The Downside to the Upside

I have a complicated relationship with praise for the stuff I do. It’s not Facebook official yet, but I think we’re getting there.

I really like getting unsolicited feedback, because I know it’s likely to be honest, and important to the person supplying the feedback. Depending on the context, there’s a slim-to-huge possibility that a solicitation for feedback will result in a brush off or sugar-coated response, because people hate to give bad news. (There’s also a small possibility that the response will be unnecessarily harsh, because some people are jerks, but this is way less common.)

I like unsolicited feedback received in an indirect manner even more. It’s even more likely to be honest, because the person giving feedback isn’t (intentionally) facing the person who made the thing being commented on. There’s no hard feelings for negative commentary and there’s no sense of buttering up for positive remarks.

Because I like unsolicited feedback and I like indirect feedback, I love seeing comments about my documentation on Twitter. About half the time, it’s in an @reply to some party that isn’t me or my employer. So it’s honest, important to somebody, and easily accessible to me. That’s good stuff right there. Seriously, if you’re making something for public consumption, you need to be subscribed to a Twitter search on [your company] and [your work] (for me, that means “docs” and “documentation”).

But for all that I like about getting feedback that way, I get a little uncomfortable seeing positive feedback. For two reasons, I’m stupefied by approval for my work.

The first of these reasons is slightly irrational: I’m living in fear of regression toward the mean. To illustrate, there’s a tale of questionable authenticity about flight school pilots. After a day of flying, some pilots are reprimanded for especially poor performance while others are praised for doing especially well. Because of regression toward the mean, on the subsequent day of flying, the pilots praised typically did worse while the pilots reprimanded typically did better. Whenever I see positive feedback, I think how it’s conceivable that tomorrow’s efforts will be less likely to earn praise than today’s (never mind that I’m more practiced at my work on any given day than the day previous.)

The second of these reasons is perhaps more sane: I don’t have any idea what I’m supposed to do with the knowledge that someone appreciated what I did. It’s like getting applause at an event. Are you supposed to sit there? Stand up? Wave?

While complaints might be ego bruisers, they’re often actionable. I can deal with complaints because I know I can fix an error, clear up a point of confusion, or even start over and try again, if it’s bad enough. But praise? That’s a signal to not change anything. And how am I supposed to do that?

2 thoughts on “The Downside to the Upside

  1. The problem with positive feedback is it is more often quite vague. A comment of “this is great,” “I really liked it,” or even “this was really helpful” is not actionable. Conversely, a comment like “this is really dry,” “I couldn’t understand how he got from A to B,” or “even my 4-year-old knows the difference between A and B” can give you direction.

  2. Vagueness is a problem, for sure, though I don’t think it’s a quality intrinsic or limited to positive feedback. From what I’ve seen, negative feedback is dominated by vague comments along the lines of “this sucks” just as positive feedback is dominated by stuff like “this is great.”

    For what it’s worth, I’ve definitely received specific positive feedback, such as “doc X helped me do thing Y easily.” But I think for most people, that’s a lot harder to articulate. It’s easy to point to something that stopped you from accomplishing some goal (“This step wasn’t clear”), but it’s a lot harder to say—or even notice—when something goes right.

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