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Feedback is What Makes Everything Work

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The other day I closed a savings account at a tiny credit union branch. I expected it to take about five minutes, but the teller took so long that I started to experience time distortion.

I knew it had been at least fifteen minutes, but perhaps it was much longer. Twenty-five minutes? Forty? There was no visible clock, and I didn’t want to take out my phone. The young teller seemed to be Googling how to close an account while maintaining her professional bank teller countenance.

I waited patiently, occupying myself with an eyes-open meditation practice, and didn’t complain.

I did feel self-conscious though. There were only two tellers, and half of them were dealing with me while the other one, clearly more experienced, handled the rest of the line one at a time.

Another customer did complain, to the other teller.

She said, with an edge to her voice, “I would suggest that if a transaction is going to take more than ten minutes, it should be done by appointment,” and then went on to make a few more suggestions. The teller cited extenuating circumstances (scheduling problems, somebody is on lunch) and also said she was very sorry about that a few times.

Everyone in the tiny building heard this exchange, and it made for an uncomfortable few minutes for all of us.

I have no idea what transpired once I left, but I presume that this conspicuous instance of feedback made it a lot more likely that the young teller learned to close an account promptly that day.

After all, it’s so easy to ignore a problem and hope it fixes itself. The customer’s complaint forced an elephant into the room, which the two tellers probably couldn’t avoid addressing once the rush of customers was over.

Feedback is the only reason anything in our complicated human world actually works. Every device, business, or process begins in a rudimentary state with lots of problems. Whoever notices a problem -– a customer, user, or staff member — has to make the problem clear to the designer/operator of that thing in order for the problem to be fixed. This allows for a new version, with slightly fewer problems, and so on, until you have something much better.

Man issuing feedback

The software you’re using to browse this website had to go through that process, as did every book on your bookshelf, every procedure at your workplace, every grocery item you buy, every machine you operate, basically everything you use that actually works. Civilization was built on feedback.

Feedback is even necessary for human morality. Having a conscience alone isn’t enough — most of our moral sense is formed by interacting with others. We learn, often during painful or embarrassing moments, the complex system of norms and values underpinning society: it’s not nice to insist on being first all the time; be aware of the people sitting in the row behind you when you stand up; refill the ice cube tray.

We need that kind of feedback because the reasons not to follow a given impulse (such as always steering the conversation to your favorite topic, or telling strangers about your gastrointestinal issues) aren’t always obvious, until someone makes a point of telling you.

Conscience alone is not enough

In systems where honest feedback is stifled or forbidden, things get very ugly and dysfunctional. Authoritarian regimes are rife with inefficiencies and absurdities, because people can’t safely express their real feelings about the performance of their leaders or their systems.

Consider this anecdote about the internal atmosphere of Stalin’s USSR, from The Gulag Archipelago:

A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. […] And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on—six, seven, eight minutes!.. Nine minutes! Ten!.. Then after eleven minutes, the director of a paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. To the last man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. […] That same night the factory director was arrested.

(For a more contemporary example of this kind of absurdity, watch this disturbing 2011 clip of North Korean citizens doing their civic duty of publicly expressing grief for Kim Jong-Il. There’s lots of wailing and pounding the ground, and no tears.)

East Germans expressing their leadership preferences, 1951

A functional feedback cycle is necessary for things to get better, or even to begin working at all. Even in a free society, however, feedback can be so uncomfortable to give, receive, and witness, that it is sometimes never issued at all, even when it’s sorely needed. If your friend is a terrible singer who drives to every tryout for American Idol or and The Voice, someone could save them a lot of pain, effort, and money by convincing them that they have no chance of winning. But who wants to be the one to do it?

It takes courage, and tact. I know I’ve mostly abdicated this responsibility myself. Especially when I was younger, I didn’t want to embarrass anyone, or myself. Life was awkward enough.

