You are a little prince(1). You have just landed on a new planet. And here, you observe some very strange behavior: the inhabitants only talk to each other once a year. It is a strange rite. The rest of the time, they run, work, sleep. Of course, they have discussions, but about their projects, their work or trivialities. Not about themselves. They often complain, sometimes criticize others, or even quarrel - because they do not understand each other. On this planet, lack of recognition has become widespread. Imagine: you are this little prince. How would you feel?
Our organizations and this planet are the same. The annual review is this strange rite. It is the sole compensation for a whole year without feedback. The intention of this systemized moment is to force an opportunity to speak frankly. What a paradox! Our planet is drifting and now is the time to encourage open dialog and moments of quality in the very heart of our human interactions.
Understanding the desert
We live in a desert bereft of feedback. Dunes of conversation as far as the eye can see. And too little feedback. There are good reasons for this. Our society has not taught us a vocabulary or a grammar for feedback. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite. We have been unconsciously conditioned to repeat our mistakes. With the exception of Asia, our socio-cultural legacy tells us that man is essentially a sinner. In most countries, talking about one’s talents or successes is seen as arrogant, and sometimes even a taboo. Our educational system reinforces this way of thinking. This system whereby performance is scored out of ten or twenty focuses on our mistakes. Of course, we all remember those teachers who were able to unleash our potential. But unfortunately, there were also those teachers with a dogged tendency to find fault, armed with their red pens, their degrading comparisons or humiliating annotations. The age old fight between good and evil in a way. This way of thinking has infiltrated in to our personal and professional lives. Gradually, a new dangerous belief has come in to being: good is the norm and the norm does not have to be praised; evil is everywhere and has to be punished and made a focal point at any moment it appears. Often, parents do not congratulate their children enough for their good marks. But they easily point out insufficient performance and may use coercion to force change. In organizations, many managers follow the same pattern: they systematically criticize errors, make employees feel guilty if targets are not reached, or attack one’s self esteem. These are very simple and convenient ways to impose authority on others. Management by submission is not dead. It has to stop! Without going to the other extreme….
Feedback is a gift that reveals talent and unleashes people’s potential. Feedback is food for personal growth. It is a very precious means of communication. When used properly, it allows people to grow and reinforces self-confidence. It does not solve everything. And all commentary is not feedback. For instance, compliments and reproaches are not feedback. They are tools that allow to emotionally adjust. They help us share our feelings. They are useful but their goal is not to encourage growth in others. If I want to please you, I will congratulate you. If I want to cause you stress, I will blame you. If I want to help you grow, I will give you feedback. Managerial orders are not feedback either. Feedback is an act of freedom, from an individual free to give it, to another individual free to receive it. Feedback is a gift in that specific sense. And even if your feedback comes from a place of true generosity, you cannot force someone to like the gift you offer.
There are three types of feedback. And only two of them should be used. Positive feedback is an invitation to succeed again. By explaining what was done well in a specific situation, it helps others to become aware of decisions and postures that lead to success. And it strengthens self-esteem. Negative feedback is to be avoided. It highlights what should not be done, pointing towards the problem rather than the solution. With the following consequence: « If dangers we too closely heed, 'Tis ten to one they come indeed » (2). We need to learn to look at the solution rather than the problem. This is the purpose of corrective feedback. Negative feedback reinforces what should not be done. Corrective feedback explains what could be done differently. It requires preparation. For on the one hand, we need to suggest relevant solutions; conversely we need to be very careful to maintain others’ self-esteem. If positive feedback is an invitation to succeed again, corrective feedback is an invitation to learn and change. You win or you learn. The old opposition between success and failure is outdated. In order to help others grow, you need to dare to speak up.
Developing the art
All art is based on technique. Feedback follows the same rule. Simply knowing its language is insufficient. We need to practice its grammar. Everyday, at work, at home, with one’s subordinates, peers, superiors, spouse, children… It has to be practiced consistently, with commitment, discipline and preparation. Feedback is linked to our education. We have often been moulded during our childhood. Therefore, we need to change what we do. We need to unlearn and learn anew. Collectively, we should reach a level of awareness where feedback is seen as vital. Because without feedback, we die inside. Feedback can be given to anyone, anytime, anywhere, as a precious gift. There is no time limit for feedback.
We learn mathematics, history, languages or sport at school. Maybe one day our children will learn feedback. In the meantime, we are invited to use more feedback in our own lives and in the lives of others. It is a priceless gift. If we learn how to give it - and receive it - with true sincerity and generosity, one day a little prince will land on our planet and will say: what a beautiful planet! Adults talk frankly and help each other to grow and develop! Because we should not forget that the joy of understanding others and being understood holds a value that cannot be underestimated. For all of us, this should be a philosophy. And for each of us, constant work in progress…
(1) « The Little Prince » is a very famous French book from Antoine de Saint Exupery
(2) Jean de la Fontaine, The Fox and the Turkeys, 1693, translation by Walter Thornbury