About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Classifying feedback

My laptop battery is not working, so lately I have been hand writing all of my perceptions as I analyze my data. However, my work yesterday resulted in an insight I wanted to share. This is still a work in progress, so I am open to any research that someone might be able to point my way.

In describing the collaborative process, many of the participants (members of the distributed group) used the word "feedback" often. However, I soon began to see that feedback could be a source of tension, a helpful tool, or something that was ignored. Sometimes it was solicited, other times it was given without any prodding.

Now, most of the previous literature on feedback has divided it into positive or negative, summative or formative, or oral, written, or non-verbal. However, none of these classification systems really fit the types of feedback I am seeing in the collaborative writing process.

Defining feedback

To understand these classifications, it is important that I define the term "feedback". I am using a communicative definition. In the communicative act, there is sender and a receiver. The Sender initiates the communicative act and the receiver decodes the message as they receive it. However, the communicative act does not end there. The receiver gives feedback based on his or her interpretation (decoding) or the message. That feedback could be as simple as silence (or withdrawal from the conversation) or much more complex.

Based on this definition, I see feedback as the communication between the "giver" of feedback and the "receiver" of the feedback. The feedback could be verbal or non-verbal, formally requested or the natural result of the communication process.

Four types of feedback

I have (so far) identified 4 different types of feedback within a distributed workplace group or team. The type of feedback depended on the amount of ownership or the level of agency the feedback giver perceived. It also was effected by whether the feedback was formally solicited (as part of the work process) or was given in response to an informal communication act (written or oral).

1) Creative feedback. This makes the feedback giver a co-creator. In other words, there is a high level of perceived ownership and agency from the feedback giver.

2) Editorial. This is usually the result of a formal feedback mechanism within the work process or a heuristic created at the group, organizational, or professional levels. The feedback giver often has more distance between his or herself and the feedback receiver, and has less ownership of the task/process or product. As a result, feedback might be accepted or not by the feedback receiver without any influence between the feedback giver and feedback receiver.

3) Confirmative. There usually is a power distance between feedback giver and receiver when confirmative feedback is given (for example, a team leader and a team member). The feedback giver, as a result, will have a greater sense of agency, and by giving approval or confirmative feedback, he or she takes partial ownership (whether the feedback receiver wants to give it or not).

4) Political. While the feedback giver might have thought that they had agency, the feedback receiver holds all the cards and could decide to take ownership, give it to the feedback receiver (or force it on to the receiver) or become co-creator. Political feedback is often used to document the communication process, identify responsibility for work, tasks, or products, and to make the work transparent to those outside of the process/task.

These different types of feedback can be used to unify a group and make the work processes more efficient. Using the correct type of feedback can also improve the final product, expedite the group process, and create a sense of trust within a group (especially important with a distributed group). However, in my study, when there was a difference in the perception of the type of feedback being solicited, tension was created between the giver and receiver, which could result in resentment (especially if the giver or receiver did not recognize the difference in the feedback being solicited).

For example, two of the study participants had the following discussion during the group interview:

Ronda: Well, exactly that. And I think it’s that…there’s two things that are sort of complating that…that problem. This notion that have sort of too many cooks looking at your project. And then that there’s no level of authority assigned to, um, whatever you put up there. Like when s….when I put something up for review and people send me editorial comments, I personally, because I’m arrogant and snotty about this stuff [everyone laughs], don’t feel like because he said this or he said that or he said that or he said that, that I have to change it. You know. That’s not their job, in my opinion is not to tell me how to change it. Because this is my expertise. I’m putting it up there for a different kind of review. And…I don’t always feel obligated to take that feedback. But somebody else might put something up and say, “Well, you know, what do you think of this design?” And then there’ll be c…comments from Helen and Robert and Phillip and… Make one change. Then the next person comes and says, “Do this.” Then they’ve changed it back. Or change it this way. And it’s…just turns into this huge morass of inexpert opinion shaping products that shouldn’t be doing that. So there is this level of disrespect for people’s expertise, which you subject yourself to by putting stuff on basecamp. On the other hand.
Phillip: You know, Ronda, it’s interesting that you say that, cause sometimes the process is, eww, should I comment on it or is that going to [anger] her?
[Everyone laughs}
Ronda: Yeah, and I don’t ever feel like that!
Phillip: I don’t know.

And later:

Phillip: When you take my sentences and change them, I go, “Wow, that’s…that’s a better sentence.”
Ronda: And that’s…that’s…that’s my j… That’s not personal. It’s not, you’re not a good writer…
Phillip: Right.
Ronda: It’s not any of that. It’s my skill.

In the first case, Ronda is asking for editorial or confirmative feedback, but she gets angry when she gets creative or political feedback. On the other hand, Phillip is reluctant to give creative or confirmative feedback because he does not feel that it is his place in the group to do so. As a result, he tends not to give feedback very often, referring to others to give feedback even when he has the expertise.

Note: See the post by Karyn Romeis on workplace collaboration. This framework for feedback might explain the problem she describes in her post.


Karyn Romeis said...

Hi Virginia

This is an interesting point. And I might just add to the tension with a semantic twist and suggest that there is a difference between feedback and input.

In a genuinely collaborative situation, everyone provides input. It's up to everyone in the team to contribute, and to produce a result that everyone owns. This is not without its challenges (I'm not being disingenuous, here).

Feedback implies an owner and a responder. The owner posits an idea, others feed back on it. The owner accepts or rejects the feedback. The control rests in the hands of the original owner. This isn't a very collaborative model, and it results in the kind of preciousness you illustrate in your example (I'm sure Ronda will be livid at my use of the word, but c'est la vie...).

Of course, there are different kinds of feedback, and an owner will often have to deal with feedback that falls outside of what was expected and/or requested. Human beings are not sheople and good ideas can come from anywhere. I have heard brilliant ideas from the most unlikely sources. If you dictate to people how they may and may not respond, you quash creativity.

V Yonkers said...

Thank you for that additional perspective. I agree with you about input. Input comes at the initiation or creation stage, and those that have input also might feel some level of ownership.

However, I think that input could fall into each of these categories also.

There are some circumstances when input and feedback might be dictated because of time constraints, control issues, or other constraints and you are right that this will quash creativity. In my study, in fact, this was the purpose of limiting the type of feedback. What was interesting, though, was that those within the group rebelled and created new channels for feedback to exclude those in authority who wanted to limit the creative and political feedback (they wanted only confirmative feedback).