It’s amazing how long a ridiculous state of affairs can go on simply because nobody says anything about it. I had a boss who habitually complained about his clients. He would repeat the same handful of stories about how some client had wronged him, even to other clients. I was 25 and didn’t want to tell my boss what to do, but a bolder and more responsible version of me might have saved him a lot of grief, and a lot of future problems with his clients.

Willing to provide feedback others haven’t

Often, the more obvious and absurd a problem is, the harder it is to bring up. I had a computer programming instructor who ended seemingly every sentence of her lectures, maybe every sentence she ever spoke, with “…and that.”

“COBOL was developed in the 1950s but is still widely used in many businesses… and that.”

“This function uses a three-dimensional array… and that.”

“There’s no class next Tuesday.” [pause] “…aaand that.”

Otherwise she was completely professional and knowledgeable. She just trailed off every sentence like a teenager from a slacker movie.

It was so jarring. It was hard to even listen to what she was saying, knowing what’s coming. Of course I didn’t mention it, and neither did anybody else. We didn’t even mention it to each other. It was too embarrassing.

A state of affairs no longer going on

Giving feedback is as scary as getting it. After all, feedback isn’t always accurate or appropriate. It can be unhelpful, ill-informed, or just projection on the part of the giver. Even when it’s spot-on, the target isn’t always going to be receptive. All the more reason to leave it to someone else.

Yet — good, honest feedback can be a godsend to somebody, especially when something isn’t working and they don’t know why. Every complex system that works required a lot of feedback to get to that state, and much of it might not have happened if the giver had been more sheepish or afraid to offend.

Honest, well-intentioned feedback is potent stuff. It’s rare and precious, sometimes devastating, sometimes liberating, sometimes both. Someone pointing out a problem, with the right amount tact and humility, is often the only thing that can make a thing better. Bless those who are willing to offer feedback, even when (or especially when) we don’t want to hear it.


Photos by Febiyan, Wikimedia Commons


Neil Scott June 28, 2024 at 2:12 am

I recently did an interview with someone and, at the end of it, they said: “You know, that was a really bad interview. You didn’t probe, you didn’t follow-up.”

What they said was true, but I still felt defensive. I realised that I didn’t really care about this particular conversation and that was more depressing than whether it was good or bad. I had been doing something I didn’t care about. This was the feedback I needed!

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 9:32 am

Hey Neil. It can be really devastating to get blunt feedback. It is so hard to incorporate criticism in real-time. Maybe nobody can do it.

That said, the bluntness of it doesn’t speak to its truth. Sometimes people are just reacting to their own experience. But if you come agree then I guess it has passed the test.

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Annie June 28, 2024 at 2:48 am

Giving good, constructive, and actionable feedback is an art form. Honest feedback may be helpful, but the way it’s presented makes the difference between people taking action and people becoming resentful and angry and maybe even changing something for the worse. To make the world a better place you need to teach people both skills: giving feedback and receiving feedback.

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 9:35 am

It really is an art form, and good-intentioned critics can do more harm than good by giving feedback tactlessly. Imagine if we formally taught those two skills in school — how much better we’d get at almost everything.

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Sue June 28, 2024 at 2:48 am

Thanks for this great piece. I immediately thought of two ongoing situations in my life that are gradually becoming more difficult as no one, including myself, wants to grasp the nettle. I’ll try to find the courage.

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 10:06 am

Best of luck in grasping these nettles!

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Janie June 28, 2024 at 4:11 am

While I agree with you that avoiding difficult or uncomfortable conversations perpetuates and sometimes magnifies the problems, your piece raised other issues that I think are more complicated. You referenced ‘the complex system of norms and values underpinning society’, and from the examples you gave, I think you mean what for want of a better word could be called manners or etiquette. But this is so context dependent, and has the potential for deep harm. The ‘norms’ of any society are highly likely to favour particular groups. ‘Feedback’ of this sort can keep people disempowered and cause untold problems (ranging from small but impactful childhood ‘norms’ like being told to be seen and not heard; the difficulty most people have in expressing or even experiencing uncomfortable emotions as they’ve been told what ‘normal’ is – the ‘norms’ of repressive modelling of inequalities of skin colour, gender, sexuality, class, and many other forms of discrimination. For those in positions of structural disadvantage, the ‘feedback’ that they are constantly receiving will be to keep themselves in check, not to rock the boat, not to assume that they can be anything outside of what society or their segment of it has deemed appropriate.

