zsmb.coEst. 2017

Getting Only Positive Feedback

2019-11-28 • Márton Braun

Here we go, it’s time for a non-technical, rambling post. It really is just a bunch of mixed thoughts, but I had to get them out somehow, hence this post.

The problem statement

Depending on the type of your endeavours, getting feedback for what you do can be hard - shockingly hard at times. How feedback can be gathered would (perhaps should) be a topic for another time.

In this post, I’d like to discuss one specific phenomenon that I’ve been encountering a lot lately, as I’m trying to get people to provide me feedback on the various kinds of work that I do.

This problem statement will certainly, one hundred percent, sound like a complete humblebrag at first, but we’ll have to get over that for the purposes of this discussion, so please bear with me here:

I keep getting positive feedback.

This happens in multiple areas, but a good example of it is my public speaking, which also happens to be an activity that’s particularly hard to get any feedback at all for. After a lecture, meetup, or conference talk, I receive almost nothing but positive - and non-specific - feedback. from colleagues, organizers, and attendees alike.

“Yeah, it was great!” “Thanks, that was interesting!” “It went well!”

This might sound awesome at first. After all, isn’t positive feedback what you’re hoping to get when you ask for feedback? Well, yes, it is…


But when you keep getting only positive feedback, over and over again, you might start wondering why you’re getting that feedback. I know that I certainly am, and here are the possible conclusions that I keep arriving to:

  • I really am just that damn great.
  • People aren’t telling me what they really think about my work, either to be intentionally misleading, or - more likely - just by habit of always being nice to everyone.

Somehow I have trouble truly believing the former. I can make myself believe it sometimes, when my ego really kicks in, but for the most part I’m wondering a lot about the second possibility, and then I occasionally alternate between the two.

What I should do is obvious, in a way. I should just take people at their word, especially friends, and believe them when they say that I did well. I should appreciate that I must be getting these opportunities to speak and teach because I’m probably actually good at it.

This kind of feedback, these positive indicators and reinforcements should be rationally enough to be happy with how I’m doing. They should comfort and not unsettle me, but unsettle me they do nonetheless. Not constantly, but time and time again.

When there is no criticism at all, the dreaded imposter syndrome kicks in, and even candid approval will come across as disingenuous. Maybe everyone’s just humoring me. Even if I’m doing really well, there is no way that I’m doing anything perfectly. There must be something to improve, something that went sideways. Several things, most likely. And not hearing about any of those is worrisome.

Like or keep scrolling?

There is, of course, a third conclusion that one might find here: maybe people in general are just terrible at giving feedback. This is probably a correct conclusion too. Giving useful feedback can be really hard at times, and it’s a skill that can be developed like everything else.

And then maybe at this point we’re down to just giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down for everything, and not giving it any more thought than that. If we look at most social media platforms, the choice isn’t even between those two actions now - it’s just between a like and no reaction at all.

So perhaps this is what’s happening both online and in real life. We either give positive feedback if we have it (usually no more detailed than a like), or just no feedback at all when we consider something lousy or simply uninteresting.

Call to action

We’re really supposed to have one of these to wrap things up with, right? Well, here it goes.

Try your best to give constructive feedback when someone cares about your opinion enough that they ask you for your thoughts. Whenever you feel like something was “good”, try to more precisely convey why you’ve liked it, why you’ve enjoyed it, and give at least one piece of feedback that could foster improvement. Ask yourself if whatever you’re evaluating really was a perfect 10. If it was, say, only an 8, ask yourself: What would’ve made it even better as far you’re concerned, personally?

Don’t worry about nitpicking, or not feeling too constructive. Any feedback is better than no feedback, and at least a bit of negative feedback is actually super helpful. It’s always nice to hear kind words, but they ring a lot truer if they’re also accompanied by a suggestion to improve, as that makes the entire thing sound more genuine.

This is not an invitation to be rude to anyone. Don’t start going up to people and point out every mistake they ever make, that’s not the point. But if someone values you and prompts you for feedback, be straight with them, and make an effort to be constructive.

And for my friendly neighbourhood imposter syndrome that I keep running into… It would be great if you could message me somewhere and give me feedback about how I did on something. Specifically, some sort of criticism or suggestion to improve. This is an invitation even for nitpicks. Maybe I umm too much while speaking, maybe I pace around too much on stage, or maybe you’ve just realized that I write in a horrible mashup of American and British English. Anything. Just don’t keep it to yourself :]

Last but not least, if you went through something like this yourself, do tell me how you dealt with it! I’d be happy to hear any and all thoughts about this topic. You can definitely find me on the Kotlinlang Slack or on Twitter.

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