Why a belief in the importance of giving and receiving personal feedback is misplaced

I’d like to begin by differentiating between personal and professional feedback. When a manager or friend teaches you how to make a better PowerPoint slide, I term that as professional feedback. Professional feedback is largely useful. It helps us learn to produce output that will be well received in our particular organization. These include learning how to eat, behave and dress in a way that suits our organization’s context.

Personal feedback is, well, more personal. You know exactly what I’m talking about because you have probably received personal feedback at some point in your career. And, I’ve come to believe that most personal feedback is useless. Here’s why –

1. It is impossible to give great feedback without adequate self-awareness on the part of the giver. It is hard for the receiver to take and use feedback without adequate self-awareness as well.

2. Even assuming you have two self-aware people having a conversation about feedback, there needs to be a level of trust, intimacy and vulnerability in the relationship. This takes time and isn’t easily achieved even in teams that work together for long periods of time.

3. The more self-aware you become, the more you understand 3 truths. First, your biases significantly color your feedback. Second, it is easy to give bad feedback and very hard to say something insightful. Third, it is better to show people the way than to tell them how it should be done.

4. Once you realize this, you realize that your time is best spent role modelling what you term as exemplary behavior – based on your value system since it’s all relative and since your values won’t resonate with everyone else. Over time, you’ll attract people who share similar values. When you attract and work with people with similar values, it is easier to build trusting relationships. And, once you build trusting relationships, feedback becomes a normal conversation. It isn’t a big deal. It is just part of the natural candor and vulnerability that you bring to the table every time you sit down.

Most professional organizations and schools today focus on the importance of giving and receiving feedback. I think that focus is misplaced. The focus needs to be on improving self-awareness. But, therein lies the problem. Self-awareness is incredibly hard to get to. It is a journey you commit to for the long term and it is hard to measure success simply because, the further you are on the path, the more you become aware of how long there is to go. On the other hand, it is easy to measure if you are improving on metrics that track giving and receiving feedback. All you need to do is to set up feedback meetings and enjoy that feeling of progress being made.

But, just because something is easy to measure doesn’t mean it is right. And, just because something is hard to do doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem worth solving.