This is a large topic I know, and your main point about not shying away from ‘functional’ feedback is well made but I did want to gently challenge the point about what we learn from the feedback society gives us and how the learning there might need quite a bit of unlearning in later years, given the privilege time and courage necessary.

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 9:49 am

It is definitely very complicated. For what it’s worth I’m talking about something more general than manners and etiquette. Regardless of the society, there are many, many levels of norms, laws, customs, and values operating, and we will receive feedback when we violate them or uphold them, whether or not it’s fair or right. We then have to figure out what to do next.

I don’t agree with the model that some people fall categorically “inside” the norms and some out, or that some people experience structural disadvantages and others don’t, or some have privilege and others don’t. Every single person is the nexus of thousands of unique conditions. The situation will differ for each person, but that one’s situation is unique is a universal. Each person will fall inside of some expectations and outside of others, and will have their own battle to learn how to operate in a world that ultimately has no interest in understanding them personally.

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John June 28, 2024 at 5:08 am

I recommend looking at Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC (non-violent communication) as a positive way of giving feedback…

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 9:53 am

I should revisit it! I read it and loved it like 20 years ago but I haven’t consciously practiced it for about, uh 19.5 years.

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Thomas June 28, 2024 at 5:49 am

One issue around feedback is the size of the feedback giver’s ego. There can be a Dunning-Kruger effect wherein someone thinks they know a lot about the situation but can’t see how much less they know than others. They view themselves as handing out wise and valuable feedback, but in reality they have a totally uninformed and unintelligent grasp of the concepts. It’s not all the time, but it definitely happens.

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 9:55 am

Yes, agreed. Feedback is often completely misplaced and ill-informed. I should have emphasized that point more, because bad feedback can really blow up the whole thing, because it makes us less receptive to good feedback too.

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Jessica June 28, 2024 at 8:44 am

I really appreciate your insight on the importance of negative feedback. I was diagnosed with chronic leukemia this week, and I am grateful for the hospital staff’s honest but considerate feedback. They explained the test results and the diagnosis while also checking in on my emotional well-being.

I continue to receive negative but informative feedback on a daily basis: this week’s bloodwork results led to me now taking oral chemo. Not fun, but your post reminds me that negative feedback is crucial for my treatment and a necessary part of addressing dysfunction. I’m finding that cancer is a lesson in how to accept negative feedback.

I’m trying to focus on some of the Buddhist principles you write about like acceptance, gratitude, mindfulness, and impermanence. I’m always open to suggestions :)

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 10:00 am

I’m sorry to hear that. At the risk of sounding insensitive, I hope it turns out to be a positive experience for you that makes life better in some way you didn’t expect.

If you haven’t read When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, it is made for exactly this sort of situation, when life gets turned upside down and you have to navigate a totally new landscape. It’s an exceptional book.

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Donna Ribotto June 28, 2024 at 9:02 am

Your example of the tellers elegantly summarized the issue of feedback. The other customer did not consider what was causing the delay, an inexperienced employee learning how to close out an account. This individual immediately went to solutions which in fact were not applicable. You could have gotten annoyed and irritated, but if you did we would not be reading this blog.
I am confident that both tellers discussed this dilemma once both customers left and came up with a solution. Like one of your comments expressed, feedback is not as simple or easy as the other customer at the other till thought.

