When to take feedback seriously

Published on Nov 12, 2020

Saw this shared around on Facebook today, a neat little framework by the author Adam Grant. He talked about how to take feedback seriously, and there's three inter-related factors at play:

  • Motive - intent is to help you
  • Expertise - has relevant domain expertise or experience
  • Quality - message focuses on quality

Now try and imagine a Venn diagram with three circles overlapping, so there's 4 overlapping areas:

  • Motive + Expertise + Quality = Mine this for gold, and seek mentorship. Best is if mentor also has skin in the game to help you succeed (i.e. Motive++).
  • Motive + Quality but no Expertise = Might be wrong or misguided, despite best intentions and advice that sounds 'smart'
  • Quality + Expertise but no intent to help you = Might be trying to look/feel smart at your expense, even though sounds legit or portray the confidence of it
  • Motive + Expertise but no Quality (feedback feels 'meh', or not relevant) = Might be a matter of taste or personal, subjective beliefs

I love this framework, because it helps filter out the noise from the signal. These days it's easy to get unsolicited advice from friends or on social media. Everyone can start sounding and portraying the false confidence of an expert after a few google searches and reading up the top few results. The worse is when it's someone whom you know love and care about you, so you feel subconsciously obliged to heed their advice. Accepting it blindly can compromise your own authenticity as well.

Best place to apply this is at work, I feel, when getting advice about how to run a business, sell a product, work more productively. Seriously, after seeing these three factors, I realised most advice you get online from strangers are probably shit most of the time. Because they don't know you and you don't know them, so it's hard to verify any kind intent. You might be able to check up on the person's background and career experience to see if she was any legit expertise, but who has time for that? Besides, experience can be very dependent on context. If any feedback resonates, it might very well be just feeding your own biases (in that case, the feedback is a mirror to how you really feel about it, like flipping a coin to trick yourself into surfacing what you really want).

Realising this makes it much easier to not get too hung up about feedback from strangers or even friends and loved ones. Think of it as a public brainstorming brain-dump session, rather than accurate feedback. They are just throwing out ideas from their own perspective, and you don't have to feel obliged to take it, because none of it might be even true, helpful or informed. Take them as wild ideas, cherry-pick what you feel might potentially be helpful, and go do your own research in that direction. 

Tl;dr - With any feedback, ask these three questions:

  • Is the person sincerely trying to help you (and/or have skin in the game)? 
  • Is the person a legitimate authority in the domain?
  • Is the person taking effort to understand your situation in order to give quality feedback?