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Feedback: a source of anxiety and learning

7 April 2020
By Cecilie Tejnø

How to make feedback a powerful learning tool, even during a corona epidemic

Feedback can be an invaluable tool, and at the same time a process that is rife with hypocrisy, gullibility and a dangerous presumption that we have a common understanding of our shared world. Feedback is either brutal ("here we say things straight") or vague, sugary sweet talk ("here we have a culture of praise") - which is why feedback as a constructive and systematic learning tool is all too rarely used. I have three tips for good feedback:

  1. Create a formal feedback framework that both parties understand
  2. Make feedback a common concern as a basis for discussion and reflection
  3. Be aware that uninvited feedback can be an abuse

In January, MandagMorgen published an excellent article on feedback entitled "How to avoid your feedback turning into a feedbank", written by business psychologists Mathias Hovind and Susanne Clausager Dalgaard. 

The article focuses on three things managers should avoid when giving feedback. Very interesting and a nice distraction from the corona tumult. The article has inspired me to make a few observations about feedback.

As I said, feedback can be associated with forgetfulness and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is largely due to the fact that we are social individuals who want to do "the right thing" to become an accepted member of the group we identify with. We will go to great lengths to maintain our membership in the group. We use a common language, laugh at the same jokes, listen to the same music, etc. We say things we don't mean and willingly compromise our own well-being. This is not necessarily for the good, either personally or professionally.

When the boss has to give feedback to an employee, or when a colleague gives feedback to another colleague, feelings can be hurt and uncertainty can arise about what the feedback was really about. It's a bit of a minefield if you're not aware of what's at stake.

Let's imagine that Peter, who gave a speech in the department yesterday, is approached this morning by Birgitte, who says, "Peter, if I could just give you some feedback on your speech yesterday". Peter, who was not very enthusiastic about yesterday's performance and is today suffering from a headache, lies and says "yes please", even though he would prefer to be free.

Birgitte mentions with a smile that "you were very nervous and missed some points, but otherwise it was OK". Peter feels a lot worse for the smiling feedback and when Birgitte is done, he says "thank you". But inside he's frustrated and maybe even a little vengeful. He hadn't felt very nervous at all. What does she think she's doing? All wrapped up in gratitude and smiles. Birgitte has a clear sense that Peter welcomed her feedback. He did say thank you, but behind Peter's facade there is turmoil and irritation.

Birgitte probably meant well, and assumed that Peter was as ready to receive feedback as she was to give it. Without knowing it, Birgitte was abusing Peter. How could Birgitte have avoided it? Even by asking if she could give Peter feedback, Birgitte is committing an abuse. Because Peter will always say yes, whether he means it or not. If he said no, his belonging in the group would be threatened.

Feedback is, as the authors of the Monday Morning article also conclude, a common concern. Giving and receiving feedback is equally valuable for both parties if there is a common goal. If we are to steer clear of hypocrisy, pretence and dangerous preconceptions, there needs to be a common understanding of how and when we give each other feedback, whether we are managers or colleagues.

Feedback is a psychological minefield, where tone, body language, humour, irony, etc. can have a decisive impact on whether the message is understood. Cultural differences make special demands on the way we communicate. We may have the same working language, but we are likely to have very different views on values and concepts such as hierarchies, criticism, slang, etc. The risk of being misunderstood is imminent if we simply assume that we understand each other. Feedback should be clear, friendly and without subtlety.

The clear communication of constructive feedback takes on particular importance in these corona times, when we can expect a large proportion of our meetings to be increasingly digital. This may be by e-mail, Zoom, Skype, etc. This certainly applies to feedback as well. When we meet digitally, we are partly deprived of the important social signals we send and receive when we meet physically. If feedback through digital media is to succeed, focusing on clear, friendly communication is essential. There must therefore be a procedure that all parties are familiar with and can identify with.

The assumption that we have the same understanding of our world and its concepts is pure poison for constructive feedback. The shared understanding of why, when and how we give feedback, in turn, paves the way for an invaluable learning tool. The prerequisite for Birgitte's feedback to work is that both Peter and Birgitte agree that there is an expectation to give and receive feedback. And it is Peter who must invite feedback from his colleague Birgitte.

If Birgitte were Peter's boss, there would be an expectation that she would give Peter feedback without him inviting it. In any case, this is a shared concern. Peter and Birgitte both need to know in advance when and how the feedback will be formulated. Indeed, the recipient of feedback will always be vulnerable, and therefore the giver of feedback would do well to avoid speculating on feelings and assumptions that could cloud the constructive message. In my view, feedback is a formal process - a procedure - that creates a basis for shared reflection and deliberation.

In GlobalDenmark we work with feedback across cultures. Our model - DIDS - creates a shared safe learning environment across national, professional and personal cultures. 2600 PhD students worldwide have been introduced to our feedback methodology over the past 10 years, and several have returned with the remark "It works!".

Read more about GlobalDenmark's course on cross-cultural feedback here.

Here is an article about DIDS as a tool in the global research team.

Thanks to Mathias Hovind and Susanne Clausager Dalgaard for a little corona distraction!