Deeper Read: Dr Shane on ‘The Architecture of Feedback’

10 January 2019
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Dr Shane Huntington (from Einstein A Go-Go)

As humans, we seem to crave feedback from those around us no matter what it is we are doing. Whether we are cooking for friends, playing sport, painting, playing music, writing, wearing new clothing, presenting, or just communicating in a variety of ways we have an innate need for evaluation. The question that interests me is whether the feedback is appropriate and useful. In almost all the cases where I see feedback being delivered, it is either of neutral value or straight out damaging.

Feedback, much like communication in general, is a skill area where we are never taught any type of structure. We assume people can just do it . More to the point, we assume people know what to ask for and that those they ask will be well skilled to provide.

These assumptions are invalid. In this article I want to explore what feedback normally looks like, then propose some methods to achieve what I believe is the very definition of useful feedback : the exchange of information that never damages one’s ego but always improves ones capabilities.

The Purpose of Feedback

In general, most of us have a somewhat idealised view of what the purpose of feedback is. When I ask people in my workshops, I usually get answers like, ‘It’s designed to help people improve.’

On the surface, this is probably true, but the reality of feedback is that this is rarely actually the case. The vast majority of feedback that I see is either ‘neutral’ or is used as ‘justification’ for something else.

The neutral case is quite easy to understand because we have all seen examples of this. Take the case where a person gives a presentation in front of a crowd or a group in a meeting. We might ask a colleague or participant, ‘What did you think of my presentation?’ To which we will typically get a polite, ‘It was great,’ or, ‘It was good.’ This sort of feedback sits somewhere between dishonest and unhelpful in most cases. There is no way to use this to improve what we do, but it is carefully pitched to avoid damaging our ego. It’s feedback we solicit, but feedback that is unhelpful.

Of greater interest to me is when this same sort of feedback is provided when it is not requested – almost as if it’s some kind of currency that we must pay a speaker we know. Here you go, here is a nice comment even though I wanted to poke my eye out with a fork ten minutes into your presentation. We often see these polite comments made on our behalf by facilitators of events, regardless of the standard of the presentation.

There are some very understandable drivers to this sort of feedback. Most notable in my view is the need not to ‘attack’ the entire person. If somebody answered the question, ‘How was my presentation?’ with ‘Not so great,’ the impact on the presenter’s ego would be consistent with his or her entire persona being hit. Nobody wants to do this so we tend to go with the safer option of just providing a useless, ‘Good.’

The other reason we tend to give this sort of useless feedback is that we just don’t know how to break feedback down into structural elements that can be useful to the recipient. We do not learn how to do this and so it’s very uncommon for a person to be able to perform what is a high skill task without any training. In a similar way, as the person seeking feedback we are in no better a position to articulate the sort of information we might actually find useful.

The other type of feedback I often see is based on the need for ‘justification’. In this case, I would be trying to provide you with additional information that will justify a score I might have given you or actions I need you to take. You might have submitted a request for funding and if I say no I feel it important that I give you detailed ‘feedback’ (read: justification) for this.

The problem with this sort of feedback is that, for the most part, it is for the person delivering the feedback to feel more comfortable – more justified – it is not designed for the recipient to improve their performance. This is in many cases made worse by the fact that this sort of feedback is typically anonymous. Later in this article, I will talk about my concerns with anonymous feedback, but suffice it to say a good feedback interaction needs to be a two-way experience – not something we see too often.

In order for us to get the most out of feedback, whether we are giving or receiving, it is very important to know what the purpose of the feedback is. In the examples I have given thus far the purpose is not very helpful. In fact, it can be downright upsetting and discouraging. Working in an academic institution, I see many researchers getting anonymous feedback on their grant applications. This feedback only falls into two categories: good positive feedback, or nasty inappropriate feedback. In both cases, it’s rare that the feedback can be used to improve anything (could it be just about justification?).

By contrast, when you go and get a haircut you might be asked for quite specific feedback, e.g. ‘How is the length?’ In this case, the stylist is asking a very specific question – they want feedback on one part of the job, and they will get exactly what they need. This interaction goes well. They don’t ask, ‘How’s your head looking now?’

