My friend and colleague John-Paul Flintoff has been writing about feedback. So I gave him some and he gave me some – inviting me to write this post. I am interested in how easily we confuse feedback and evaluation. Indeed, we don’t just confuse them (i.e. have trouble telling them apart) we conflate them – assuming them to be the same thing. But they aren’t.
I remember very well, the moment I realised this. I was working with an executive who was talking about performance reviews and why she found them difficult.
“We aren’t very good at giving feedback. If you have to say someone hasn’t done well, then that’s obviously difficult. But being British, I find it just as hard to give compliments to people”.
For her feedback came with a value judgement included, it was evaluative. And whether that was good or bad, she found it difficult.
Yet the word feedback, in its original sense, doesn’t imply this at all. It is simply information – literally a ‘feed’ of data reporting back on an action or series of actions. Feedback would be ‘you are going north’ evaluation would be ‘you are going the wrong way’.
I also realised, in that same moment, how common it is to conflate the two, and how much complication and difficulty that leads to. In a world of Facebook 'likes', where we are constantly invited to evaluate, this blind spot is probably getting bigger.
Just as this senior manager said, if all feedback is interpreted as being thumbs up or thumbs down, then of course it was hard to give, or take. So you probably avoid it (or dismiss it) as much as you could, stunting or slowing the flow of information.
So how would you get simple, straightforward information about what was actually happening? How could you think sensibly about what to do if everything was always loaded with judgement? It’s a small step from that to the knife in the ribs that John Paul experienced.
I find it useful to tease the two apart. Like this. Evaluation is feedback plus judgement.
So to anyone who wants to encourage a healthy flow of information between people, to improve whatever you are doing, my feedback would be - be ready to give and get both feedback and evaluation. And learn to distinguish one from the other.