Please stop saying feedback is a gift

Stop pretending that you like everything about feedback. A gift is something that is meant to be liked. Feedback is not.

Stop pretending that you like everything about feedback. A gift is something that is meant to be liked. Feedback is not.

image of a bird standing on a statue full of poop
Photo by Mark König

I once gave feedback in a direct message (always default to 1–1 DMs when giving constructive criticism) to a leader at a company whom I thought was acting in a way that had negative consequences. Let’s just say I was at an elevated state of emotion when I wrote that message, although the message that I eventually sent was scrubbed of superlatives and expletives.

As with most feedback, I write some things to help the feedback land gracefully, like, “I want to explicitly say that I’m only sharing this with you because I care about building good company culture, which begins with our leaders, and I care about presenting you information that I believe you’d benefit from, despite having to stick my neck out to say it.” Importantly, I wrote this at the end of my message, not at the start. The start was direct and firm.

Can you guess his first response?

“Thanks, Nick! I love feedback. Feedback is a gift!”

Sitting in my sweatpants at home, reading that reply, I rolled my eyes.

That was my reflex. The reason I rolled my eyes, as I reflected later, is this: if he had indeed thoroughly read my constructive criticism, it seems unlikely that he would be feeling good about himself; good enough to tell me that what I just told him was a gift. I did, after all, call him out directly on his bad behaviour. Nobody sane likes that on the spot. After a few days of introspection, maybe. But not on the spot.

Saying that feedback is a gift is like saying that shit is gold. Not shrivelled up shit that has all its stink dissipated and can be put in a cabinet. No. Wet shit. Wet shit is not gold, especially if it lands in your direct messages, which is the digital equivalent of your hands.

Show it, don’t say it

I think a much more reasonable thing to say is, “Thank you,” followed by an actual response to the feedback.

The “thank you” serves as a way to genuinely tell the person who stuck his neck out to give you feedback that you appreciate being given feedback. And an actual response, which likely includes some paraphrasing, helps the feedback-giver to ascertain that you interpreted his feedback as intended, and that the intended thought entered your mind.

To me, as a regular feedback-giver, that would be enough for me to know that you are someone who genuinely sees feedback as a gift, and in that way, you’ve succeeded in signalling to me to continue giving feedback to you in the future. I imagine that’s what you wanted to achieve by saying that “feedback is a gift” in the first place.

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