Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

21-7. Dealing with Feedback

Feedback is kinda like Change: it’s good for you, emphasis on the YOU. Feedback is a bit like Christmas presents – it’s better to give than receive. Or maybe Feedback is a bit like the view of the great comedic philosopher, Woody Allen, on Death – I’m not afraid of [feedback], I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

For someone who has spent his career giving feedback – 20 years in HRM and then 20 more in Executive Coaching, you’d think I would be good at feedback, know everything there is to know about feedback. And I do. 

In my book, The Dynamics of Management, I wrote a chapter on feedback, (and then a whole section on 360 feedback). Short of reproducing the entire chapter here is what I had to say:

<People fear feedback and rightly so – positive feedback provides for ego gratification, negative feedback hurts. But the brain needs feedback; no pain, no gain, I guess. The brain is a learning organ. It picks up information from the environment; it asks questions of itself for greater understanding; it attempts some trial behaviours and observes what happens: if the outcome was not desirable, it tries something else; if the outcome was desirable, it repeats and reinforces the behaviour. This is growth. Repeating the same behaviour expecting different results is insanity (Einstein). 

<Hence, the brain learns through feedback. The mind – and self-esteem – benefit. 

<There are two sources of feedback: social and non-social sources. Non-social sources of feedback usually come from mechanical indicators – the speedometer on your car, for example. Social sources, as the name would imply, is feedback that comes from people – the police officer who stopped you for speeding! In work situations you get information from the job itself: data tracking on the achievement of some task, such as expense reports, and signaling as it happens – spell-check in a word-processing software. Social feedback, either directly or indirectly, verbally (face-to-face or in writing) and/or non-verbally through body language, is information you get from other people: the annual performance appraisal from your boss, or the quizzical look from a colleague. 

<And there are also two types of feedback: negative [corrective] feedback, and positive [reinforcing] feedback. People generally prefer positive feedback from social sources and corrective feedback from non-social sources because this is less damaging to self-esteem.>

And then there is the problem of giving and receiving feedback. Giving feedback is hard to do, which is why it is seldom actually done. Receiving feedback is hard because of our tender egos – but we self-protect by not listening, or rationalizing, or dismissing. Accepting ‘constructive’ feedback from social sources is especially hard. Who really wants ‘constructive feedback’? What we want is complimentary feedback, lots of it. How nice to have affirmation of our terrific traits and talents. But then, in the backs of our minds, there lies doubt.

I recently invited a few of the faithful to review my manuscript of The Treasure of Stella Bay. Two have supplied me with fulsome feedback, two have declined, with very defensible excuses, a fifth has assiduously ignored my emails (but to be fair, this person – a long-time resident on Amherst Island, a referral – doesn’t even know me), and one is still reading and ruminating. Meanwhile I am on tenterhooks waiting for my date with destiny[1]. Of course I am grateful for their positive comments and generous reviews, but then I must suffer through their constructive comments, correctly pointing out shortcomings, problems, mistypes and differences of opinion. Of course I want and need those bits of warnings and advice, but I nevertheless take each and every one as disapprobation. I punish myself for my failings and faults and I have nowhere to turn – ridiculous to become defensive against the very things I asked for. I’ll need to revisit my notes from my hours of consultations with my therapist who reminded me that my relationship with my mother was mostly positive and she only wanted the best for me.

And in at least one case, a brilliant ‘save’. It’s one thing to wince at a typing error once the book has gone to press, it’s quite another to find a factual error of the embarrassing kind. There is a chapter in the TSB in which Alex and his friends decide to take in a Saturday afternoon matinée. It’s the summer of 1962 and I wanted to pick a movie that everyone would recognize from the era. I chose Lawrence of Arabia. Something nagged away at my mind about the date of that movie. So I googled it and was very gratified to learn that Lawrence of Arabia won the Oscar for Best Picture for 1962. Yes! Nevertheless one of my reviewers cast doubt on whether Alex would have watched that film in the summer of ’62. I was all set to counter him with my proof but first I thought to recheck Wikipedia. Lawrence of Arabia was released for distribution in Britain in December 1962 (and hence qualified as a 1962 film), but it wasn’t available for viewing in Kingston until the summer of 1963! Argghh. Now I’ll have to reconstruct that chapter. Ah the bittersweet reality of feedback.

And it’s not as if this is the first time I have sought and received feedback from courageous colleagues on my manuscripts, though some of them are not so close to me as they once were…

And then we come to reflect on the comments on the cover for The Treasure of Stella Bay. And here we are reminded of the distinction between responsibility and accountability, a problem every manager struggles with daily. You give an assignment to someone and you try to make your expectations as clear as you can. And then you let them get to work on it: they are responsible for rendering the solution to the problem but ultimately the assigner is ultimately accountable for the final result. Of course it would be so much easier if the manager could just do it himself/ if I could actually draw decently myself, extract the embryonic idea in my head, put the pencil to paper and then render the idea into a  sketch, and then reflect on it, rework it, and then revisions, and the colourization, and the subsequent revisions, all would be up to me. But I can’t and so I delegate to someone who can. I then have to allow my illustrator to get into my head and tease out my half formed (half-baked?) ideas and render the sketch as well as she can, give me a gander, absorb my feedback (carefully and tactfully given) and make revisions; and repeat. Okay, there we go, pretty good, pretty close. I let it ferment a while, and then send it to 110 or more of you for a little taste.

And the taste is sweet, or in some cases bitter-sweet, and in some cases, bitterly off. I find myself pleased for Katy for the praise of our efforts, and also defensive of her from the critics. Maybe Katy doesn’t need my protectiveness; maybe Katy has a much thicker hide than I. But overall the feedback is useful, even if I can’t (or won’t!) use all of it. I’ll be going back to Katy with my list this week and we will be closer yet to a final design.

Ultimately, as I narrated in an earlier blog post, the cover is intended to catch the attention of the prospective buyer and most of you have responded with that goal in mind. The hallmark of true friendship is to provide genuine feedback when no one else will.

Penultimate version?

So thank you all for your feedback. 

I’m pretty sure most of you still qualify as friends.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing

All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

[1] Maybe a brief explanation is required. For most of my life I thought tenterhooks was spelled tenderhooks and imagined it meant hanging a leg of beef from a hook by a tendon. Ouch. Talk about suspense. But tenterhooks only means drying cotton on hooks like a tent. Same amount of waiting I guess but hardly any drama.

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