What's in a Word?

By Irv Rubin, Ph.D

  Click here for the printer-friendly version of this article.

Sweaty palms. Knots in the pit of the stomach. Anxious increases in heart rate. Mild headaches. There is a word that, for many, triggers those very reactions. That word, as the Webster’s Dictionary reminds us, is made up of two parts. The first touches upon such things as “to satisfy; minister to; gratify; supply with nourishment.” The second part touches upon such things as “to support or strengthen by encouragement.” What word has such a positive meaning yet causes such stressful physiological reactions?


The word is feedback.


Let’s start with a look at feedback’s role in our literal survival. At one end of a continuum, when a mother places the back of her palm on a child’s forehead, she is capable of sensing a temperature variation of about one degree. Action then can be taken to ensure the child’s health and well-being. At the other extreme, if any one of the myriad feedback monitoring regulating mechanisms that constitute our beings were to go haywire for very long, we’d not be being for very long. The human body is, indeed, a finely attuned feedback instrument.


The same is true for all living species. Watch a school of small baitfish at the shoreline darting around in the shallows. What may appear to us as seemingly random movement is the result of a very sophisticated feedback system that allows them to move very quickly in multiple directions…without bumping into one another. Even after a predator may cause the school to break pattern, and may indeed have eliminated a few for their own dinner, the remainder of the school will re-form. In exactly the same relative position to one another as they were before the attack and the elimination of one of their members.


Moving beyond the issue of life and death, feedback plays a vital role in innumerable ways in our lives. Without feedback no growth and development can take place, leaving the door of obsolescence wide open. Without feedback, no learning can take place. Without learning we are destined to continue to repeat the same behaviors hoping for a different consequence.


How is it, therefore, that a word that was intended to touch upon such things as to satisfy; minister to; gratify; supply with nourishment in the service of supporting or strengthening by encouragement has gotten such a bad rap? Why has feedback become associated with symptoms like: Sweaty palms. Knots in the pit of the stomach. Anxious increases in heart rate. Mild headaches.


The Roots Go Far Back

Our learning about and experiences with feedback begin with our first breath. The first slap on our behind is not because we’ve been naughty. Rather, the cry we send out kicks our lungs into high gear seeking the very air we need to survive. Crude as they may have been when we were infants, we nonetheless had very effective mechanisms for getting vital feedback to our providers that it is time for them “to satisfy; minister to; gratify; supply us with nourishment.” When, for the first time, a smile from a parent begets a smile back from the infant, the parent invariably feels so strengthened with encouragement that they can ‘walk on air.’ The pain of birth and nights without sleep fade into the background.


However, while the intention to satisfy; minister to; gratify; supply with nourishment in the service of supporting or strengthening by encouragement may remain comparable, lessons we were taught as we grow up about feedback can, and often do, yield the opposite consequence. Reflect for a moment on how many of the following ‘socialized truths’ you can say were a part of your upbringing.


  • No news is good news.

  • Speak only when spoken to, especially by your elders.

  • Big boys [and sometimes even big girls!] don’t cry.

  • Admitting a mistake/asking for help is a sign of weakness.

  • This is for your own good. [And its corollaries: ‘This is going to hurt me more that it will hurt you.’ ‘Don’t take this personally!’]

  • What happened to the other five points? [A favorite when an exam came home with a grade of 95%. Its corollary to an exam of 100% was: When will teachers develop some tougher standards!]

  • If you have to say something that might hurt someone’s feelings (e.g. turn down an offer to play/come to dinner/go on a date) be “polite,” where polite meant things like: make up a plausible story/excuse; tell a ‘little white lie’; tell a half-truth and hope they come to the conclusion you need. (Today we call these things “putting on a positive spin.”)


These roots sprout feedback-related dynamics throughout our entire lives. If, indeed, “no news is good news,” then it makes perfect sense for us to cringe at an email late one Friday afternoon from our manager that says: “I need to see you the first thing Monday morning. I have some important feedback for you.” There goes a weekend in anticipation of feedback, which if I can put on my emotional armor like Star Trek's Spock, I may be able to “not take personally!”…even though I happen to be a person.


Alex Karras was not a man anyone would have ever called ‘soft and touchy-feely.’ Nor was he a man who believed that admitting a mistake/asking for help was a sign of weakness.  Karras once said that, “It takes more courage to reveal insecurities than to hide them… toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in the muscles and an immature mind." 