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 10:04 am

Right, that’s an important point: we rarely (maybe never) have all the information when we give the feedback, but it can still result in attention getting to the right place. By the sounds of it, the other customer believed I was responsible for the holdup (she kept referring to me as “that other patron”). I didn’t take it personally, and I can’t really expect her to have understood the situation from her angle.

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Laurie June 28, 2024 at 9:37 am

I read a comment somewhere (maybe here?) that said people who like you tell you what you want to hear and people who care about you tell you what you need to hear. I think about that a lot and try to have the courage to tell people hard things.

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 10:05 am

That wasn’t me but I agree, although I should have emphasized that we all have different opinions about what other people need to hear :D

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Julie June 28, 2024 at 12:58 pm

Your key observation, that systems can’t work without feedback, is a profound one that I have never considered.

Yet what you call feedback, is known as criticizing and complaining, in every day life. Criticisms and complaints are most often considered to be not only unnecessary, but harmful.

When someone does criticize (“please stop leaving the water pitcher out of the fridge”), most often, feelings are hurt. Actual pain is felt. Fights ensue!

I actually know someone whose goal is to NEVER complain!

I suppose we could refine this with an ethic of overlooking small grievances, and then padding our necessary and helpful “feedback” in a sandwich of compliments.

But the whole topic is very problematic. And I agree — feedback, if we could bear it, would be very helpful!

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 2:08 pm

Criticizing or complaining is one form of feedback. There are others, like the informal feedback that happens when you talk to a customer or when you notice people keep using your product wrong. I should have included more examples of other sorts of feedback.

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Mary Lynn June 28, 2024 at 1:12 pm

Some feedback: I love your photo captions so much! Heeeehehe!

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David Cain June 28, 2024 at 2:08 pm

Haha thanks. I have a lot of fun with them

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Bunny June 28, 2024 at 3:42 pm

Thank you for another lovely article David.

I think it is also important think carefully about giving positive feedback when it is not warranted. The risk being that the recipient begins to make less effort, innovation drops off etc

Exagerrated feedback isn’t so great either. For example, I find consummer reviews for products, hotels, etc are often so polarised that they have lost their credibility. 5 stars is supposed to be exceptional, 3 stars satisfactory, 1 star appalling. You’d expect most reviews to fall around 3 stars, but that isn’t what I see most of the time.

Take care, Bunny

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Gary Parkinson July 1, 2024 at 6:51 am

I think it was Kevin Kelly who suggested that the 3-star reviews are the ones we really should read, because they have at least some balance and nuance…

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Lola June 29, 2024 at 4:05 pm

fFeedback is so important with every situation in life that we deal with. If you’re dealing with your children we get feedback in their growth. If we’re dealing with our spouse we may get feedback by their actions. If we’re dealing with a work situation we may get feedback in the form of a performance review. None of these are easy situations but feedback is needed for the best result. I find that it
is always best not to give unsolicited or unnecessary feedback. But when it is necessary be tactful and honest putting emotions aside but getting straight to the point.

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Robert Heath June 29, 2024 at 8:09 pm

John Sterman of the MIT School of Management goes into some depth on how we learn from feedback and the problems that keep us from learning well: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7323610_Learning_from_Evidence_in_a_Complex_World

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Paul Anthony June 30, 2024 at 4:53 pm

Hey, David. I really don’t want to burst any bubbles, but since you—not me—broached this subject, I need to suggest that ‘some people’ really shouldn’t ‘quit their day jobs’. They are pretty much hack writers and don’t have any future at all of becoming professional or otherwise talented writers. Therefore, no matter what various people submit as “Comments”, these “writers” need to keep in mind that compliments are like perfume: they are only to be smelled, not swallowed. Unfortunately, over time, many so-called, “writers” end up swallowing various kinds of obsequious, complimentary smelly stuff instead of just letting it benignly do its thing by quickly fading away. It’s almost as bad as “swallowing the Kool-aid”—I think. I mean, if these self-declared “writers” had done so, then maybe their sycophantic readership wouldn’t have ended up wasting so much time devotedly reading on-going drivel. Anyway, I hope you are taking what I am saying as my feeble attempt by trying to set ‘some people’ free from any sort of delusions they may have of being a real writer so that they can move on to other, more suited things.
In conclusion, let me also state I am fully aware that some pots call some pans black. Thankfully, though, you are not a “pan”, although to be sure, I am a “pot’—perhaps even a cracked pot that has never been able to accomplish being what you are: a talented, enlightening writer. Keep up the great work!

