Facettes of feedback - Why we fail to get the most of feedback

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Written by B and photo by Maxime Le Conte des Floris on Unsplash

Facettes of feedback - Why we fail to get the most of feedback

"I feel super bad. Remember the assignment you helped me with? Today I got feedback.“ Sometimes a simple „how are you?“ tends to escalate quite quickly. As I felt a bit involved due to my help with the work, I wanted to support and understand my friend and asked him what happened. He told me the lecturer had embarrassed him by giving public and unfair feedback. He sent me the list of points to improve but I failed to understand his disappointment. Because I thought it was great feedback and really something one could work with. That made me reflect on criticism and the ways to cope with it best.


Effort vs. outcome - Why do our perceptions differ?

„I had put so much effort in it.“ That is one of the main reasons my friend felt treated unfairly. He struggled a lot with the task and was quite proud once he handed in the paper. But to be honest: When you struggled a lot with a certain task, because it was new or in other way challenging. How likely is it that it will be perfect? Practice makes perfect. So, especially when you struggle you are very likely to be criticized. But why do we feel that way? 

We suffer from a perception bias. We ourselves value the effort, while others, only see the outcome. There have been published several academic studies that show that things we put effort, are things we value more. Additionally, we value things that belong to us more than others. And the last bias we have to bear in mind why we might see things differently than other people is the "mere exposure effect“. Once you increase the time spent on something, we will like it more. When you worked on something for a long time, you simply start to like it not because it is good, but because it has accompanied you for such a long time.


Be curious - What attitude is best?

In many ways, we still have bad error management cultures all over our society. Failure is seen as something bad, something you need to avoid. However, nobody will ever go through life without making mistakes. Especially, when you decide to take some risks, sometimes things won’t go to plan. 

On the other hand, I don’t think that the unreflected „embrace criticism“, "it’s super" and an „opportunity to grow and learn“- attitude is always the right way to approach feedback and criticism. So, I think the attitude I suggest to have towards criticism is curiosity. In the following, I will explain a bit more why that might be a suitable approach. 


Being wrong ≠ Being criticized - What is the criticism REALLY about?

Our communication is much more than exchanging facts. We are communicating and revealing much more in the when we interact with others. That is really important when it comes to feedback. Because in the majority of the cases it is not about your work.

There is a concept in communication psychology proposed by von Thun who says that there are four layers to every message you send to another person. How that can be applied to a feedback situation is shown in the following. 

„This is wrong.“ = „Look I know something."

One aspect of criticism might be self-revealing or a form of self-disclosure. The reason why the person is giving you feedback is not about you or your work, but about themselves. They may want to prove you or other people that they know something for example. A criticism made out of these motives is something you might not take really seriously.

„This is wrong.“ =  „I don’t like you.“

One is the relationship layer.  When a person gives you feedback they might not criticize your work, but you as a person, because they - for some reason - don’t like you. Criticism given for personal reasons is criticism you should take seriously if you have to keep on working with that person. You should understand why they feel a certain way towards you and try to find a way to improve the relationship quality.

„This is wrong.“ =  „Know your place.“

A third aspect of a communication message might be an appeal. A person criticizing you, might, for example, show you that you crossed a boundary. That they felt offended. Or want’s you to behave in a different way. This is something you should reflect on because unspoken rules of engagement might be communicated this way. 

„This is wrong.“ =„This is wrong.“

So, the last layer is really about the content of your work. Make sure to understand what the criticism is about and work on the right aspects. Maybe you get irrelevant feedback because it is just about self-disclosure and you don’t understand that it is not about your actual work. Your efforts to include the feedback might make your work even worse or drive you crazy because it is something you really can’t include.  So, the first question you should ask yourself is: What is the criticism really about?

Published on Sunday 17th October 2021

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