The overwhelming importance of feedback

Originally posted on Quartz

There’s a game I used to play as a kid that we called the “hotter, colder” game. One person would hide an object, which the other would then try to find. What made it interesting (for an 8-year-old, at least) was that as you looked for the hidden treasure, the person who had hidden it would give you clues: saying “hotter” when you got closer to the hiding place, and “colder” as you moved away.

The key to this game is feedback. Without the feedback provided by the “hotter/colder” clues, the game would quickly get boring and you’d never find the hidden object. This simple example illustrates one of the most valuable skills to develop if you want to achieve any goal: the ability to seek out and respond well to quality feedback.

The importance of feedback

Research in both school and work settings has demonstrated how vital feedback is for improving your performance. One study from Harvard Business School found that regular feedback led to substantial improvements in performance on a simple data entry task. Students who receive feedback on their work perform twice as well as students who do not. Gary Latham and Edwin Locke, who study effective goal-setting in organizations, argue that quality feedback is one of the most important factors influencing performance.

The reason feedback is so effective is that it helps you see what stands between you and your goal—and the steps you need to take to get there. Imagine trying to learn to play an instrument if you couldn’t hear whether you were hitting the right notes or not. It would be pretty near impossible: if you don’t even know when you’re making mistakes, how can you begin to correct them?

The same applies in the workplace: If you want to improve at your job—whether that means becoming a better manager, making more sales, or simply getting more done in less time—one of the best things you can do is to ask for more feedback. Others often spot things we don’t, and have suggestions from their experience we might not have thought of. But this is easier said than done: seeking feedback from others can be incredibly difficult.

Why seeking feedback is so difficult

When did you last ask for feedback from your boss or colleagues outside of a formal review process? You may struggle to think of an example; most of us don’t explicitly seek out feedback on how we’re doing often.

Psychological research suggests that people tend to avoid seeking feedback, particularly when they expect it be negative. Feedback can be painful. No one wants to discover that they’ve done something wrong or that they’re coming across badly. At least in the short term, it’s much easier to avoid negative feedback and avoid the negative feelings that come with it. This is an example of what’s known as information avoidance: a widespread human tendency to avoid any information that might be emotionally threatening.

We’re all fundamentally motivated to maintain a positive self-image—and so will tend to avoid any information that might threaten that image. I definitely struggle with seeking feedback on my writing. I like to think that I’m a good writer, and if something threatens that—a negative comment from a friend or boss—my self-esteem takes a little knock. When something I’ve worked hard on is criticized, it can feel like a personal attack, like I’m being criticized as a personand that hurts.

But I also know, deep down, that I have to seek feedback on my work if I want to improve. So how can we make feedback feel less threatening and more helpful?

 

1. Cultivate a ‘growth mindset’

Fear of criticism is at least partly rooted in having a fixed mindset—believing that your traits and abilities are fixed and there’s nothing you can do to change them. If you think you can’t change your abilities, then negative feedback serves no purpose other than to make you feel bad. On the other hand, if you can cultivate a growth mindset—believing that you can change and improve with hard work—then every piece of feedback becomes an opportunity to improve.

The first step toward cultivating a growth mindset is simply learning to notice fixed mindset thoughts when they arise, and replace them. Sometimes I catch myself with thoughts like “I received negative feedback on that article… I guess I’m not that good a writer after all.” This is a perfect example of a fixed mindset attitude, because I’m assuming that my abilities as a writer are fixed—I’m either a good writer or I’m not, and feedback will tell me which is the case. When I notice these thoughts, I try to correct them with thoughts like, “If you work hard and are able to learn from feedback, you’ll eventually be a great writer.” This transforms how I feel about receiving criticism on my work. I’ve found it helpful to explicitly ask myself, “How would this feedback help me to improve? How can I use it to become better?”

For more on the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, and how to cultivate a growth mindset, I highly recommend the bookMindset by Carol Dweck.

2. Ask for feedback when you’re feeling good about yourself

Geoffrey Cohen, a psychology professor from Stanford University, has found that simple “self-affirmation” exercises make it much easier for people to accept threatening information. The exercise is pretty simple: you write down a list of values that are important to you—standards you want to live your life by. Examples might include having good relationships, being hardworking, curious, or kind. You then spend a few minutes writing about why these values are important to you, and thinking of times when you particularly lived up to those values.

Cohen and colleagues have found these simple exercises can have profound effects like reducing defensiveness and making people more open to threatening information in a range of scenarios, from school to relationships. The basic idea behind this is that when we feel good about ourselves in general, we’re much less easily threatened by specific things.

