Feedback has been a recurring theme in this publication (“Affirmative feedback” and “staying on your side of the net” are good examples) and following the debate I briefly mentioned in “Wise Interventions” I serendipitously came across and authored posts around self-reflection (“Care Pods” and “Cognitive Journaling”).
To catch everyone up to speed, I was having a conversation with a group of colleagues on “the limits of feedback” which really got me thinking. We spend a great deal of time building “cultures of feedback” in our organizations. But can these cultures have a downside?
The case for feedback
A quick glance at the Johari window makes the case for feedback quite clear:
We all have blind-spots, insights about ourselves that are known to others but are not known to us. Feedback is the mechanism to disclosing those blind spots, which in turn allow us to build a more accurate picture of ourselves to drive our growth and development.
Furthermore, as Adam Grant pointed out, our own capacity for self-reflection is bounded and imperfect:
Sixteen rigorous studies of thousands of people at work have shown that people’s coworkers are better than they are at recognizing how their personality will affect their job performance.
Lastly, since we’re talking about feedback in a professional context, with the intent of collaborating better together, how others perceive us and react to us matters just as much (if not more) as we perceive ourselves. This in and of itself is a good enough reason to pay attention to feedback and to take it into account.
The case for self-reflection
Despite the compelling case for feedback, it’s not without its shortcomings.
To reference the Johari window again, some of our knowledge of ourselves is only known to us (“hidden area”) so any feedback will be based on partial information and will, therefore, be incomplete and inaccurate.
Furthermore, delivering good feedback requires a high level of mastery, from avoiding projecting our own values and beliefs on the person receiving the feedback to only addressing the things that we can credibly observe and know (staying on “our side of the net”).
Lastly, while self-reflection and self-knowledge will never be perfect, our ability to more accurately know ourselves and how we impact others is a learnable skill, a muscle that we can build. An environment abundant with feedback or a culture focused only on feedback will crowd-out any motivation to strengthen that muscle and will leave it weakened and atrophied.
So which one is it?
Astute observers will recognize the patterns of a polarity in the tension between self-reflection and feedback. Therefore, the answer is not an either/or one but a both/and one. We need to create cultures that help our teams build both their feedback muscles and their self-reflection muscles. Favoring one at the expense of the other will lead to a sub-optimal outcome.
Side note: for those of you looking for a deeper scientific analysis of this tension, Timothy Wilson and Elizabeth Dunn’s Self-Knowledge: Its Limits, Value, and Potential for Improvement may be a good place to start.