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Asel July 1, 2024 at 3:34 pm

thanks for highlighting so much of the subtle but necessary side of interaction in today’s “non-conflict, positive” society.
It is subtle because it is not one-dimensional, you need to feel at what moment and with whom you can raise this topic. How open the person is to constructive criticism, whether he or she is ready to hear advice. In my experience, it is better to do it with loved ones (in the most modest and non-agressive way) because in this way we can help to pass a certain lesson and highlight where they are ready but cannot see.

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Dave July 1, 2024 at 10:14 pm

I like the idea that feedback is deeply embedded in our very physiology. We are a bunch of molecular feedback loops regulating our homeostasis, keeping us alive and functioning.

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Steve July 2, 2024 at 3:24 pm

When I encounter situations like yours at the bank in my own life, I wrestle with several questions: When is it appropriate to give feedback? Who is the best person to issue this feedback? How can I calculate the impact of my feedback on the “greater good” with so little context?

My wife and I went to a restaurant we like down the street recently. It was a Friday, we had no reservation (the place is not very big) but we figured: let’s just see if we can grab a table spur of the moment. Upon arriving we learned: no, that would not be possible… they were “booked” for the evening. It was early, but the place was virtually empty. The host made no effort whatsoever to accommodate our impulse.

On the short walk back home, we opened the reservation app used to book tables at this restaurant: voila, plenty of open spots, as soon as 30 mins from booking. We booked a reservation and returned to the restaurant 30 mins later and were immediately ushered inside and enjoyed fine meal. The host gave no indication of remembering us.

So of course we debated the many “why’s?” of the situation… does the reservation app have an agreement with the restaurant that guarantees available tables no matter what? With so many available spots, what would compel the host to not offer any kind of “let me see what I can do” action? Did she truly not remember us or was she embarrassed that she told us we couldn’t dine there, only to seat as at a table a short time later?

We also struggled with the idea of giving feedback. Who do we give it to? How can we deliver it to make the best impact? Ultimately we demurred: we didn’t feel confident the feedback would make an impact large enough to justify the uncomfortable conversation. And it really didn’t bother us that much: we still dined at the restaurant and enjoyed the meal.

Often times it feels impossible to offer feedback (especially in at a restaurant, or service industry setting) in a empathetic, “I swear I’m not actually mad about this!” way. People and businesses have their guards up from having to combat endless waves of self-centered, incorrectly indignant customers who complain loudly at things no matter what.

If I can be fairly certain that offering feedback in a given situation will be ignored… or worse, get someone in trouble, or given less hours, or fired (when it’s obvious they don’t care about this job and its simply a means to an end for surviving)… what is the real value of that feedback? And how can one tell?

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David Cain July 3, 2024 at 5:56 pm

That is so baffling. I’ve been rereading Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication since a commenter mentioned it, and it might give you a way to give feedback that will be received. In fact the whole point of his method is to be able to say something and ask questions without triggering defensiveness. Because once you do, you probably won’t get a straight answer — people are more concerned with saving face first.

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Richk July 5, 2024 at 8:56 pm

Your posts always get me thinking. Giving or receiving feedback often includes a unspoken implication of where the power is in the relationship of two people. That can easily derail any positive outcomes.

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جامبوبگ اصفهان July 14, 2024 at 6:24 am

I love your photo captions so much

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