Soliciting negative feedback is hard, but you must do it often if you care about progressing

Last week, I tried an experiment in self-promotion. I made a birthday wish that I shared among my Facebook friends, wishing that they would read more of my writing. The experiment went well. That post became one of the most read pieces since I moved my blog to this website last year. I got lots of friends to subscribe, and many told me how they had already been enjoying my work.

But I wanted feedback on whether this experiment was really worth it. After all, I didn’t want it to sound like a sales pitch. This was a genuine request, and I wanted to know if it came across that way.

I’m lucky to have a group of really smart people whom I can ask for critical feedback. The group approved of my experiment, and the prompt led to a valuable discussion on feedback, which started, as many things do, with Elon Musk.

Feedback loop

Most of the time we walk around thinking that we are doing the right thing. That is important, of course, because if we were not confident in our abilities then we would not be able to function. But from time to time we must solicit feedback to help us spot faults and find better ways of doing things.

This might seem like common sense, but Elon Musk, one of the most successful entrepreneurs alive, says that most people don’t seek feedback that matters. He says we must not just seek feedback, but we must specifically seek negative feedback. (As a side, the operative word here should be critical, which means negative and analytically founded.)

When asking for feedback if you don’t ask for negative feedback, chances are you will never get it because people usually withhold such feedback for fear of hurting our feelings. This human folly to be soft on others leads to ineffectiveness. Even the times when negative feedback has to be given, it is usually sugar-coated, which often does not lead to the action that is needed.

Forget niceties

Truth is a hard apple to throw and a hard apple to bite.” These are slightly modified words of the American author Donald Barthelme. One way of allowing such hard apples to reach you, at least on an individual level, is to set up a system for soliciting feedback anonymously. With such an option, those giving feedback can forget niceties and really get to the point. It is also easy to do. For instance, here is a simple Google form where you can leave anonymous feedback for me.

However, before you jump to setting up your own form, you have to remember that negative feedback can (and will) hurt. You need to be sure that you are ready to hear nasty stuff. Smarter people than I have thought about this and they’ve developed rules that might help.

If you are thinking of soliciting anonymous feedback, try to abide by Crocker’s Rules (in full):

Declaring yourself to be operating by “Crocker’s Rules” means that other people are allowed to optimise their messages for information, not for being nice to you.

It means that you have accepted full responsibility for the operation of your own mind—if you’re offended, it’s your fault. Anyone is allowed to call you a moron and claim to be doing you a favour.

While Crocker’s Rules are simple, they are not easy to follow. In launching my own anonymous form, I’m taking a risk. But I do believe that the payoff will be worth it.

Mass change

On an organisation level, most places already have regular appraisals in place. However, these tend to be too formal for their own good. This can hurt an organisation, especially one that is growing rapidly or one where roles change quite often.

For this to work, on such a level, there will need to be behavioural change, which is hard. People will need to be encouraged to give feedback and a system will need to be in place to help them manage this feedback. Organisations can’t force people to follow Crocker’s Rules. But the human resource department can do something to help, if they want such a culture to flourish.

An experiment that has worked at some leading tech firms is that of radical transparency. Except for 100% personal emails, every email is shared with everyone else in the organisation. So someone new to a project can go read all the emails, all the way back if they want, and problems are uncovered more quickly. It’s hard to pretend everything’s going well with the customer when the email thread shows it’s not. (Of course email volume will be high, but email filters and selective reading can go a long way.)

One way or another, you must do your best to solicit negative feedback and do it often. If you care about progressing quickly, that is.


Thanks to Alex Flint, Christo Fogelberg and Xiao Cai for ideas and feedback. Image: gforsythe


Crocker’s Rules in full

Declaring yourself to be operating by “Crocker’s Rules” means that other people are allowed to optimise their messages for information, not for being nice to you.

Crocker’s Rules means that you have accepted full responsibility for the operation of your own mind—if you’re offended, it’s your fault. Anyone is allowed to call you a moron and claim to be doing you a favour. (Which, in point of fact, they would be. One of the big problems with this culture is that everyone’s afraid to tell you you’re wrong, or they think they have to dance around it.)

