“Feedback is an effective tool for promoting efficient behavior: it enhances individuals’ awareness of choice consequences in complex settings.” —“Feedback and Efficient Behavior,” Sandro Casal, Nives DellaValle, Luigi Mittone, and Ivan Soraperra
We all want to improve at something. Skills we’d like to develop, habits we like to change, relationships we’d like to improve—there are lots of areas where we’d love to see positive, meaningful change.
Sometimes though, we don’t know how to keep moving forward.
We do research. We think of strategies. We try to implement a few tactics. And then we get stuck because we aren’t sure if what we’re doing is moving us in the right direction. So we keep on spinning our wheels, running without getting anywhere.
When you’re stuck, you need feedback. Feedback is a valuable source of information that you can use to effect the changes you want. You need information that tells you what you’re doing well and where you’re going wrong. Then you can use that information to plan tactics for bridging the gap between where you are now and where you want to be.
The more feedback you can get, the better. But how do you get good feedback?
Sometimes feedback is obvious, like when someone laughs at one of our jokes. They found it funny, and their reaction emboldens us to later try the joke on someone else. Sometimes feedback is codified into our professional lives, such as during a formal performance review.
Often though, if we want feedback we have to actively seek it out.
How feedback works in behavior change
“A robust finding in economics, psychology, and behavioral sciences is the systematic failure to act according to rational well-informed preferences. This failure to rationally process and integrate information due to limited cognitive resources may lead to inefficient behavior in many domains of everyday life and may produce costs that, in some cases, can be avoided simply by highlighting the consequences of such behavior.” —“Feedback and Efficient Behavior,” Sandro Casal, Nives DellaValle, Luigi Mittone, and Ivan Soraperra
A really simple example of the effect of feedback on behavioral change is energy consumption. Most people don’t have a deep understanding of their energy usage. In your home, do you use more or less energy than your neighbors? What’s your consumption like compared to the national average? The global average? What activities and habits use the most energy? Studies show that feedback on usage can be used quickly by consumers to make lasting change.
If you decide you want to reduce your energy consumption, research on how to do it is a great place to start. But feedback on the impacts of your subsequent choices is equally important.
Energy companies have started providing consumers with detailed information on their consumption, such as amount used in comparable months, what in the home is using the most energy, and usage according to time of day. Some companies go further by relating energy consumption to local and global effects, like brownouts and light pollution. People can then further adjust their behavior by switching appliances or better insulating their home, and they can stay motivated to stick to the new behavior because of the consistent feedback.
Having direct feedback on the results of your specific actions can reinforce positive changes, help you develop habits, and inspire you to take further action. Feedback also helps you set goals for what you can reasonably accomplish.
Trying to make ongoing systemic changes in life without feedback on those changes is hard. Feedback gives you the information you need to improve. Without it, you may be completely missing the mark of what you want to achieve.
Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback
Asking how you could be a better partner, team member, friend, or leader from the people best placed to give you accurate feedback is a requirement for improving. If your actions are eventually going to get you fired, divorced, or ghosted by your close friends, you probably want feedback communicating the steps you’re taking toward disaster. Getting useful information in an ongoing, iterative loop gives you the opportunity to discuss solutions and make changes.
Feedback is baked into some professions. Writers have editors. Athletes have coaches. Actors have directors. In a New York Times article about the television show The Good Place, the show’s creator, Michael Schur, says of actor Kristen Bell, “She just has a really low center of gravity for how she approaches her job; you can give her forty notes on a line, and she’ll go, ‘Yep, got it,’ and she’ll do all forty of those notes at once.” When you trust the source, it’s easier to accept and incorporate feedback.
If you aren’t getting enough feedback or you want to augment what feedback you routinely get, hire a coach—an expert who knows how to give useful feedback in the area you want to improve in. No one is so good at something that they have no room for improvement. We can all get better. And if you want to get better, you have to be open to the feedback you receive. You don’t have to agree with it, but you do need to hear it. Getting defensive, critical, or shutting down will lead you to miss information and prevent others from attempting to give you feedback in the future.
If you want honest feedback, you have to prepare yourself to listen to things you might not want to hear. When you ask for feedback, explain that you’re looking to identify your blind spots and that you’re genuinely seeking information that will help you improve. Be as specific as you can. Be gracious with the results, even if they’re unpleasant. Remember that listening to a perspective doesn’t mean you endorse it.
Of course, not all feedback is good. Sometimes it’s just noise. Knowing when to ignore feedback that isn’t useful or is badly intentioned can be just as useful as knowing when to seek out the kind of feedback that is instructive. For example, feedback and opinions are not the same thing. Feedback is based on observation and reactions to your specific actions. It does not aim to tell you what you should be doing; it simply seeks to enlarge your perspective on what you are doing. Opinions are just someone sharing how they feel about a particular aspect of the world – they have nothing to do with you in particular.
The person giving you feedback is also indirectly sharing a wealth of information about themselves. Often what we give feedback on is related to what we find important, and what directly connects with our values.
The power of feedback
When you’re aware of how powerful strong feedback can be, you may find you’d like to start giving more of it. When giving others feedback, ask yourself what information they might need to make meaningful change. Giving great feedback isn’t about convincing others to do things your way. It’s about giving them insight into how to improve on their own methods.
Giving good feedback requires an awareness of both what you’re saying, and how you say it. To the first point, make it personal, provide specific examples, and notice how things have changed over time. Reassure the person that you are trying to help them be a better version of themselves, that you are in their corner. Consequently, be aware of your tone. You’re a team member, not an accuser. And choose your timing wisely. At the end of a busy work day is probably not the time to give constructive feedback. People need the space to hear and process what you have to say.
We all want to get better at something. Don’t underestimate the importance of feedback in helping you reach your goals.