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The Best Feedback Is Always Unexpected

The more unexpected and surprising, the most effective feedback can become.

By Gustavo Razzetti

December 10, 2016

It was a usual Monday morning until a tiny postcard turned it into one to remember. I was checking some magazines that had just arrived when a small envelope caught my attention. Except for unsolicited vendors, no one sends physical mail pieces anymore. And this one had my name handwritten on it.

The real surprise was when I opened it. A black and white image teasing what it was all about. The picture of this guy giving me the finger. When I flipped the card, the interior was more compelling, the text read: “FUCK OFF You arrogant prick”.

Yes, it hurt because it caught me by surprise. But, most importantly, because it was anonymous and out of the blue. My initial reaction was to throw it away. But my intuition told me to keep it. And I did. It’s been over a year of having it right in front of my desk, as a reminder of the power of unexpected feedback. A lesson I want to share with you today.

The interior of the postcard. Nice!

The best feedback is always unexpected

Organizations are a sometimes obsessed with planning and preparing how feedback is provided. From feedback templates to feedback meetings or feedback from the feedback, everything seems to be planned ahead. This approach misses the most important aspect: feedback is a form of dialogue. And, like conversations, the less you plan them, the more interesting they become.

Throughout my career, I’ve learned that the best feedback is the one that happens unexpectedly, when you are not ready, when you are least expecting it. Like this FUCK OFF card, that surprised me that morning. Initially, I thought someone was insulting me hiding behind anonymity. Until I stopped and realized there was something I could learn from this postcard: something I was missing about me. How often do we discard feedback because it gets us by surprise?

Feedback is how we react to what we are told

I’ve been called many names throughout my career. Having led several organizations through change, I’m very much used to facing resistance. And, more often than not, people tend to express resistance with not so kind words. Yet, I can’t remember someone calling me arrogant before.

In this particular occasion, someone was telling me something that I’ve might be missing. And, because it somehow hurt, it meant he was right. It made me think about all the times, consciously or not, I might have behaved like an “arrogant prick”. And reflecting that is not what we do, but how we make people feel, that matters. That’s the lesson.

Rather than thinking of the anonymous sender as a coward, I started feeling empathy. Someone felt hurt because something I did or said. And, most probably, felt intimidated to say it face to face. Think of feedback as a way to improve. When you stop convincing yourself that others are wrong, that’s when feedback becomes a valuable gift.

Don’t look for approval, look for improvement

“Be patient with yourself. Self-growth is tender, it’s holy ground. There’s no greater investment.” — Steven Covey

If it doesn’t “hurt” is not feedback. I’m not a sadist by any means, everyone who’s truly committed to self-development knows that growth doesn’t come at no pain.

I’ve seen lots of people eager to get feedback. But most seem to seek for approval or recognition, rather for personal growth. They are actually looking for someone -their bosses, peers, etc.- to tell them how well they are doing or what a great professional they are.

While positive reinforcement is always needed and welcome, growing via feedback is what counts. Look for feedback that will make you grow rather than just inflate your ego. Ask people to help you stretch beyond your comfort zone. It might be uncomfortable for them too. The mutual learning experience is worth the “pain”.

There’s no such thing as negative feedback

Labeling things as good or bad, never helps. And that’s even truer with feedback. It’s how we react to it and what we do with it that can turn it into positive or negative.

Feedback is just feedback. Learn to receive it as a surprise gift. You don’t need to put much thinking when buying someone a gift card, it’s an easy way out. Buying a gift is different, it’s more challenging and interesting. It says a lot about the giver and, most importantly, what they think of you.

Regardless if you like a surprise gift or not, what you receive is a message from the giver. A surprise gift unveils a part of you that is visible to others but not necessarily to you.

Some tips on unexpected feedback

“What can I do better?”
  1. Avoid sugar coating. If you want someone to improve, focus solely on what you want them to improve. Be clear and candid. People are not stupid. When you mix praises with areas of improvement, they’ll suspect you are sugarcoating. Not being 100% honest can hurt trust.
  2. Reciprocal feedback can be tricky. Providing and receiving feedback at the same time can confuse both parties. If you are given feedback, listen. If you have something to say to that person, wait for another occasion. Providing feedback once you’ve received yours could be perceived as being defensive and, in most of the cases, that’s actually true.
  3. What can I do better? For me this simple question captures everything. It sends a clear message that you are interested in improving but also lets the feedback provider realize that you are open to constructive criticism. It builds a safe space for candid dialogue.
  4. Ongoing feedback rules. Asking or providing feedback on the go is more effective than structured feedback. Both parties will connect to the issue more easily. Addressing something that happened recently is more effective than discussing an issue that’s six months old. It also feels more casual and less threatening. When ongoing feedback becomes part of your organizational culture, it feels more natural and human.

Feedback Is a Surprise Gift

The first time I went to the d.school at Stanford University, I heard the “feedback is a gift” expression. It felt like a sweet metaphor. It took me some time to realize the depth of it. It took me a hand-written postcard to realize that true feedback is actually a surprise gift.

You don’t need to wait to get a FUCK OFF card, to notice what you can improve. Be open to those unexpected gifts.

Remember to always ask: “What can I do better?”

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