Why Vague Feedback is So Destructive and What to Do About It

When feedback is not specific and behavioral, it’s not actionable.

When feedback is not specific and behavioral, it’s not actionable. Heck, it’s not even comprehensible.

Give vague, constructive feedback to a conscientious person and expect them to take an emotional nosedive striving and struggling to figure out what they are doing wrong.

Feedback Dissonance

I’m working on a particularly complicated project at the moment bringing a great deal of content together in what I believe will be a great offering to help people strengthen workplace communication. (Hint: this is the ironic part.)

The team has some quality checks, and everyone is conscientious about striving to strengthen the materials as we go. Just the other day, I passed along a number of recordings, and that’s where the trouble started. I received input that ranged from, “low energy” to “you sound bored” to “poor user experience.”

One thing I’ve never been accused of in my life is low energy or sounding bored. This particular feedback was foreign to me. I typically have to dial down my enthusiasm for my content to make sure the message comes through in my excitement to share tools and approaches I perceive are helpful to my audience.

I dutifully re-listened to the material and came to the opposite conclusion.

Feedback dissonance started to grow in my mind like mold on cheese.

While I’m biased, as we all are about our work, I’m typically a harsh critic of myself on video or audio. I have a sensitive “suck” meter and am quick to throw myself under the bus in pursuit of improving the output. Except, in this case, I liked what I heard.

More dissonance. More mold.

I have no idea where the perception of my energy or mood is coming from in this instance. The feedback sent me into a swirl, and I had to step back and stop working on the project—frustrated at the perceived problem and even more frustrated at not knowing how to fix something someone perceived is broken.

What a timely reminder. It illustrates how discombobulating vague feedback is when we give it in the workplace. And yes, there’s some appropriate irony I’m receiving this in the middle of a program on workplace communication.

4 Consequences of Vague Feedback

1. Vague feedback stresses and frustrates the receiver. If there’s no idea how to change or improve, the receiver perceives they have no chance at creating success.

2. Vague feedback derails progress. Given the ambiguity surrounding how to make it right, the receiver’s natural inclination is to stop and run in place until it becomes clear what to do.

3. Vague feedback creates communication and relationship strain. Everyone feels they have a point and the parties grow frustrated with each other based on the disagreement. The receiver doesn’t get it, and the giver feels unheard and even devalued.

4. Vague feedback poisons the working environment. The factors that create a healthy working environment, especially trust, are easily damaged in the face of vague feedback. It turns good attitudes sour and derails collaboration and creativity.

4 Ideas to Help Cure Vague Feedback

1. As the giver, focus on describing a specific, manageable, actionable behavior. Unfortunately, “low energy level” sits squarely on the razor’s edge of being useful or destructive. It becomes much more helpful if you can point to specifics and suggest changes. For example: At this point in the narrative, enthusiasm is critical to get the message across. You grow quiet here. What was your intent? Can you find a way to amplify your energy at this point?

That contrasts with, “your energy is low.”

A similar example too many encounter in the workplace is when a manager gives feedback on attitude. “You have a lousy attitude. It needs to change.”

There’s not a chance that suggesting someone has a lousy attitude has any chance of creating a better outcome. We can’t crawl inside a person’s head and understand that they are disgruntled and deliberately portraying a demeanor that suggests a poor attitude.

2. Specifics, please! The observed and changeable behavior must be isolated to something the person can do to create an improved outcome.

3. Look forward. While we use the term feedback, it’s much about feed-forward. Help a person understand what the specific behavior should look like in the future.

4. Link the behavior to results. This last one is often missing in feedback conversations. Just make it specific. I am passionately concerned about creating a great user experience in this program, but I cannot act on, “It will create a poor user experience.”

What to Do If You Receive Vague Feedback

I always like to look for nuggets of gold in every feedback situation, no matter how vague or poorly it is delivered to me. To help with your mining, try these ideas:

  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Ask for examples.
  • Ask the giver to describe how the behavior might look in the future.
  • Ask an objective third party to give you feedback on the alleged behavior.

And ultimately, if you cannot grab hold of anything specific, remember that not all feedback is useful. Sometimes, it’s just an opinion.

Feedback can promote great gains and significant growth. However, not all feedback is useful. In fact, it can become downright destructive. Follow the rules of quality feedback every time, even if it takes an extraordinary effort on your part to help the receiver understand the issue and how it can be changed to drive better results.