Have You Been Ignoring Implicit Feedback, Letting Your Career Pay the Price?
Implicit feedback is the subtle feedback you likely receive regularly. Don't let it escalate to explicit feedback. I spend time translating subtle feedback to what it really means.
Hello everyone! I hope you’re having a magnificent week. Earlier in the week, my wife and I went on a brief Squak Mountain trail run. We ran into a river of ice, slippery slush, and rain. I’m incredibly grateful that we live in the PNW (the best coast, as everyone says), and have the opportunity to complain about the rainforest running conditions. I mean, talk about first world problems. “Oh no, my quiet and empty rainforest running trail is a bit slippery.”
I hope you can embrace some gratefulness today, and smile a bit about all the good things we forget about.
Oh, and before I get into today’s content, one more thing. I’ve had a few people contact me asking questions about their subscription now that I’ve moved to Substack. Questions like, “How do I re-subscribe to your newsletter on Substack?” and “I want my subscription moved to your new Substack newsletter.” I should have been more clear when I moved to Substack. Absolutely nothing needs to be done on your end if you’re a paid subscriber. Your account moved, your payments moved, your subscription moved, your email address for logging in is the same, etc. If anything appears not to work like it used to, please let me know asap!
Today I’m going to talk about implied feedback. It’s the primary source of feedback you receive in life, and at work.
Let’s start with talking about what feedback is.
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Our working definition for today is below. Which I just created, by the way. So if you work for a dictionary company (those still exist, right?), feel free to credit me.
Feedback (/Feed-bak/): Subjective information about a person's actions or behaviors, which could be used for personal improvement.
A couple of things which make this definition probably the best definition anyone has ever written.
It’s subjective information, not objective information.
That’s true of any type of feedback you receive (explicit, or implied). I love to say that feedback is a gift, a lesson I repeatedly heard from Peter Faricy, a VP in Marketplace famous for giving… strong feedback. He would ask, “What do you say when you get a gift?” Being polite means always saying, “Thank you!”, regardless of how much you like the gift. It doesn’t mean you agree with the gift, and you might secretively return it later.
For any type of feedback, remember that it’s subjective. It’s an opinion from the source of the feedback. Pay attention to what feedback you’re receiving, and consider if you’d like to take anything from that feedback. And then move on.
It could be used for personal improvement.
Let’s say someone offends you by implying or saying something that hurts your feelings. Our ego is damaged, so our natural reaction is to ignore the feedback, or lash out at the feedback provider. But why is that reaction natural? Because we picture that the feedback provider would win if we improved our behavior. And we can’t let that jerk win. Which is self-defeating, because we’re the only loser if we ignore feedback due to how it makes us feel.
Instead, I’d like you to think carefully about feedback as a wonderful gift you can internally absorb quietly. That dimwit you absolutely despise in accounting who complained about your emails being too long? They don’t need to know that you’re going to try writing less going forward.
Now that we’re talking about the same thing, I’d like to address implied, vs explicit feedback.
When I’d be inserted into a performance management discussion (e.g., someone is underperforming), what’s the most common thing said by the employee? “No one told me!”
No one told me. Aka Explicit Feedback.
First, I know a few readers are jumping at the chance to tell me how their manager seriously didn’t tell them anything, and they were always told that they were doing great, and they were ambushed, and managers are all terrible, and Amazon is terrible. I’m sorry you had a bad time. I agree that some managers are trash, some don’t give feedback at all, and it’s entirely possible that you were absolutely ambushed. Bad things happen to good people all the time.
But I’d still encourage you to read on a bit. Because I believe firmly in giving everyone the tools to improve themselves, regardless of circumstances beyond their control.
First, giving explicit feedback is hard, and many managers aren’t good at it.
It’s much, much easier to tell people that they’re doing great. If you tell someone they’re doing poorly, they don’t react nearly as nicely as if you tell them they’re doing great. That’s incentive to say nice things.
Managers aren’t generally trained to provide feedback, and aren’t necessarily encouraged to give it (beyond a few specific HR processes). Which means that it’s on them to value it, and learn how to do it well. Which many don’t.
If you give explicit feedback to a good employee, sometimes that employee will leave your team/company, or perform worse. Which is pretty upsetting because you just wanted to help them improve something, but now their ego is bruised.
What many managers will do is instead provide implicit feedback. And even good managers typically start with implicit feedback because it’s the type of feedback which doesn’t hurt people’s feelings. If you take the implicit feedback, that difficult explicit feedback doesn’t need to happen.
Take this conversation I had for example.
Buford walks into my office for his regular one-on-one meeting.
“Hey Dave!” Buford said, sitting in the chair across from me.
I smack my hotkey to lock my computer, and turned to face him. I highly value giving my full attention in personal meetings.
“Hey Buford! I know this is your time, but I wanted to start by passing along some feedback I had. Then we can get to any agenda items you have. Ok?”
Buford looked suddenly wary, and nodded. “Ok?”
I don’t know if there’s a better way to break the ice on this type of conversation, so I tend to rip off the band-aid, and figure it’ll work out.
“You’ve been repeatedly talking over your co-workers in our meetings.” I said. “It’s becoming an issue. As an example, in today’s team meeting, you repeatedly interrupted Georgia when she was trying to give her status update.”
Buford looked baffled. “What? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“First, that’s exactly what I’m doing.” I said. “But also, yesterday Renee asked you to let Ashley finish talking. And today, I remember two different occasions where I asked you to please let Georgia finish.”
“But I didn’t know it was bothering anyone.” Buford said, insistently. “I just had something to add to the conversation. Everyone adds to the conversation.”
“Please listen to what I’m saying. If anyone ever asks you to let someone else finish talking, you’ve already made a mistake.” I said. “The fact this happened 3 times in 2 days is a big issue. I know you want to add to conversations, but it can’t happen by interrupting people.”
This type of conversation happens regularly. The implicit feedback of being asked to let someone finish talking was thoroughly ignored. Yet, it’s still feedback. It was a very polite way to say, “Oh holy smokes man, shut your mouth!”
Yet too many people assume or expect explicit feedback. They don’t realize that implicit feedback is purposefully given, and your opportunity to correct things before it escalates to explicit feedback. Once you’ve received explicit feedback, chances are pretty good that you’ve already ignored or failed to change based on implicit feedback.
So let’s walk through some types of implicit feedback you or others may be receiving, and is too frequently ignored.