Two people using Crocker’s Rules should be able to communicate all relevant information in the minimum amount of time, without paraphrasing or social formatting. Obviously, don’t declare yourself to be operating by Crocker’s Rules unless you have that kind of mental discipline.

These rules don’t mean you can insult people; it means that other people don’t have to worry about whether they are insulting you. Crocker’s Rules are a discipline, not a privilege. Taking advantage of Crocker’s Rules does not imply reciprocity. How could it? Crocker’s Rules are something you do for yourself, to maximise information received—not something you grit your teeth over and do as a favour. The rules are named after Lee Daniel Crocker.

My worst days as a kid gave me the most valuable productivity hack

Radiolab, one of my favourite things on the internet, ran an episode on morality a few years ago. The main question they asked was whether our sense of morality is something we are born with or something we learn. If it is the latter, then how? The one-hour story is worth your time, but there is one aspect of the three-part story that I want to discuss.

In the first part, they observed chimps to find that even among our primate cousins there exists a rudimentary system of morality. Their example comes from how these chimps share the food that is given to a group. Some neuroscientists and philosophers argue that each one of us has this rudimentary level of morality that we have inherited through millions of years of evolution—this is the “inner chimp” hypothesis as one scientist puts it.

In humans this inner chimp starts acting when we are two or three years old. And then we refine it as we go through the experience of life. Most of this refinement, not surprisingly, happens when we are kids, as we see in the second part in the episode, which involved an example from the school life of Amy O’Leary, now a New York Times reporter.

In grade four, one of Amy’s teacher got the kids to play a game that would help them learn some history. The game was called Homestead and it was something like Monopoly where each student received certain resources and had to play by simple rules to win. The main rule of the game was: “Do what you think is right.”

Amy cheated. She looted some of her classmates who wanted to be part of an in-group and even flooded the market with fake money. The teacher who ran the game realised what was happening and called a meeting of those who were involved. He asked Amy, who had become a leader by now, “What are you going to do?”

When she said “nothing”, the teacher used it as one of those “teachable” moments and showed his disappointment in her without directly intervening in the game. That look on her teacher’s face has stuck with Amy for all her life.

Just as she finished telling the story, I was flooded with memories of the many guilty moments that have left such moral lessons in my life.

These moments are painful. Most of them involve a scene at the end where my mum is tired of reprimanding me, or my dad is about to get angry, which happened on rare occasions and terrified the hell out of me. Some are absolutely clear, as if the expressions on people’s faces were recorded on a photographic plate in my head. Others are vague, with the characteristic fog that blurs the details leaving only a strong sense of shame.

This I’m sure has happened to many of us. I asked a few of my friends and all seemed to share anecdotes of times they remember when they did something wrong, but only realised that it in hindsight. A painful lesson was learnt and they carried it for all their life.

One such lesson that I have etched into me has helped me tremendously. It involves mischief and feedback.

Beat me to it

As a naughty child I may have done wrong things, but mostly I did annoying things. Of course, in my head, I was only having fun and that was no crime. But people around me seemed to have low tolerance, and I was told off too many times. I hated it. Mostly because I wasn’t given a proper reason for why my actions were annoying. Of course, if I didn’t know why what I did was wrong, I wasn’t going to learn to do the right thing.

That is why the annual school open day was the worst day of the year. It gave the teachers an opportunity to complain to my parents and get the guilt off their chest. They did this in a polite manner, which I always thought was wrong. Wouldn’t it have been better to talk to me in a polite manner in the first place?

All that admonishment left scars. It might have taught me something about morality, but more importantly it gave me a really useful hack.

In hindsight, I realise that I didn’t understand the reason for stopping me because my natural empathy levels were low. I had that realisation partly because even as an adult I sometimes struggle with it. And to counter my lack of empathy, I developed a system of wanting a constant stream of feedback. I want to know as often and as early as possible if I’m going wrong somewhere.

But I also needed to develop a thick skin. When you are open to feedback, some would be constructive and much hurtful. This is the reason, as the thinker Seth Godin puts it, adults don’t seek feedback as often as they should.

When you can get this system to work, however, it’s absolutely fantastic. It is the best productivity hack I know for becoming better at something quickly: ride the cycle of practice and feedback. It has been a painful but useful lesson.

Image credit: Zen