We get the most from the feedback process when we can readily articulate what the purpose of the feedback needs to be. Therefore, to re-iterate, the purpose of feedback broadly should be to improve a person’s performance without damaging their ego or self-esteem. The degree to which this feedback will be useful depends on how specific we can be when setting up the structure of the feedback.

Designing Feedback to Work

If we want to optimise the feedback process, it is crucial that we have two-way conversations between those giving the feedback and those seeking it. For the record, ‘Can you give me some feedback on my presentation?’ does not achieve this goal.

Earlier I discussed the issue with ‘attacking’ the entire person. Nobody wants feedback that seems to go after their entire personality – especially if they have not asked for any feedback in the first place. It’s very hard to hear this sort of feedback, and even when there are nuggets of information in there we can find them hard to identify or value.

Instead of broad-based feedback interactions, which is what most of us are used to, I teach my students to architecturally design the feedback interaction to maximise the benefit. The example of a presentation given by somebody using PowerPoint in front of a live audience is a good one to explore. Recently, while running one of my workshops, I asked three volunteers to give this sort of presentation. With the first speaker I did not prepare the audience at all – we just waited until they were finished and then I asked a few people in the audience to provide feedback. The presenter seemed very anxious about this and the commentary that was provided was really of little value. A few people said it was a good talk. A couple of people mentioned the use of the slides, but the presenter didn’t get anything of value and the entire process was unfulfilling.

With the second and third speakers we did something a little different. In this case, I produced a number of cards with instructions that I showed to the presenters. There were five topics: The Slides, Audience Engagement, The Narrative, Movement, and Memory Aids. We then handed these cards to random audience members. The instructions to these audience members were very clear : they were only allowed to comment on the aspect of the presentation that was listed on their card. So if you got the Movement card you could only provide feedback on how the speaker moved around the space – nothing else. Each card had examples of the sort of information that would be useful to provide.

The presenters gave their talks and then we systematically went around the audience members with the cards and asked for the feedback. The presenters noticed a few things immediately. Firstly, there was no anxiety in the process because of the structure. Secondly, the level of nuanced detail that was given was exceptional. It was thought-out and in no cases was it ego-bruising. On the rare occasion where something needed to be improved, the person giving the feedback tended also to provide ideas for how to do that. The overall discussion was rich and valuable and every ego in the room remained intact.

I use this particular process in my workshops to show people how much more valuable feedback can be if we design the process deliberately rather than just relying on random chance. There are many aspects of this that I love when I am trying to teach people how to speak publicly. One I really love is the ‘temporal element’ to this process. What I mean by this is that regardless of where you are on the speaker improvement journey this process can help you. As speakers get better, they tend also to work harder to improve what they do. They become very self-aware of weaknesses. You might, for example, know that your weakness is how you introduce your topic. With this technique, you can task specific people with looking at this issue for you and providing assistance. You might also struggle with the use of slides – perhaps you are the support act for the slides rather than the other way around . This might be another aspect you can get the audience to consider for you. Setting up feedback this way can take work, but the rewards can be astonishing. The benefits here are also very significant for those providing the feedback as they are really challenged to concentrate on just one aspect of the overall package; we are certainly not used to doing this.

However, we also need to be mindful of another ‘temporal element’ here. We need to be careful when we provide our feedback to nuance it depending on how early on a person is in the improvement process. If for example I was asked to provide feedback on whether a person used the stage well, I would give very different commentary to somebody who had only given a couple of small talks compared with somebody who had lectured hundreds of times. The expectations are different based on a person’s experience and we need to be mindful of this. A question we should always ask ourselves before we give feedback is : Where is this person is at now, and how far forward can I reasonably move them with my feedback?

