I have received this piece of feedback a number of times in the past, along with variations on the same theme: “you’re not doing anything wrong”.  This is often followed by “but….” or a long speech about how whatever it is that I am or am not doing fits in with the whole project (in a sort of woolly way with no clear objectives), or details of the incredible vision the other person has.  Sometimes a lingering silence, which is even worse than the aforementioned options. But it seems to lead nowhere, and leaves me none the wiser as to why they actually came over to speak to me (or what I can actually do to improve).  This makes me really uncomfortable because this phrase obscures the speaker’s true meaning, and it’s so damned obvious that they’re doing it.  Here are the things it could mean:

” You are doing something wrong”.  It’s pretty unusual to say to someone that they’re not doing anything wrong, when they are indeed not doing anything wrong. So why not just say what the problem is?  If you’re not happy, then tell me.  If you don’t tell me what you do want, you’re not going to get it.  Don’t be afraid to be direct.

“I’m frightened to be honest with you in case you have a meltdown”.  I really hope that’s not how people see me, but people are often frightened of a bad reaction.  But not confronting a problem just saves it up for later, magnifies it, and raises the inevitable questions of why it wasn’t dealt with at the time.

“I’m afraid to be honest with you because I don’t want to hurt your feelings”.  Do you really think that I can’t take criticism like everyone else?  I work in a field in which my work is critiqued, compared with that of others, and sometimes discounted – and I have chosen to do so.  I didn’t enter a challenging field in order to put my feet up while everyone else does the work; I want to be a part of it.  And by assuming that I can’t take honest feedback, you are excluding and patronising me.  And why are my feelings more precious than anyone else’s?  Am I some delicate little flower who’s never been in a lab or on a site before?

“I’m not going to be honest with you because I don’t respect you”.  There’s not much I can do about this one.  You’ve shut down dialogue and you’ve decided to go round me rather than deal with me.  And, honestly, whenever someone means any of these four things when they tell me I’m “not doing anything wrong”, it always sounds like the fourth one.

Feedback is so important, and it needs to be clear, consistent and open. If it’s not, the person giving the feedback will just end up going round in circles and dancing around the issue, and never actually getting the result they want. I’ve learnt this myself, having once been a giver of crap feedback. Be brutally honest. People may not like you for it, but they will respect you.

And are we really in this to be “nice” to each other? The person receiving the feedback needs something that they can actually work with, in order to improve. If they don’t obtain that, they’re going to feel left out, powerless, and like they cannot progress. And they won’t bother making an effort in future or ask for more feedback – why would they? It’s obviously not going to get them anywhere.

And people know when they’re being lied to. Stop it.


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