Hi, I hope you are well. Tons of feedback on last week’s Coaching Letter, so here, unsurprisingly, is more about feedback.

During one of my stints teaching in principal preparation programs (three different universities, so far), one of my colleagues asked to talk to me after one of our classes. “So,” she said, “How do you think it went?” This, I recognized from my years of experience giving and receiving feedback, was code for, “I have something I want to tell you about how I think you should have done something, but I have a mental model that says that I should ask you first for your own assessment, and then I’m going to tell you what you should have done.” I, unsurprisingly, was annoyed by this, and said something along the lines of, “Why don’t you just tell me what you want to say?” But she was having none of it: “No, no, tell me what you thought.” But actually, after I told her what I thought, it turned out, unsurprisingly, that she wasn’t interested in what I thought, and told me her interpretation of something that had happened during class—which, unsurprisingly, did not correspond with my interpretation. But I also know that to disagree in these situations is to just appear defensive, so I didn’t argue; but I am sure that she knew that I was annoyed so I ended up looking defensive anyway. Plus, I thought she was guilty of doing exactly what she suggested I had done two weeks previously, but I didn’t point that out, either—that would be what is known in coaching parlance as boomerang feedback, and also just makes the speaker look defensive, so I kept quiet. All this happened about eight years ago, and I am still annoyed.

One of my favorite facts about feedback is that the research shows that the most important feedback we get is the feedback we give ourselves. The best article about this is Ivancevich, J. M., & McMahon, J. T. (1982). The effects of goal setting, external feedback, and self-generated feedback on outcome variables: A field experiment. Academy of Management Journal25(2), 359-372. I know it’s old, and that you have to be in a geeky mood to read it, but it was revelatory to me. The idea that self-feedback is more powerful than external feedback isn’t at all surprising, when you think about it. Think about how disorienting it would be if we reacted to every piece of feedback or advice we got, and how pathetic we would feel if we felt like we couldn’t trust our own judgment and so were dependent on someone else all the time for information on how to live and work. When we see ourselves as novices, we are eager for information that helps us feel proficient, as we value that very highly and are highly motivated to reach competence. But we are not good at enduring novicehood, and want to transition from trusting others’ judgment in any given field to trusting our own as quickly as possible—this is true for teaching, learning to drive, and parenting, for example.

Every one of us has had the experience of choosing to reject feedback. We do this for a variety of reasons, e.g. it would just be too much work to make the suggested changes; the person giving the feedback doesn’t have much credibility (she doesn’t know what she is talking about; I saw him do the exact same thing last week; she has her own agenda; he is just threatened by me); I don’t really know how to make the suggested changes; or quite simply I like the way I’m doing it and don’t see any reason to change. But ultimately, the reason that we value the feedback we give ourselves over external sources is that we think that what we are doing is good. Our feedback to ourselves is calibrated against our definition of what good looks like. So if we don’t value the feedback we get from others, but the feedback we give ourselves is based on an erroneous or flawed definition of high quality—well that’s when we’re really in trouble (check out the Dunning-Kruger effect in these coaching letters). This is one of the many reasons why it is important, in any organization, for everyone to have a shared understanding of what high quality looks like.

Funnily enough, my university colleague and I did, I believe, have a shared understanding of what high quality graduate education looks like, and we still managed to disagree about what happened in class that night. But I was right and she was wrong—I can’t objectively prove that, but in the absence of a good reason to think otherwise, the feedback I give myself is more powerful than the feedback I get from others. And this is another compelling reason to change the way we think about feedback.

I think there is, psychologically, a big difference between feedback that we receive unsolicited and feedback that we ask for, although I think the relationship is complicated—for example, I think that people tend to be softer when they are responding to a request for feedback, because they assume that it will welcome and that they don’t have to take a stand or be self-righteous about it. Which is one of the many reasons why I ask for feedback as often as I can—after what I wrote above, I feel the need to assure you that (in almost all cases) I really do value it. And thank you again to everyone who responds to this Coaching Letter. Best, Isobel

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