One question I have been asked in my workshops is, ‘Why don’t you hand out more cards so that the speaker gets even more information?’ The question is a reasonable one, but we need to think about the psychology of the individual speaker here. If I were training somebody to be a better speaker and they just fixed/improved two new things each time they spoke, I would be super-happy. Getting feedback on five things means you have material to use for two to three presentations to come. If you try and change too many things in one go you won’t be successful at it and generally the quality of the presentation will go down because it requires too much thought. The goal is to get feedback so you can implement changes to your skills over the course of one to two years – not to magically turn you into a brilliant speaker overnight.

Of course, we can use these sorts of techniques and strategies to help us in any area where we want feedback. Sometimes when I will write something I will hand a colleague the first page and say, ‘Can I just have some feedback on how the first paragraph landed with you?’ Usually they will offer to read the entire page and I’ll say, ‘No thanks, just the first paragraph, if you don’t like that bit there is little point reading on.’ I’ll go further to say, ‘Can you focus on how I introduce things in the first paragraph? Does it grab you early on? Don’t worry about anything else.’ The more specific the information I provide, the more useful is the feedback that I get.

Be Careful of Unconscious Feedback

Anyone who has given a public presentation of some description knows that when you look at the audience you see all sorts of non-verbal information coming your way. Some people will look at you directly and nod in agreement at key statements, whilst others will look at anything but you. Some people will sit up straight, some will cross their arms, some will slouch and if you are unlucky, some people will fall asleep. Like other forms of feedback, non-verbal feedback also has a two-way aspect to it. When I see a person nodding off part-way through my presentation, I immediately feel that I am boring that person to a state of slumber. What I don’t consider is that the myriad possible reasons for their actions.

It can be hard to see all this information in front of us and not take some of it to heart. If you are in the audience, you must also be mindful that your every move will be pickup up at least subconsciously by the speaker ; you are providing them with ongoing feedback.

On occasion, I have explained this to audiences before I have spoken so they can get an idea of the impact they can have. Whenever I do this the audience behaviour changes quite significantly – one might say they are better behaved, but in reality, they are just mindful of their non-verbal feedback mechanisms. Humans are fantastic at noticing the most insignificant physical manifestations of emotional state.

Can We Use ‘Bad’ Feedback?

Every now and then, everyone is presented with what I would loosely regard as ‘bad’ feedback. What I mean by this is the sort of feedback that will upset, bully, hurt, intimidate or undermine the recipient. Sometimes this is not deliberate but the effects are the same. The question is: Can we utilise this sort of feedback in some way when we receive it?

After more than 25 years of radio broadcasting, I have received a surprisingly low number of complaints, but I have received a few. Like most people, my first reaction is usually not overly great when I read a negative letter about the hard work I do with my colleagues. Then I take a break and try to work out what the concern is and whether or not there is anything of value in the correspondence. I work with my co-hosts, give them all the details, and ask the question, ‘Does any of this information help us improve the show?’ I don’t think in all the years of doing radio has the answer to that been ‘no’. In most cases, even when we don’t agree with the critique, it gives us the impetus to take a step back and just look for points of potential improvement. It’s fair to say that the feedback does not help us improve, but instead it pushes us to self-reflect and that leads to improvement. We take the bad feedback and use it for something good. We are human though, so the need to momentarily provide our own single digit feedback in response is always there.

We Need to Feel Supported

The feedback process should never be one where we feel any anxiety about what is to come. The reason so many people feel this way is because no structure exists and some of the simple steps I have described are not in place.

When I seek feedback from trusted colleagues, I tend to feel ‘anticipatory delight’ at the prospect of people helping me improve. It takes effort to do this for another person and, when done well, both parties can feel a sense of achievement. We should always feel supported in giving and receiving feedback – our egos should never be bruised and our efforts should always be improved. If either of these conditions are not being met, we have failed to set up a proper architecture for the feedback process. It’s never about ego, but it can always be about confidence.

Dr Shane is a physicist, executive advisor at the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Heath Sciences at the University of Melbourne, and feedback trainer. Follow his latest activity on Twitter, and tune in to Einstein A Go-Go Sundays from 11am to midday to hear quality chats of a scientific nature with Shane and his colleagues each week on the Triple R airwaves.