Feedback matters. You know that, even if you don’t always like getting it. Someone tells you something, and it sinks in and winds up helping you grow tremendously. Looking back, you feel grateful–maybe even right away.
But what about those experiences that leave you reeling and wishing you’d never heard someone’s input at all? What makes one piece of feedback feel so crippling and discouraging and another so empowering? It turns out there are a few factors that determine when others’ feedback is likely to help you, and when it might be best to avoid or ignore it completely.
These are a few questions to ask yourself to decide how much and what kind of feedback–if any–you might want to solicit.
The very first speech I ever had to make was in the seventh grade. It was on Greek mythology. I was the new kid at school, and my teacher picked me to present first. My knees were knocking, my voice was shaking, but somehow I made it through. Instead of crushing me by stating the obvious (which was that I needed improvement), my teacher encouraged me. That positive feedback early on helped make me more comfortable to get up and try it again. I gradually got better.
“You need positive feedback if you’re unsure about your task commitment,” says University of Chicago behavioral scientist Ayelet Fishbach, “that is, if you think the task might be too challenging for you. You also need positive feedback if you’re a novice and have only recently started working on the task.” In other words, when you’re doing something new, it’s okay to want and need this boost.
Fishbach has found that positive reinforcement early on is highly motivating. So seeking out praise when you’re just getting started can keep you going during those crucial early days when you might be inclined to give up.
Positive feedback isn’t so useful indefinitely, though. Once you know what you’re doing, you need the motivation to take your skills to the next level. You still need feedback at times like this, just a different variety of it. That’s when constructive feedback—including criticism—can be more powerful. “You’ll benefit from negative feedback if you’re sure about your commitment and you’re an expert—you know what and how to do it, but need the extra push to get going,” Fishbach explains.
So when you’re in a particular situation where a skill set feels really new to you, it’s okay to ask, “What went well?” But once you start to have confidence in your abilities, it’s often more helpful to ask, “Where do you see room for growth?”
With simple tasks, negative feedback can help bring a boost in focus and improve performance. But one of the worst things you can do when working on a complex, difficult task is to actively solicit negative feedback. In one widely cited 1996 meta-analysis, researchers found that constructive criticism shuts down creative thinking and puts people into a more rigid, self-protective mental state.
But there’s one way out of this bind, they discovered: If you set clear, “learning goals” first, then critical feedback isn’t detrimental at all—it can actually improve performance, no matter how complicated the undertaking. That’s because if you frame a difficult project as a learning experience, with clear-cut milestones for making progress, you’re less likely to feel anxious about coming up short. Instead, you’ll be focused on mastering the unfamiliar concept or task, and learning-based goals can help clear the way for feedback to help, not hurt you.
Another critical factor is your natural sensitivity and responsiveness to feedback. It’s important to know yourself and the situation. You might be so sensitive to others’ input that it just takes a slight nudge to help you make a major correction, while somebody else needs a freight train to hit them to even begin to budge.
A few of the personality factors that play a role include:
Meyers-Briggs “feelings” versus “thinking” orientations: In this common personality framework, so-called “feelers” will be more sensitive to feedback than “thinkers.”
Highly Sensitive Person traits: Just as it sounds, this personality trait designates people who are especially sensitive to external stimuli, including feedback. They may even perceive feedback as negative, even if it isn’t explicitly so. If you have these tendencies, you’ll improve the most either with a gentle touch, or in some cases by avoiding feedback altogether.
Gretchen Rubin’s “Four Tendencies”: Rubin, a productivity expert, sees most people as belonging to one of four archetypes–the “rebel,” the “questioner,” the “obliger,” and the “upholder.” Rebels and questioners may need to get hit over the head with negative feedback in order to take it to heart, and even then may decide not to change course. If you’re one of these two, you should probably seek out feedback quite often. Obligers and upholders will usually respond quickly to feedback, with little force needed.
So know thyself. This way you can simply explain to others how you respond best under coaching.
Sometimes we want to improve. Sometimes we don’t. That obviously makes a difference in our openness to receiving feedback.
“If a confident person only wants to feel good, they won’t want negative feedback,” says Stacey Finkelstein, assistant professor of marketing at Baruch College and a research colleague of Fishbach’s. “Negative feedback in our model is only sought and increases motivation when people want to improve.” And that, says Finkelstein, can depend on the circumstances: “This is less about personality and more about whether someone wants to feel good, verify their view of themselves, or improve.”
If you really don’t want to get better at something and you don’t need to for whatever reason, don’t ask for feedback–or ask it from people who will only give you kudos. We can’t be experts at everything. It’s okay to be honest with yourself if there are certain areas where you simply want to coast (either for now or forever). Don’t go around asking people to tell you what to work on if you have no intention of changing.
Feedback can be useful, but only in the right circumstances and delivered the right way. Ask for what you need, when you need it. And when necessary, avoid the feedback that could do more to hinder your progress right now than help it. Who knows? It may be exactly what you need a few months from now–just not right at this moment.