There is a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) pre-supposition that says “there is no failure; there is only feedback.” And yet most people characterize feedback as “positive” or “negative”; “affirmative” or “constructive.” In this way, they are changing feedback from a neutral piece of information to “success” or “failure.” Obviously, most people will be excited to hear about the success and want to avoid hearing about the failure. That is human nature.
I assert that effective feedback is saying to a basketball player, “you made the basket” or “you didn’t make it”… “and here is why.” Not good or bad — just a mirror; just information that she doesn’t have, but needs in order to achieve her desired result.
“You were late,” and “you were on time” are both feedback comments. It is only in the context of what people want from you and what you have agreed to deliver that we view it as positive or negative. Words I find more useful are “working” and “not working.” When you use these terms, then you can look at the results you want and analyze your behavior/the feedback in relation to whether they are (1) contributing to the result (working) or (2) detracting from the result (not working). In this sense, telling our basketball player that she is turned a little to the left when shooting the ball is not “negative” feedback. It is a useful piece of information that may help her see why she has not achieved her result – a basket. In other words, we might say this behavior (turning to the left) does not work if your goal is to make a basket.
Similarly, “being late” for work is just a statement of when you arrived in comparison to when you agreed to arrive. It is just a fact – you did not get here by the time you agreed to get here – but it is a non-working behavior if your boss wants you to be there on time. And if you have been late three times this week and if that is a violation of your employment agreement that will lead to imminent discipline, this is certainly information that you need.
Further, the more the feedback-giver and the feedback-recipient can agree to view the feedback as neutral in this way – working and non-working – the easier it becomes to hear. And interestingly, the more we see feedback as “information” (working or non-working), as opposed to “failure,” the more we can hear it as a gift. If I am trying to create a particular result, but have not been able to, it is invaluable to me to have someone with a different viewpoint observe me and tell me what behavior might be getting in the way.
As Shakespeare’s title character said in Hamlet, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
How can you change your thinking about feedback?