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All Feedback is Projection
Reinventing the Game of Feedback
I was working with a leadership team and finally arrived to one of my favorite exercises. It’s called Judge Thy Neighbor.
In this exercise, participants share unfiltered stories and judgments they have about each other. The idea is to surface and share withheld judgments and feedback, relieving tension across the team and unlocking the valuable reflection and growth that candid, unfiltered feedback provides.
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During the exercise, the CEO of the company shared a powerful piece of feedback with his CPO: “I don’t believe you executed cross-functionally as well as you could have to help the company reach its goals last quarter. I wanted to see you rally everyone more.”
This feedback, while hard to swallow, was a gift to the CPO. An unspoken judgment released, and with it an invitation to more powerful leadership.
But I had a blindspot at the time that made this interaction only half as powerful as it could have been. I was stuck in an outdated paradigm of feedback, a paradigm that permeates feedback everywhere and is a disservice to us all.
Two Paradigms of Feedback
When I was working with this leadership team, I was living in the Old Paradigm of feedback.
It looks something like this: I give you feedback. We both assume it’s true. After you receive the feedback, it’s your job to improve on it. The same goes for me (though I may be able to skirt around it if I’m senior to you).
If you or I don’t like the feedback we receive, we debate its truth. You don’t want to have to change something based on evidence you don’t agree with, especially if that evidence puts you at fault for something.
In this paradigm, feedback is treated as objective truth which must be worked on. If you don’t agree, you debate it in an attempt to find the “real” truth.
This paradigm of feedback is slow, impedes learning, and doesn’t acknowledge reality.
I want to invite you into a new paradigm of feedback, a paradigm that makes feedback at least twice as valuable as it would be otherwise.
This paradigm acknowledges one simple but profound reality: All feedback is projection.
Feedback is a story. It’s an opinion. And if you have a story and are pointing your finger at me telling me how to improve, the easiest thing to miss is the finger pointing right back at you.
Ever heard of the saying “you spot it, you got it?” That’s the reality we’re playing in. It’s the reality that your feedback for other people primarily teaches you something about you.
Let me replay the exchange with the leadership team above, this time acknowledging the reality that all feedback is projection.
In the old paradigm of feedback, I took the CEO’s feedback as being valuable for the CPO and the CPO alone. The primary value was for the receiver.
In the new game of feedback, I would’ve asked the CEO if he was willing to eat his projection. Would he be willing to explore how his feedback for the CPO was true about himself?
Specifically, would the CEO be willing to ask how it was true that he, himself, didn’t execute cross-functionally as well as he could have to help the company reach its goals?
To me, it’s pretty obvious how that’s true for the CEO:
The CEO didn’t give the feedback to the CPO as it was happening so he could actually do something about it
The CEO didn’t rally all of the different functional areas of the company himself
The CEO didn’t hire leaders who were good at executing cross-functionally to achieve big picture goals
This is what it looks like to operate in the reality that all feedback is projection. You see that the feedback you have for others, in this case the CEO for his CPO, tells you at least as much about yourself as it does the other person.
When the CEO eats his projection, his feedback for the CPO also becomes transformative for him.
The core practice is this: when you make critical judgments of others, ask how those same judgments are true about yourself.
What we Judge in Others, We Suppress in Ourself
Let’s further explore the learnings we can get from eating projections with another example.
Imagine a VP who dislikes her CEO, saying it’s because she experiences them as having a big ego. When the VP eats her projection, she’ll likely learn three things about herself:
She has a big ego of her own
She doesn’t see the value in having a big ego, hence her judging it in her CEO, and therefore suppresses it
She may have a pattern of working under leaders with a big ego to compensate for her suppression of her own
A lot of learnings in one simple move. Let me slow it down so it can all land.
First, what you judge in others, you yourself have. We’ve established this. When our VP judges her CEO for having a big ego and eats that projection, she learns that she has one of her own.
Second, your judgment of that attribute tells you that you’re probably blind to the value of it. In this case, our VP is likely blind to the value that a big ego can provide in certain situations.
Third, because you’re blind to the value of that attribute, you suppress it in yourself. Our VP likely suppresses her big ego. And this means it comes out sideways. Our VP will try so hard to avoid having a big ego that when she inevitably does, it will explode out in ways that she doesn’t realize.
