A look at the art of “feedback”

Assessing the performance of your fellow humans is a tricky business. Whether you’re offering praise, a generalized judgment, or what has come to be known as “feedback” (and what used to be called “yelling at someone”), you have to be cognizant of the recipient’s feelings and at the same time get your point across. The idea is to not only suggest how better work might be done the next time, but also to avoid embarrassing them.

When you’re a teacher who’s reporting on the progress of your impressionable young students, you’re likely to be bigger and stronger enough not to care what they think. Still, you have to temper your frankness with a measure of sensitivity, so as not to damage those fragile self-esteems. You also have to consider, especially in my part of the country, that their father may be an Ultimate Fighting Champion.

The public school system in this particular Southern state supplements its grades with a place in the progress report where teachers can offer “personalized” remarks. A comment code entered in the system triggers a pre-phrased assessment that’s meant to appear sincere but instead sounds computer-generated. They don’t even try to disguise this shortcut: next to the letter grade, the report will say something like “22. A delight to teach” or “17. Always focused and prepared.” At least that’s how they read for good students like my son. I imagine the lower part of the class gets stuff like “42. Needs to pay more attention” or “38. Must stop trying to knife me.”

When you’re working at the adult education level, you still have to be careful not to offend. I’ve done enough training in the corporate world to know that you have to promise trainees there are no wrong answers to have any hope of getting a response. “That’s one way to look at it” or “I see your point” are some of the acceptable replies, even if you ask what’s the capital of Michigan and they answer “twelve.” I once sat through a six-hour CPR class that incessantly stressed how heart-attack victims were by far your most likely subjects. When a question-and-answer summary was conducted at the end of class, we were asked what was the most common cause of death in America. “Car wrecks?” said the guy to my left.

As hard as it can be to tell someone they’re an idiot, it can be equally challenging to say something that’s positive and yet also rings true. I don’t know how many times I worked my hardest to do a good job on a particular project and heard nothing in response, while the next day I put forth a pitiful effort and drew rave reviews. You eventually reach the point where you realize there’s absolutely no predictable correlation going on.

Still, I’ve been on the other side enough to appreciate how hard it can be for management to rally the troops with hollow expressions of praise. So I do have some sympathy for what follows. It’s a collection of comments submitted by a reader who started detecting something of a canned flavor to all the appreciative emails his team was receiving from a top executive in his company. Read what follows and try not to wince.

–Thank you for the exceptional job you did on Wills. Thank you especially for your focus on quality with this work.
–Excellent feedback on Kaline!!! It is great to be known for quality and speed. That will keep our clients with us.
–Accurate and two days early!!! Thank you for your work and the excellent results for our clients on Drysdale. Keep up the great work.
–Thank you for getting the Tresh work completed quickly and accurately. Keep it going through the year.
–Excellent work producing Boyer quickly and accurately. Looking forward to more successes through the year.
–Thank you for jumping in during a tough spot on Orlando and letting us shine. Keep up the great work.
–Great quality and responsiveness!!! Terrific words to hear from our clients. Johns gives us a tremendous amount of work. I am so glad our sales team is “impressed” every day.
–Excellent work on Jake. Glad to see you exceeding our client’s needs.
–Exceptional work on Anderson! Thank you for delivering for our clients so that they can meet their goals. This will keep them coming back.
–What terrific feedback on Nicks. It shows teamwork and attention to detail. Exactly the ingredients we need to provide a perfect product to our clients.
–Excellent work on Howard. Thank you for helping to get this client finished on time. Very nicely done.
–Thank you for your speed and accuracy on Warfield. The client was able to finish their project on time. Excellent work!!!!
–Excellent work on Roberts. Keep the focus on quality and speed.
–Awesome work on the Stofa job. Thank you for your focus on quality and speed.
–Excellent work on George. Difficult work delivered on time and in great shape. We cannot ask for more than that.
–Thank you for your work on Roseboro. It is great to be known for speed and a high level of accuracy.
–Excellent work on Moose. The more you “make people’s day”, the more work we will receive. Thank you and keep up the great work.
–Thank you for your work on Morris. Keep up the great work. Good comments on the communication as well.
–Excellent turnaround and quality on the job that had to finish yesterday. This is why our clients keep coming back.
–Thank you for completing the Venus work on time. Excellent work and keep it going through the year.
–Thank you for the quick turnaround and high quality for the Henderson job.
–Excellent work exceeding expectations on Lucille. Thank you and keep up the great work.
–Thank you for completing Dawn in half of the time expected. I appreciate your focus on quality and speed.

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2 Responses to “A look at the art of “feedback””

  1. E.F. Misanthrope Says:

    Feedback, or feedbag as I prefer to term it, is indeed a difficult and thorny issue. One of the less than creative parts of my job is to countersign student reports, and after the first thousand or so, one does tend to become rather suspicious of the ‘excellent progress’ that everyone seems to be making, and one can’t help but doubt that all of these teenagers ‘apply themselves well’ in class. I still spend about 10 tens a week at the coal face of education and teens rarely apply themselves well to anything except slacking off.
    Feedbag gets particularly irritating in the adult world, and always seems to veer so far towards the positive that it almost veers off the cliff. One can’t help wondering if Hitler’s performance appraisal might read something like ‘Adolf if very committed and persistent in all his endeavours, and his work ethic has enabled him to realise many of the goals he set out in his job plan, Mein Kamph. This ability to set his own objectives indicates blab bla bla,
    I could go on, and I’d like to produce a diction of student comments and what they mean, but as I haven’t hidden my identity very well, I’ll say no more. Finally, I was going to direct you to a hilarious dictionary of comments and their real meaning from a website called englishdroid but it seems it have disappeared. Ominous…
    Thanks for another great post W!

  2. Caitlin Plenty Says:

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