My friend wanted to be a clearer communicator. He asked me to tell him whenever I thought he was being unclear. I agreed and did exactly that. It wasn’t fun or helpful for either of us. By pointing out moments that were unclear to me, he was just getting more examples of what not to do. This is akin to teaching someone that 2+2=4 by saying, “2+2 is not 5. Or 18. Or 62.” The problem was, I didn’t know how else to help. My friend eventually recognized what was happening and flipped the script. He said, “Tell me when you see me communicate clearly, and then tell me what made it clear to you.” It was a hallelujah shift!
We all have this same choice when giving feedback. We can either say, “do more of this” or “do less of that.” It is not uncommon to prioritize “do less” feedback over “do more” feedback, as I initially did with my friend. A lot of factors influence this. Here are three:
Practicality. Sometimes, it’s easier to express what we don’t like, want, or need—so that’s what we do. Saying, “I don’t want to see another superhero movie!” is an example of this. We may not know what kind of movie we want to see, but we know what kind we don’t.
Cultural bias. Problem solvers are admired in our culture. Problem-solving is about asking, “What should we do less frequently?” Most of us want to be admired, so we focus on finding and solving problems. At the same time, we don’t have much collective faith in “do more” feedback. It’s perceived as soft and less helpful.
Cognitive bias. When we know something is working, we fall into the trap of assuming everybody else knows it too, so we don’t bring it up. This is a byproduct of the curse of knowledge.
If I have the choice between no feedback at all, or “do less” feedback, I always pick “do less” feedback over silence. But if I can learn a lesson via “do less” feedback or “do more” feedback, I choose the latter. “Do more” feedback is clearer and has a positive effect on my energy levels.
For example, when I receive “do less” feedback, I shift into a threat mindset. I allow the criticism to fuel the part of my psyche that’s good at beating me up and telling me I stink. I am seeing a therapist to help with this, but I still struggle with it. Research suggests I am not alone. It is common to feel threatened when we think we’re being criticized. Feeling threatened triggers a stress response. Alarms go off inside of us. They yell, “You are not safe! Seek safety!” As Dr. Jill taught us at Yellowship 2018, when the brain says, “I feel safe,” it can learn. When it says, “I do not feel safe,” it will struggle to learn. That detail is why I call this out. If feedback is about learning, and feelings of safety precede learning, alarming feedback is not ideal. Non-threatening, encouraging feedback is.
I don’t have a stress response with “do more” feedback. In fact, it often leaves me energized. It’s like someone showing me where to find the puzzle pieces I’ve been looking all over for.
I want more of that.
Putting this into practice
Next time you think about giving someone feedback on their behavior or the trajectory of their work, consider phrases like:
- “I think you are at your best when you . . . ”
- “I always appreciate it when . . . ”
- “When I think about my favorite examples of [blank], they tend to have/include/convey . . . What would you change to bring more of those elements to [blank]?”
Remember to offer specifics when you’re delivering feedback. And if you’re on the receiving end of input like this, ask for specific examples if you’re not getting them.
If you want to give a teammate “do more” feedback, but you can’t find a positive example of them doing the thing you want to see more of, look harder. And if you still can’t find it, the next time you bring your team together, highlight somebody else doing the thing well. (Please, only do this out of compassion, never spite.) Focus on specific behaviors and be really clear about why they lead to positive outcomes. If you’re a manager, you can ask your teammates to commit to modeling these behaviors. If they agree, you can refer back to that moment any time a teammate could benefit from a “do more” reminder.
Everything is a balance, which means “do less” feedback has a place in this world. This is simply a reminder that “do more” feedback is an alternative way to get where you want to go—one that may serve you and your relationships better.
Thanks for your time! I welcome your thoughts.
This is Max’s note—a weekly message from Lessonly’s CEO about learning, leadership, and doing Better Work. Sign up below to subscribe via email. No spam, we promise!