Historically, research suggests that positive feedback that affirms a behavior and is concrete and task-focused is more likely to generate positive changes in individual performance. However, more recent research indicates that specific feedback is most helpful for tasks that are simple, straightforward or codifiable. In such contexts, increasing the specificity of feedback might improve initial performance during practice phase. On the flip side though, more specific feedback tends to reduce the level of exploration, and undermines the learning needed for later, more independent performance.
Specific feedback is less effective in the complex and ambiguous world of creative work. Feedback giving and feedback seeking for creative work is most effective when “it finds a middle path between being too directive or too diffused” (Harrison & Dossinger, 2017, p. 2052), and offers individuals “interpretational flexibility to see new connections” (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006, p. 493).
Typical definitions of feedback often mistakenly assume that those giving feedback have a clear sense of what should be done, or what “success” should look like. However, increasingly in today’s world, feedback has to be given on ambiguous, complex tasks, with the feedback-giver also working to understand the newness. In such a scenario, the feedback-givers need more latitude and not be overly constrained in the feedback they have to give. In addition, feedback-givers often draw on their subjective, visceral reactions as a form of intuitive judgment. To summarize: “feedback in complex situations need not be right; instead it needs to be right enough to generate additional exploration” (Harrison & Dossinger, 2017, p. 2066).
“…increasingly in today’s world, feedback has to be given on ambiguous, complex tasks, with the feedback-giver also working to understand the newness.”
In addition to creativity, research from decision sciences indicates that feedback-giving could be be co-opted as a mechanism to become aware of one’s own blindspots. Almost everyone is vulnerable to cognitive illusions and blindspots that compromise the quality of decision making. However, it is a tough ask to build sufficient awareness of the many biases that interfere with the quality of our judgment. Poor decisions or lapses in intuition don’t always come with warning bells. Daniel Kahneman points to “educating gossip .. learning to critique other people” (Kahneman & Klein, 2010, p. 3) as perhaps as the only way to truly “debias” oneself. This thesis rests on the belief we are all programmed to notice errors, biases and failures in others’ decision making and actions much more easily in than our own. So if gossip means discussing others’ mistakes then “educating” gossip is a more systematic, disciplined, and precise discussion of these mistakes. As Kahneman notes “.. it is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wander into it than when you are about to do so. Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors”.
Finally what does research tell us about the aspects of feedback-giving that influence how feedback is received?
Credibility of feedback-giver: Credibility is conceptualized as the feedback-giver’s expertise and trustworthiness. Feedback from individuals who 1) have observed the feedback-receiver’s behaviors, 2) are in a position to form an informed opinion, and 3) have motives for providing feedback that can be trusted, are likely to have more influence on the feedback-receiving individual’s behavior.
Feedback quality: Feedback that receivers perceive to be high-quality tends to be specific, consistent across time, and feels useful. How useful the feedback is, from the point of view of the person receiving it, is an important factor in whether the person accepts the feedback and what he or she does with it.
Feedback delivery: A feedback-receiver’s perceptions of the feedback-giver’s intentions in giving feedback tends to influence reactions and response to the feedback. These perceptions are often shaped by the way the message is framed and delivered.