Giving Feedback: The Golden Rule

I have written some pages about feedback, but I think I missed one of the most basic rules there are about giving feedback:

If you give hard and/or personal feedback, do it privately!

I think I missed it because it is so basic that I thought it goes without saying, but thinking back about some of the feedback I got over the years, it is often violated. The strange thing is, it’s not a question of level of education or intelligence.

I spend 10 months in the “Bundeswehr” (the German army), doing my military service (it was shorter than the civil service and it was one of the few opportunities one has to have a look inside an army with relative few personal risks). One day during basic training I forgot to give ammunition back. It was the first time we got some cases of ammunition and were told to stock up and fire at will (with blanks), and I simply forgot that I had not used up all of my magazines. Yup, big mistake. It literally came out the next morning when we were lined up to check whether we had cleaned our equipment. When it was my turn and it came to checking the magazines (which apparently, had to be cleaned as well, which was unknown to us), I pulled out one of my magazines … and my group leader and I looked at the same time at a well-stocked magazine. My reaction to this was “Ooops.” — I wont repeat his reaction here, but needless to say, he was pissed. Well, it was a stupid mistake, it was my fault and I got some really harsh words afterward. Thing is, he did it at a time when we were cleaning our rifles, he separated me from the group first and made sure that the others couldn’t hear him. It was harsh feedback, but after it was done it was done. No hard feelings, no loss of face in front of my fellow soldiers.

Cut to my university experience a year later — in my first course in clinical psychology the professor criticized a fellow student in front of the whole class. At length. In detail. With harsh words. Her presentation was not bad, but he found some fault in it anyway (no problem if you do not state your course aims clearly). And he made sure everyone in the course knew he found it. And he enjoyed it. Yes, there is some irony here: On the one hand, we have a group leader in the German army, lowest level of education, slightly above rock bottom, but his negative feedback was perfectly done. On the other hand, we have a professor in psychology, in clinical psychology, who not only trashes the face of a fellow student in front of the whole course (practically the whole semester), but also enjoys it.

Given the background of this professor (fled the German Democratic Republic when he was young, open-secret-closet-gay for nearly his whole lifetime, very very unhappy man, not really competent in his job and using a Darth Vader like aura to avoid criticism), this might be understandable (without it being an excuse). But unfortunately, he is not the only example. For some reason some people, even psychologists, seem to be oblivious to the damage they do when they give harsh negative feedback in front of others. I can understand it when it is addressing critical points in a presentation, especially when it’s an internal presentation that is your last chance to test it before you hold it on a conference or a thesis defense. And even then you can give very personal or very critical feedback privately per eMail afterward.

But negative and harsh feedback about the person? It should never be done in front of others.