Joe Rafferty: Can You Handle The Truth?

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“I have to; celebrate you baby,

I have to praise you like I should.”

[Camille Yarbrough sampled by Fatboy Slim]

You know that really horrible noise a microphone makes when it comes close to a speaker? Feedback, as it’s called – it makes your flesh crawl. Well for a lot of people, the feedback we get in the workplace can provoke a very similar reaction in us. And that seems to be the case even when the feedback is good.

From a psychological standpoint that’s not surprising. Most of us have a pretty settled view of what we are like. That personal knowledge is our stabilising baseline as we improvise to the fluctuations of day-to-day living. So the dissonance created by unexpected feedback, even positive feedback, can often feel extremely uncomfortable.

Observing someone who is being given some feedback can also be uncomfortable, but like watching a car crash it can also be strangely compelling. That seems to be the draw in programmes like Britain’s Got Talent when Simon Cowell gives his terse opinion of some poor unfortunate’s pathetic attempts to make a name for themselves.

Some years ago, when Mister Cowell originally started dispensing his withering words the audience were genuinely shocked and not a little delighted, but things have started to change. Feedback is everywhere, on reality TV at least – X-Factor, The Voice, MasterChef, The Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing – to name just a few. This begs the obvious question: are we becoming any more comfortable with feedback?

Well I have to say I’m pretty unmoved by Simon these days. And I’ve kind of learned to screen out the often crass comments of Craig Revel Horwood from Strictly. But something that Monica Galetti said on MasterChef: The Professionals recently really made me sit up and take notice. After robustly criticising a dish from one of the hopefuls she upbraided him for his reaction. With a curious mixture of sympathy and irritation in her voice she chided him, “Don’t look so down. Learn from this!” The invisible narrative seemed to be that a professional does not get despondent at critical feedback, they simply use it as a basis for improvement.

So is that correct? Should this generation of professionals be wise enough, or indeed grown up enough, to accept criticism without resentment? Should we all be able to “take it”?

Well according to research by Finkelstein & Fishbach that would indeed seem to be the case. Or, to put it more accurately, a seasoned professional who knows what they are doing is looking for something different from feedback than a new starter.

The newbie knows they haven’t perfected their approach but they need some validation that they are on the right track, coupled with a bit of encouragement. Essentially the purpose of the feedback for them is commitment. The seasoned expert on the other hand knows they can do the job, but they want more than that. They want to go from good to great and for that they need more detailed critical feedback. For them the purpose of feedback is improvement.

For Monica on MasterChef: The Professionals, the despondent reaction from the contestant was a mark of his inexperience. It seemed that for her, a professional chef who wants to be regarded as the best should be well up to embracing constructive criticism.

Speaking personally, I’d like to be able to say I have a mature attitude to receiving criticism but in reality I find that my amygdala (that’s the primitive emotional bit at the base of your brain) gets in the way. As soon as the negative feedback begins to take shape within the careful discourse of the critic, the blood starts to rise in my face, my pulse increases and then I start to fidget. Once I get a chance to speak I’m invariably defensive, then I work my way around to being disingenuous – thanking the assessor for their feedback, and reassuring them that I’m perfectly okay with it.

So does that mean I’m not a professional? Am I still too immature? Well, not necessarily. You see the distinction is not so much that the experienced person doesn’t feel the sting of criticism, it is more that they accept the sting. They may not like to be criticised but they know they cannot improve without it. In other words the feedback may be disappointing, even painful, but they are ready for it.

For managers, the lesson in all this would seem to be that we shouldn’t be afraid of giving an experienced professional some critical feedback. The newbie needs to be told when they are doing something wrong, but in general will respond better to praise and encouragement.

Still, despite the excellent research, when doling out criticism I tend to find my old mother’s advice the best of all. Sometimes in the past, when things were seriously out of kilter, I would tend to rant – you know how some of us do, especially when we are really under pressure. She would listen to my nonstop diatribe for a while and then finally punctuate a pause with her oft repeated maxim:

“Hit me with one brick at a time please, not a whole wall.”

About Joe Rafferty

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2 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. I love this blog post Joe – you are so right on many accounts! Firstly I thought you must be a bit sad spending so much time in front of the TV watching reality shows. Then I realised that you suffered without complaint for the sake of your writing – thanks.
    We are strangely fascinated by feedback (when dolled out to others) but once we learn to take control of that amygdala – let it know its the pre-frontal cortex (the PFC or executive function in the brain) that’s in charge of this body – then feedback feels less like a threat and more like a tool for learning. When managers give feedback their intention is usually to improve performance however, by putting the receipient into a threat state they are unable to perform at their best and may even get things wrong because of the feedback.
    Very interesting take on it – thanks.

  2. Thanks for the generous feedback. Yes I learn a lot from watching the telly. This weekend I’ll probably learn loads by going to the pub;-)

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