When I speak at events, I like to move around. Recently, I was speaking, and when I walked around in front of the podium, the sound system started making a horrible, ear-splitting whine. That’s feedback. The word first came into use in 1909 when Nobel laureate Karl Ferdinand Braun used the term as a noun to refer to undesired coupling between components of an electronic circuit.

That’s what happens when you get the mic in front of the speakers. The mic picks up what the speakers are putting out, and it’s sent back to the amplifier as an input. This is referred to as a circular causal feedback mechanism. The critical part is the circularity of action where the output of the system is used as an input, thereby changing the gap between the present state and the desired state.

In true feedback systems, information about the gap between the actual value and the reference value of a system parameter is used to alter the gap in some way. The “feedback” can either increase the gap (like the microphone) or decrease the gap (like your car’s cruise control) depending on the system. Information by itself is not feedback unless it is translated into action.

Feedback is necessary for a healthy community. Without it, we cannot close the gap between our present state and our desired state. However, many of the responses we provide to the other people in our communities are not feedback; they are only criticism. Criticism is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. Even so called “constructive” criticism isn’t feedback for two important reasons: disapproval and perception.

Telling someone you don’t approve of something they did only communicates your dissatisfaction. There are many reasons someone might be unhappy that don’t necessarily equate to something being wrong. One of the most difficult parts of leadership for me is letting people do things their way when I would have done it differently. Unless the disapproval can be directly tied to not achieving clearly defined and agreed upon goals, it is not useful information.

Perception is an interpretation that is colored by our biases, our feelings, our desires, and many other things. For our perceptions to be useful, we must first process them to ascertain the rational parts and then discard the parts that are not useful to the other members of our team. Before you complain that I am discarding the value of our ability to sometimes perceive something is off and risky or right and wise, I’m not. But it is not feedback, and we must clearly identify it for what it is.

Feedback must result in action that leads to closing the gap between where we are and where we want to be. Criticism often results in widening the gap due to hurt feelings, lack of clarity, and defensiveness. So, how do we give useful feedback? For feedback to be useful and healthy for our team members, and ourselves, it needs certain elements:

  • Feedback must be specific. It should be related to measurable performance goals. Generalizations are not helpful. “You always…” “You never….” “I’m just not happy with…” do not create potential for improvement.
  • Feedback must be timely. Telling someone you’re not happy weeks or months after an event makes it very difficult to remember the details and relate what happened to what was desired.
  • Feedback must be focused on behavior, not personality. People can change their behavior. Focusing on less changeable aspects of their personality will only make them defensive.
  • Feedback must use descriptive, not judgmental, language. Focusing on the impact of the behavior rather than the motivation of the individual increases the potential for learning and change.
  • Feedback must be based on accurate and credible information. We should never address rumors or suppositions as if they are facts. Get the data before giving the feedback.

I often get feedback after I speak from someone I trust. They tell me things I said that they thought worked well with the audience. They also tell me if something I said didn’t fit or was not the best way I could have put it, and then they sometimes suggest a better way to say it. That is good feedback that I can use to become better at what I do.

Good feedback is the catalyst for growth and improvement. Criticism is like that squeal from the sound system that makes everyone cringe. Healthy leaders thrive on feedback and create cultures where it is encouraged and given often. They do this by demonstrating what healthy feedback looks like. When we are committed to using feedback instead of criticism, we can close the gap between where we are and where we want to be, and we can demonstrate The Bison Way.