Last year, after 20 years away from rowing, I bought a boat. It’s a 26 foot long needle of Kevlar and carbon fiber, less than 12 inches wide at the water line, and when it is rowed well it flies. That, however, is the problem: rowing it well is difficult, and rowing it badly is easy. Naturally I want to row well, both because I like the feeling of going fast, but also because I simply can’t abide the idea of being bad at something I love. And so over the past year I have read books, watched videos, and even gotten myself to the starting line of a race, just to see how I stacked up. All these things have helped me row better. I have also worked with a coach. When I compare what I wanted out of a book with what I wanted out of a coach, though, I realize that out of a book I wanted instruction, while out of a coach I wanted affirmation, acknowledgement that I am making progress in the boat.
Yet when I hired the coach I justified the cost as wanting to learn if I was rowing correctly. The thing is, I don’t need a coach to answer that question – indeed, that question is best answered by the boat itself. I know, mechanically, what moves a boat – how to hold my hands, when to tap the blade out of the water, the right angle to bend my body as I move my sliding seat up for another stroke. When my boat feels like dead weight, when it rolls from side to side, when my oar blades catch the surface of the water as I go up to take another stroke, I know what to try. And when the boat picks up, balances well, and runs without catching and jerking, I know it has worked.
We have the same desire for affirmation at work that I have on the water. It is understandable that we want our bosses and colleagues to provide us feedback. What we sometimes ignore, though, is that we have a ready source of feedback at our fingertips. We often know whether we are doing well at our jobs or not – whether our documents move ahead or come back covered with red ink, whether meaningful tasks are checked off our to-do list, whether our ideas for solving problems actually solve those problems. If we take the time to really ask ourselves the right questions, we generally have a good idea of whether we are doing the mechanics of our jobs well. Just as my boat tells me if I am rowing correctly, your work itself provides moment-to-moment evidence of a job well done, or not.
Why, then, do we crave feedback from others when we often already know the answers to questions like “am I doing it right?” I can think of two reasons.
We don’t trust ourselves. Sometimes we don’t trust information that comes from inside us (or our boats). We trust information provided by experts, bosses, and books, but not that we provide ourselves. We have to get beyond that, not only so that we can build our own constructive feedback loops within our own heads, but so that when feedback does come in we have something to test it against. If you aren’t accustomed to looking first at your own internal data about your performance you won’t know how to judge other people’s feedback of your performance. Is the feedback useful and true, or is it criticism or flattery? Check your own assessment of your performance and you may have the answer.
We want to be recognized. Wanting recognition can seem self-centered or small-minded, and so we dress up our request for recognition by calling it feedback. Let me be clear that wanting recognition is neither self-centered nor small-minded; it is normal and natural and a key source of motivation for many people. Even if our internal feedback loop is humming along well, telling us what is working and what isn’t, we want to be seen. We want to be known. But this desire is different from feedback. Just as when my boat is giving me plenty of feedback in the form of speed and flow I still crave the attention of a coach to say “I see you and you are doing well,” we can know we are doing well at work and still want someone else to recognize it. To say it.
What does this all mean? Essentially, I think, we should be getting better at identifying what we need from our colleagues and asking for it specifically. Think through exactly what you mean when you say you want more feedback. Do you really not know what you are doing well and doing badly? In most cases you do, once you give it some thought (but if you don’t, by all means ask). What you want from your colleagues may be more subtle; you may want help, or connection, or recognition of a job well done. In that case, ask for it. For example, maybe you know you gave a fabulous presentation at the last staff meeting, but your boss didn’t say a word afterward, and so you don’t know if she is going to give you more opportunities to do more presentations. Instead of asking your boss “how did that presentation go,” which is disingenuous (you know it went well!) say “I felt really good about that presentation. Do you think we could find more opportunities for me to grow those skills?” That opens the door to a conversation that leads to more than just a verbal pat on the back.