Let’s Grow Together

Why is feedback hard?

Feb 17 2019 · 3 minute read

As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs are familiar members of the alphabet-based feedback system that we use for anywhere from 12 to 20+ years of formal education. At semi-regular checkpoints throughout the school year, we’re graded on our mastery of academic subjects in a format that looks more like a blood type than an actionable guide to improving our skills. Despite the arbitrary scale used on report cards, schools have strong foundations in place to facilitate learning and development. In the classroom, a subject matter expert facilitates discussions and then designs assignments that give students opportunities to showcase their knowledge. A few days after submitting or presenting an assignment, students receive a grade along with comments on what they did well and where to improve. We can also learn a lot from our peers, but feedback from our classmates is often sporadic and disjointed. At Grow, we believe that feedback should come candidly, in real time, and from all possible sources.

People are biological creatures that operate with the help of numerous feedback systems to help maintain social order and ensure our physical survival. When we sweat to cool ourselves, it’s purely physical and involuntary. Reading body language and social cues requires focused attention, but it still involves taking in data points to make adjustments. The trailing examples happen in real time, but feedback can also be scheduled and strategic, like a monthly checkin with a trusted friend or advisor. With so much feedback already coming in, it’s unfortunate that 65% of people say that they don’t get enough feedback in the context of professional development.

The author of the above article states that giving feedback can often be unpleasant, but why? Humans evolved in small, hunter-gatherer communities that heavily relied on a strength-in-numbers approach to survival, so we’re biased to avoid saying anything that could have disrupted the group dynamic. If we were to tell the community chef that the buffalo meat would have been better with less salt, we might have ended up roaming the African savannah hungry and alone. Our biology hasn’t caught up to the modern world so it can feel high-risk/low-reward to tell someone, “your presentation would have been more impactful if you built clearer visualizations”.

However, according to Drive by Daniel Pink, people are driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose, so if you regularly provide constructive feedback, you can help your peers master their skills. People want to get better at what they do, so if we overcome our primal aversion to giving feedback, we can help each other learn and grow. To assuage the fear of feedback, we can create psychological safety. Adam Grant describes psychological safety as, “a culture of respect, trust, and openness where it’s not risky to raise ideas and concerns”. The culture he describes allows teams to quiet the biological warning bells for the sake of providing targeted, actionable feedback to collectively improve.

Whether we’re standing in front of the fridge at the request of our stomach’s hunger pangs or reading a professor’s comments on our recent case study, people respond to feedback in a broad array of contexts. Some feedback is harder to process, but that doesn’t need to be the case if we feel safe around our teammates and remind ourselves constructive criticism can help with personal growth. We built Grow to make it easier to request, give, and track feedback because we know continuous feedback is crucial to high-performing teams and personal motivation.