By Go-getter Gaithri Raj, who writes about work-life balance for GGTW.
I was fortunate to be able to attend the first of the Olivia J. Hooker Distinguished Diversity Lecture Series with Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Ohio State University earlier this year. The award-winning author and MacArthur Fellow shared how his unique set of life circumstances helped shape his worldview. He also shared his observation and experience that criticisms are typically shaped by the majority’s perspective, and may come from a place of limited understanding on the part of the critic.
This reminded me of the many instances where I have received feedback that I unfortunately held onto, even when it was poor and nonconstructive, or when it was delivered by people in authority, like managers, supervisors, or teachers. For example, when the teaching assistant for my English Composition class in college gave me a lower grade than I was accustomed to receiving, I was quite devastated. I was confused and didn’t understand where I went wrong, so I tried to get clarification from her during office hours. Other than pointing out my spelling mistakes and criticizing some of my word choices, she wasn’t able to provide me with a complete understanding of how I could improve my writing overall. She rushed our 15-minute meeting, and left me only with trite phrases such as ‘your writing isn’t very good’ and ‘you are not from here.’ That last phrase in particular made me feel invalidated and that stung.
To be fair, I am aware that as an Asian woman, I have a natural predilection to view teachers as sources of authority, so I may have placed more value on her feedback than I should have. Yet, years later, her words continued to haunt me. I had good reasons for not understanding how she could declare my writing wasn’t good. I grew up speaking English, and felt pretty secure with my command of the language. I got A’s on my English Literature and Oxford/Cambridge exams, and garnered an almost perfect TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score. I wanted to improve, but her limited feedback about spelling and word choice left me wanting.
Eventually, I realized that the TA was only familiar with one type of English—American English—and therefore she considered anything that didn’t fit that mold automatically ‘wrong.’ Not different, but wrong. Today, I know that I wasn’t wrong; my English was just different. Nowadays, with the ability to set most apps to American English, my use of ‘colour’ and ‘centre’ have mostly disappeared and I deal a lot less with American vs. British spelling issues. That certainly helps me avoid the obvious spelling pitfalls between the two dialects.
But most importantly, my experience with that TA taught me more than simply setting my writing apps to American English. It taught me to use a better filter when sifting through feedback, and to consider the source of any evaluations I receive. Now, instead of accepting whatever I’m told as 100% true at face value, I ask myself these two questions:
Looking back at my experience in college, the answers to both these questions were probably ‘no.’ But at the time, I wasn’t equipped to understand (or dissect) the TA’s intentions or biases. I know better now, and am more prepared to discern the quality of the feedback I receive.
The impact feedback has on us runs through our personal and professional lives. Just last summer GGTW co-founder Amanda Epp shared in this blog how the inaccurate feedback she received resulted in her losing confidence in herself. It should be no surprise then, that there is a certain amount of responsibility that comes with the task of providing feedback to others. Both the person giving and the person receiving feedback should handle the encounter with care, and allow room for discussion, development of plans for improvement or continued growth, and a review of progress.
Obviously, the best situation is one where you have an open feedback loop that allows for discussion and a greater understanding of areas where you excel and are in need of improvement. But even when you receive one-sided feedback, (e.g., conference presentation evaluations, anonymous surveys), you can look for common themes and develop actionable items for improvement on your own.
Remember: Focus your energy on the constructive feedback that empowers you and gives you the opportunity to actually change something for the better. And always ‘consider the source’ when dealing with feedback. Then, Go Get The World!