Doing a simple self-affirmation exercise might, then, make feedback much easier to handle. It’s also worth making sure you ask for feedback at a time when you’re feeling good in general, not when you’re particularly tired, stressed, or insecure.

3. Concretely visualize the benefits of getting feedback

Recently, I noticed myself avoiding feedback on an article I’d written. I knew I should seek feedback from a specific person since I was writing about a topic he was an expert on. But I also knew that if I sought feedback, I’d have to accept that what I’d written was imperfect and needed work. Part of me just wanted to submit the article as it was, and deal with the consequences later.

But then a little voice in my brain chimed in saying, “Picture yourself in a week’s time, having published the piece without seeking feedback. You’ll probably avoid sharing it with many people, because you won’t be that proud of it, and you’ll be worried they’ll notice flaws you can’t change anymore. On the other hand, if you get feedback now and improve it, you’ll feel so much better when you do publish it, and glad you put the extra work in. Doesn’t that feel better?” Suddenly I could really see how seeking feedback would be better for me in the long run.

As I mentioned above, one of the most difficult things about seeking feedback is that often it means accepting a short-term cost—admitting your imperfections—in favor of a long-term gain—the opportunity to improve. The more vivid and certain the long-term benefits are, though, the more motivating they’ll be. So if you find the idea of seeking feedback difficult, try concretely visualizing the ways in which it will help you in future.

4. Break criticism down

If someone says something critical of you, there are two possibilities: either what they’re saying is true, or it’s not. If it’s true, then hearing it is useful and allows you to improve (see points one and two above). If it’s not, then they’re wrong and it doesn’t matter. So criticism should never really be harmful, right?

Obviously it’s not quite that simple: often a piece of feedback has a grain of truth to it, but isn’t entirely accurate. In this situation, it can help to break a piece of criticism down into its useful and non-useful parts. I found this really useful recently when I received a critical comment from someone on the internet—it helped me to take away something useful without feeling too upset. Accepting that a piece of negative feedback contains something useful doesn’t mean you have to accept the entire thing.

5. Start small, and build up to bigger, more personal things

Start by asking people to give you feedback in areas that are less personally important and less likely to threaten your self-image. It might be easier to ask your boss for feedback on a specific report you’ve put together than to ask your clients for feedback on your presentation and social skills.

As you get used to receiving potentially negative feedback in less personal areas, you can then build up to asking for feedback in more personal areas. This is similar to exposure therapya technique used to successfully treat phobias: you start off with something that barely scares you, and gradually build up so that you’re more able to deal with the thing.

6. Ask for both positive and negative feedback

Asking for a combination of positive and negative feedback makes both giving and receiving feedback easier. Not only is negative feedback much easier to take if it’s served with a side of compliments, it also feels nicer to give someone else positive and negative feedback together. So if you’re actively seeking feedback, make it clear you’re interested in hearing about things you do well in addition to things you could improve.

Research suggests that novices tend to find positive feedback most motivating, and as you develop expertise, negative feedback gradually becomes more useful. If you’re just starting out in a new job, for example, negative feedback might be very discouraging—feedback on what you’re doing well is much more likely to make you feel committed to and motivated by the job. When you’ve worked your way to the top of a company, and are considered an expert in your field, negative feedback is likely to be much less threatening and much more useful for identifying where you can improve.

7. Ask for specific, actionable feedback

Vague feedback can be incredibly frustrating. Being told “you’re not very good at presentations” is useless: it just makes you feel bad and gives no suggestions for what you need to actually do to improve. One study of sixth graders demonstrated the importance of specific feedback, finding that giving written comments rather than nonspecific, numeric scores resulted in significantly higher levels of improvement. As well as being more useful, feedback that focuses specifically on what you could do better, rather than what you do badly, is also much easier to hear.

The best way to ensure you receive specific, constructive feedback is to explicitly ask for it. So instead of approaching your boss tomorrow and asking for generic feedback, pick a specific goal, project or skill you’d like to make more progress with, and ask focused questions about that one thing. How do you appear to be progressing? Is there anything you could be doing better, or anything that’s holding you back?

 

Seeking feedback is a skill like any other—a skill which can massively improve your work performance in all areas. Like all skills, it gets easier with practice—the more you practice asking for feedback, the easier it is to see the benefits and overcome the hurdles.

© 2015 Jess Whittlestone, as first published on Quartz