I’m sure you can relate.
Think of a time where you did or said something and thought “that’s so unlike me!” Actually, it is like you. You just don’t want it to be. So you suppress it, and then it operates unconsciously and explodes out at unexpected times. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to consciously own it so I can work on it.
Lastly, you often have a lifelong pattern of creating the very thing that you judge. Our VP may have a history of working under high ego managers. She may even be unconsciously attracted to them because their willingness to be egoic compensates for her lack or willingness. If this is the case, she is actively creating its presence as a pattern in her life.
Let’s apply this to my initial example with the CEO and CPO.
The CEO judged his CPO for being too hands-off. It’s likely the case that the CEO has suppressed that part of himself and is blind to it. Because he was blind to it, it ran the show. He was too hands-off himself, and the company missed its goals as a result.
Were he to have surfaced that feedback sooner and shared it under this new paradigm of feedback, both he and the CPO could have identified the problem and rallied the company to success.
The deep truth at the heart of the reality of projection is that you create your reality. Everything you complain about finds its source in you. The feedback you feel the most judgmental and righteous about in others points to the biggest areas of growth for yourself. If you can own that, magic happens.
The Rules of the New Game of Feedback
Here are the rules of the new game of feedback, one based in the reality that all feedback is projection.
It goes something like this:
You and I decide we are going to exchange feedback.
When you give me feedback, we hold your feedback as valuable for both of us.
As giver, you commit to owning your projection and asking how your feedback is true about you. This might involve exploring how it’s directly true, what it points to that you are suppressing or don’t value in yourself, or owning how this is a recurring pattern in your life and exploring how you create it.
As receiver, I use this moment as an opportunity to learn about you. You are opening up a doorway into yourself, and I get to use that doorway to be deeply present, connected, and see who you are.
Then, as receiver, I ask myself how your feedback is true about me. In doing so I take advantage of your perception-projection for my own growth, exploring the same areas as above. This moment is also an opportunity for you to learn about me.
What I find most beautiful about this paradigm is that, in the end, we’ve not only identified new areas for growth in each of us, but we also know each other more deeply.
What I find most useful about this paradigm is that, generally speaking, you can hold the feedback more loosely. Nowhere in this process did we assume the feedback is right or assess it for how true it is. This paradigm is devoid of righteousness. The feedback is viewed as an opinion and a projection that each of us can take advantage of to learn about ourselves, each other, and grow.
How Not to Apply the New Paradigm
A final word, before I send you into the world to play with this new paradigm.
I shared this post with a friend and her mind quickly flooded with memories of an old boss. This boss, when given feedback, would reflect back to her that the feedback was her projecting onto him, and that she should eat her projection and reflect on what it said about her.
Let me be clear: this is not operating in the new paradigm of feedback. It looks like it, but it’s not.
Her boss was not using feedback to help both parties learn and grow. That would require he earnestly hear her feedback and ask himself how it was true about him. To play in this paradigm is to use all feedback, that which you give and that which is given to you, for your own learning.
What her boss was doing was weaponizing the paradigm, using it to plug his ears so he wouldn’t have to face the ways that he effects the people around him. All the while he was requiring his employees to eat the projection in the feedback they were giving him. He was requiring others to play in paradigm, but not playing himself.
Don’t do that.
If you use the knowledge of this paradigm to stop allowing feedback in, you’ve missed the point. Feedback will not be twice as powerful, but minimally powerful, perhaps even destructive. You will have stopped your learning in its tracks and created disconnection in your relationships.
To fully embrace the power of this new game of feedback, treat every piece of feedback as valuable information for you. Your role is to always ask how this is true about you and how you can learn and grow from it.
Invite someone this week to play the new game of feedback with you. Ask the following questions to each other:
What is feedback you’re withholding from me or someone else in your life?
How is that feedback true about you?
What part of you might you be suppressing or not seeing the value in based on that feedback?
Ask yourself: how is this feedback true about me?
Reverse roles. At the end, share what you’ve learned about each other from the exercise.
Additional Resources on Giving Feedback
That same friend who review this post told me she’d love a followup with specific recommendations on how to give feedback. To my delight, I realized I had already written it!
If you want more direct advice on how to give feedback, you can read more here:
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