Thanks for the feedback

Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen
Year of publication
When I read it
January 2021
What I thought

Really liked it.

Choice Highlights

Feedback includes any information you get about yourself. In the broadest sense, it’s how we learn about ourselves from our experiences and from other people—how we learn from life.

The term “feed-back” was coined in the 1860s during the Industrial Revolution to describe the way that outputs of energy, momentum, or signals are returned to their point of origin in a mechanical system.

In addition to our desire to learn and improve, we long for something else that is fundamental: to be loved, accepted, and respected just as we are. And the very fact of feedback suggests that how we are is not quite okay. So we bristle: Why can’t you accept me for who I am and how I am? Why are there always more adjustments, more upgrades? Why is it so hard for you to understand me? Hey boss, hey team. Hey wife, hey Dad. Here I am. This is me. Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of these two needs—our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance.

In the workplace, treating feedback not just as something to be endured, but something to be actively sought, can have a profound impact. Feedback-seeking behavior—as it’s called in the research literature—has been linked to higher job satisfaction, greater creativity on the job, faster adaptation in a new organization or role, and lower turnover. And seeking out negative feedback is associated with higher performance ratings.

Trying to ignore a triggered reaction without first identifying its cause is like dealing with a fire by disconnecting the smoke alarm. So triggers are obstacles, but they aren’t only obstacles. Triggers are also information—a kind of map—that can help us locate the source of the trouble.

Truth Triggers are set off by the substance of the feedback itself—it’s somehow off, unhelpful, or simply untrue.

Relationship Triggers are tripped by the particular person who is giving us this gift of feedback.

Identity Triggers focus neither on the feedback nor on the person offering it. Identity triggers are all about us. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, something about it has caused our identity—our sense of who we are—to come undone.

Broadly, feedback comes in three forms: appreciation (thanks), coaching (here’s a better way to do it), and evaluation (here’s where you stand). Often the receiver wants or hears one kind of feedback, while the giver actually means another.

Managing truth triggers is not about pretending there’s something to learn, or saying you think it’s right if you think it’s wrong. It’s about recognizing that it’s always more complicated than it appears and working hard to first understand. And even if you decide that 90 percent of the feedback is off target, that last golden 10 percent might be just the insight you need to grow.

But often, feedback is not only happening in the context of a relationship; it’s created by the relationship itself. Embedded in the hurly-burly of every relationship is a unique pairing of sensitivities, preferences, and personalities. It is the nature of our particular pairing—rather than either of us individually—that creates friction.

… when we use the word “feedback,” we may be referring to any of three different kinds of information: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation.

Appreciation is fundamentally about relationship and human connection. At a literal level it says, “thanks.” But appreciation also conveys, “I see you,” “I know how hard you’ve been working,” and “You matter to me.”

When people complain that they don’t get enough feedback at work, they often mean that they wonder whether anyone notices or cares how hard they’re working.

Coaching is aimed at trying to help someone learn, grow, or change. The focus is on helping the person improve, whether it involves a skill, an idea, knowledge, a particular practice, or that person’s appearance or personality.

Evaluation tells you where you stand. It’s an assessment, ranking, or rating.

It is smart to avoid evaluation when your purpose is coaching. Don’t say, “You’re no good,” when what you really mean to say is “Here’s how to get better.”

One of the key challenges of feedback conversations is that wires often get crossed. There are two ways this happens. First, I might want a different type of feedback from the type you gave me—for example, I was looking for appreciation, but you gave me evaluation. Second, you may have intended to give me one kind of feedback, but I interpreted it incorrectly—for example, you sought to give me coaching, but I heard it as evaluation.

During the conversation, check in periodically: “I’m intending to give you coaching. Is that how you’re hearing it? From your point of view, is that what you need?” The receiver may respond that it would be nice to know if she’s doing anything right—a signal that she’s craving some appreciation and maybe a bit of positive evaluation.

If your organization has formal feedback conversations at yearly or semiyearly intervals (where, for example, supervisor and supervisee develop objectives or a learning plan for the coming year, with specific skills and outcomes targeted), the evaluation conversation and the coaching conversation should be separated by at least days, and probably longer.

This “what was heard” versus “what was meant” coaching mismatch is surprisingly common.

If we strip back the label, we find that feedback has both a past and a future. There’s a looking-back component (“here’s what I noticed”), and a looking-forward component (“here’s what you need to do”). The usual feedback labels don’t tell us much in either direction. So to clarify the feedback under the label we need to “be specific” about two things: (1) where the feedback is coming from, and (2) where the feedback is going.

we can test whether advice is clear by asking this: If you do want to follow the advice, would you know how to do so?

Intentions are rarely explicitly stated, and even when they are, we may or may not believe them. You say you are “just trying to help,” but it sure seems as if you are “just trying to get me fired.” The challenge here, as we’ve seen, is that intentions are invisible. They are locked up in the giver’s head, where even the giver may not be fully aware of them. And this makes intentions tricky. We care deeply about others’ intentions but we simply can’t know them.