The gift of constructive feedback

In a world where everyone’s a critic, is there a right way to give and receive feedback? Can criticism ever be truly constructive? Is there really a difference between criticism and feedback or is it just semantics?

I can’t help but think of a recent Saturday night my 14-year-old daughter verbally decimated my evening attire. She was right – the shoes were all wrong with those jeans, and the necklace did not work with that blouse. Yet, why did I feel so crummy when her recommendations were accurate?

Accurate criticism is not constructive, it is just criticism.

Consider the synonyms for criticism: censure, judgement, blame, reproach, disapproval, and condemnation. Clearly, criticism has a negative connotation whether it is useful, correct, or truthful, and therefore it is not necessarily constructive.

The fact that emotions are heightened from being on the receiving end of criticism is commonly linked back to our childhoods and the disappointment in failing our parents or teachers.

Feedback, on the other hand, is another word for advice, opinion, viewpoint, and assessment. As you can see, the difference between the two lies in intent; criticism looks to find blame while the intent of feedback is corrective.

Several studies demonstrate providing feedback with care and respect results in higher quality work and increased critical thinking.  It goes back to the old adage, “do unto others as you would like others to do unto you.”  That goes both ways: in giving feedback and being open to receiving it.

A recent article highlights how the typical first reaction to feedback is defensiveness. The author interviews Sheila Heen, Harvard professor and co-author of several books about feedback, who explains while people want to progress and improve, they also want to be accepted and valued, which triggers the anxiety generated by feedback.

One way to give more seamless and less anxiety-inducing feedback is to make it continual.

While annual reviews are commonplace in most organizations, employees should never be surprised and should expect or even ask their boss to specifically bring up areas needing improvement. Just like talking to kids about the birds and the bees, feedback in the workplace should be an ongoing discussion.

Issues should be raised as they occur, complete with tips and recommendations about how to do the assignment or project differently the next time. Various business leaders interviewed by Adam Grant in his TED Podcast believe you can rewire your thinking to seek out feedback and associate it with opportunity, not anxiety.

At the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, we have a free-flowing stream of feedback due to the nature of work we do: research, writing and teaching. These activities merge data and expertise from personnel with diverse backgrounds including law, policy, ethics, medicine, and finance to assemble the most complete representation of our research.

We need to relate to the wide-ranging audience reading and interacting with our work, including funders, fellow experts, academics who have a peripheral interest in our topic, policy experts, students and the general public. We must get feedback from a multitude of sources.

Granted, it is humbling and even unsettling to get a paper back with more red lines through it than not. However, without the unremitting feedback we would produce papers and teachings that reach and connect with far fewer people.

Meaningful feedback requires a conscious consideration to tone, timing and an understanding of your audience. These are good reminders in the workplace and at home, as we not only criticize but are also always being critiqued.

In this opportunistic vein, I chatted with my child and gave her some suggestions about a kinder, gentler way of giving fashion feedback. She has happily kept the assessments coming about my shoes, jewelry, and everything else in between, but now generously offers her softer recommendations while I am getting dressed instead of when I am walking out the door. A fashion victim no more!

–By Laura Torgerson, research associate at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine

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