The Perils of Positive Feedback(s). Nowt to do with Climate, everything to do with the Smugosphere

If you don’t already know about “positive feedbacks” in biology (release of oxytocin during childbirth) and earth systems (melting ice exposes dark ocean, increasing warming, melting ice…) then go google it.

I’m here to talk about the dangers of collecting non-anonymous feedback from people who are encultured to be polite. And then using that feedback to validate the lazy, unimaginative and – worst of all – ineffective – methods you’ve been using.

An email from someone who helped stage an atrocity –
“The event got quite good feedback from people. So, overall, we are pretty happy with the outcome” but then conceded “You are right we don’t have the empirical evidence to know how many people liked or disliked the event, so neither you nor I can make any evidence-based statements.” [Except I can, because I asked myself – and other people who left early – about it…]

My email to someone else who’d staged another atrocity.

The dangers of feedback

People will have, with the exception of me, have said very positive things to you, both face-to-face and on the feedback forms.

There are good reasons for this

  • the event was very well-organised. Booking, sign up and pre-info were well-organised, and it mostly ran to time.
  • the presentations were by-and-large well-presented and useful
  • people will have either met some new people or caught up with people they don’t see very often, or at least “put a face to a name”

There are not-so-good reasons

  • the forms weren’t anonymous (though you can always leave your name off)
  • the forms didn’t encourage people to be (constructively) critical
  • people got a free feed (and the food was good)
  • people tend to be polite (not me, clearly)

And there is an “invisible” reason

– people are mostly so used to this format – of being sat in rows and talked at – that they don’t imagine or expect anything better. They don’t expect that their skills will be valorised (several speakers did, it’s true) and that their needs will be met during a conference like this. They expect to be “talked at”. And so they judge it on those terms.
Please note, I am NOT disputing that the feedback you got is sincere. I am disputing that it is very useful to you. In fact it will be actively harmful if it is used as a shield to dismiss what I have said; “everyone else liked it” (thus leading on to “well, you’ve got a particular agenda” or “well, you are only happy if you are unhappy”… That’s happened before, and will happen again. So it goes.

And his reply

Thanks very much for your feedback – you are right – much of our feedback is glowing – so it is great to have some constructive comments.  Thank you very much for your views – they are objective, informative and will be very useful.

Verily, we are fucked.

About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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4 Responses to The Perils of Positive Feedback(s). Nowt to do with Climate, everything to do with the Smugosphere

  1. a few years ago I started to include a simple, open-ended question into all feedback I elicit from courses I deliver:
    “what 1 thing would have made it better?”

    sadly, the majority of people reply with ‘nothing’, but I’ve noticed that if I introduce the feedback/happy sheet in advance of their ticking the boxes, explaining its rationale and uses, I tend to get far more honest and useful feedback

  2. here’s where my approaches start to sound even more radical:

    where possible I actually ask for participants to give open/collective feedback in front of each other – I ‘grid-up’ a couple of flipchart sheets with the questions, then ask people to each write and score against them while I’m out of the room: people seem to respond very well to this as they can all see what they each thought of the session – after all, having just spent time collectively learning and reflecting on materials and ideas together, it seems daft to then shift them back into an isolated way of thinking by doing private feedback…
    This approach encourages people to continue being open and honest with each other in reflecting on the whole learning experience as a self-directing group and seems to work really well!

    Where this isn’t possible, I’ve found that participants tend to give more honest and critical feedback where sheets are named – perhaps its because in asking people to identify themselves, it confers a greater sense of ‘ownership’ and belief that it’ll be heeded, rather than just be another nameless sheet in a pile…?

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