Needing to be a perfectionist—scoring 100% on every challenge—may motivate many positive actions, and the costs are many. One is an inability to stand/learn from any criticism. Since perfection is not our lot in life as mere mortal human beings, we must be satisfied with progress. “Some of us,” Steve Allen noted, “observing that ideals are rarely [if ever] achieved, proceed to the error of considering them worthless. Such an error is greatly harmful. True North cannot be reached either, since it is an abstraction, but it is of enormous importance, as all the world’s travelers can attest.” Just as wisdom, therefore, is impossible without cutting our teeth on mistakes, so too is progress not possible without feedback.


Nowhere is this more clear and true than in our interpersonal relationships. For in each and every interpersonal relationship that makes up our lives, two or more imperfect mortal human are struggling to cope with the elusive illusion of perfection. As a consequence,


“Since we are not perfect, we have to be accountable. We must have standards for our behavior and hold ourselves to those standards, admitting our mistakes and making repairs where we can.”                                                 --Anonymous


It is in the world of organizations—where most of us spend 40 percent of our waking lives over a multi-decade period—that our definitions of politeness and our implanted truths about how we communicate with our elders (i.e. superiors) run headlong into another feedback truth virtually everyone of us was taught. Namely, honesty is the best policy. Suggestions to be honest with one’s manager, to tell them how their behavior is affecting you, are invariably met with reactions that range from: “Are you crazy?!” to “Around here we would call that a ‘resume generating event’ or a ‘career limiting move.’”


Is it any wonder that the higher up a person sits in an organization, the more suspect is the completeness and truthfulness of the information they have available? Information upon which decisions have to be made that can impact thousands of lives. Or in the case of the highest leader of our land, hundreds of thousands of lives.


On the other side of the coin, there are groups of people who thirst for detailed feedback. Groups of people who know and embrace the fact that without constant doses of praise and or constructive criticism they will not be supplied with the nourishment vital to the support and strength needed to encourage them to continue to reach for True North.  These people are the folks we call “Pros.” They are the golfers who know that shaving an average of ¼ of one stroke off of their game during an entire season can result in several millions of dollars in rewards. They are the basketball players who, after every game—win or lose—are watching carefully edited tapes, searching for ways to save 0.2 of a second to get the ball back into play at the end of the game…to leave them enough time to possibly win the game.


So What Will It Take?

It will take several things to return the word, and the process of giving and receiving feedback, to its rightful original position: to satisfy; minister to; gratify; supply with nourishment in the service of supporting or strengthening by encouragement.


Included are things like the following.


  • An awareness of the fact that collectively we have all contributed to the one-sided negative meaning attributed the word.

  • Concepts and tools that will enable us to re-frame our definitions and attitudes toward this life-giving, growth-producing process.

  • The willingness--snce we are not perfect--to learn the skills essential to our ability “to be accountable”…to “setting standards for our behavior and holding ourselves to those standards, admitting our mistakes and making repairs where we can.”


And if this was not a daunting enough challenge in it own right, we will need, with courage, to wrap this all around the one feedback truth virtually all of us were taught. Honesty is the best policy. (And its corollary: The truth will set you free.)


Rising to this challenge will confront us with a pearl of wisdom that reminds us that “Honesty without compassion and understanding is not honesty at all but, rather, it is masked hostility.” (Fransblau)  In other words, learning how to provide both ‘praise and or constructive criticism with compassion’ is the key to ensuring that feedback returns to its rightful place in our lives as a gift that satisfies; ministers to; gratifies; supplies us with nourishment so we can be supported, strengthened, and be encouraged in our never-ending search for True North.


It is toward this goal that the ABCs of Effective Feedback: A Guide For Caring Professionals was written.




Irwin Rubin, Ph.D, is President of Temenos, Inc. and The Temenos Foundation in Honolulu, Hawaii. He has published several books, including The ABCs of Effective Feedback: A Guide for Caring Professionals. A major focus of Irv’s current work is on the relationship between performance management, feedback systems, and the creation of healthy—non-toxic—caring organizational cultures.



  Click here for the printer-friendly version of this article.

© 2014 GovLeaders.org