.  Often we will use (strategic) ambiguity as we want to allow ourselves the space to retreat or change the message if needed.  For example, you may ask me what I think to a piece of work you have done.  I reply that you took a really different approach to me and got to the same outcome which has given me something to think about.  What do I mean here?  I could be meaning exactly what it says, or, I could also mean that your way worked…… but mine is better.  I also haven’t mentioned the time or effort needed to get to the end.  Was it less? more? If it was less what does that mean?  If it was more, what does that mean?  My point, that I have left the door open, if I wanted to, to be able to say to maybe myself, you or others, that actually your way was worse than mine.  Ambiguity exists far more than you may expect, have a listen for it.

3) The method; equations, emotion(s), sandwiches and meaning

There is something about feedback where we seem to want to make it equal.  It seems to me that when it comes to feedback we want to ‘balance the equation’.  What I mean by this is that if we are going to give some positive feedback, appreciation or recognition that we have to balance this with some negative too.  I think this is where the idea of the shit, sorry, feedback sandwich came from.  We need to give a difficult message (the shit) and so we dress it up with some positive platitudes to make it seem more rounded, or fair.

In addition, I wonder whether we try to balance the equation(s) across people too.  I was talking with someone last week that is experimenting with giving more and regular appreciation.  What they shared with me is that they are now actively hunting for some things that they can appreciate for 20% of their team.  For the 80% the appreciation is easy to find and a pleasure to give, for the 20%, ‘I don’t want it to seem like I have favourites or that it isn’t fair.’  As the individual and I discussed, there are some large risks with this approach and it also assumes an awful lot too.

I have written most of this post from the perspective of the ‘provider’ of the feedback.  The reality is of course that it is between the two (or more) people involved that meaning is created.  I touched on this with Speaker intent vs Hearer meaning and that is so true.  What the Hearer hears and may go on to remember can be very different from what the Speaker said or meant.  Why?  Because there are a whole load of emotions that will be stirred up in the discussion.  I did a quick look on the thesaurus for synonyms to ‘feedback’ and here’s what I got:

Feedback synonyms

At best there is a mix of neutral and negative semantic meanings attached to those words.    Just the word itself is enough to get emotions going before you even get into the actual discussion or ‘giving’ of the feedback itself.  The presence of emotions and their associated thoughts can have a huge impact on what we remember and/or hold on to.  Yet, how often do we check?  Checking at the time, sure, what about afterwards though?  A day, week, fortnight later?  What meaning have they (and you) constructed in your head(s) about what was said that day?

4) Summary

I am going to leave it here.  My hope and intent (see what I did there) is to create a desire in you, the reader, to work harder with feedback.  Yes, it is complex.  Yes, it is difficult.  Yes, it can go wrong. Yes, it can go brilliantly.  The good news, you have some AMAZING resources for you with this #FeedbackCarnival to help and support you.

Thank you for reading and if you fancy it, as David D’Souza (@dds180) would say, we can have a chat in the comments section below.


6 responses to “Feedback would happen all the time if… it wasn’t so damn complicated

  1. Definitely a thought-provoking post. Thank you Phil. How much does this feedback interaction differ in complexity compared to other (work) interactions?

    • Thank you Helen & glad you liked it. It differs little and lots, depending on the context. Another post I started to pen was titled ‘feedback would happen at the time if… We noticed more as it is always happening. Whenever we interact we get feedback. It is just not the ‘ritualised’ type we often discuss. When people interact they are giving off feedback in their face, body, what they say, how it is said, what is not said. In that way the complexity is the same. There may be other moments where it is simpler, when there’s peers with no power at play or the relationships are so strong intent is always clear, or maybe the team work so openly any ambiguity is challenged. That is where the work of ‘dialogue’ for example can help reduce the complexity. I’m not sure I’ve answered your question, let me know what you think.

  2. Hi Phil,
    I like your blog. Thank you. Feedback is indeed complex and I’ve noticed recently, the negative semantics start very young. I’ve been experimenting with my 8 year old daughter recently. Last week I said to her that she doesn’t practice her piano enough. She interpreted that as “I am stupid” and displayed an Oscar winning emotive response to it ie. hiding under her duvet for half an hour and coming downstairs crying. We managed to make humour out of how could she practice from under her duvet so hopefully saved that one but my point is, we need to as feedback givers, have a strong emotional intelligence which, as we know, not everyone possesses and as you state, everyone is different.
    I am fairly direct with my feedback which has triggered untold emotive responses in the past (I’ve been working on my EQ for years!) but actually some of the behavioural shifts as a result have been intriguing!
    Very interesting – I think people can underestimate the power of feedback (given well)
    Louise Gallant
    Roar Talent Ltd

    • Hi Louise, thank you for the comment and the compliment too. I agree that the semantic and connotations do start young. Also, the link between emotional intelligence and this sort of stuff is really strong. For me it is emotional intelligence in a few ways;
      Self awareness of triggers and what happens one you are triggered so you can manage yourself more effectively (ideally not by hiding under the duvet.
      Awareness of others through relationship management. Being able to give feedback in a kind and compassionate way and then support the other deal with it (as opposed give the feedback and disappear). As you say, giving the feedback well.
      Thanks again for your comment.

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