Leadership Science: The one thing you can do today to provide better feedback

The other day a colleague of mine emailed me and asked for some feedback on an article he was working on. He included some key information about the audience and purpose of the article, then asked me to take a look at his rough draft and give him some feedback.

Today he stopped by my office to get my feedback and was a little surprised at what I prepared for him. On the left side of my white board I had written 10 questions about his chosen topic. On the right side of my white board I had written four key points that I would make if I were in his shoes. I candidly told my colleague that I hadn’t read his article yet; rather, I went ahead and put myself in his shoes, given his audience and purpose, then proposed my own outline for an article. 

After discussing my questions and key points, we read through the key points from the rough draft my colleague had created. This led to a fantastic conversation and what I hope will be a better article. Only one out of the nine key points we had come up with separately was the same. He commented that my feedback really helped him view his article differently, and asked why I provided my feedback the way I did. That led us to WYSIATI, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

What most people do

When a colleague or friend asks for feedback, the most common response we give is to look through their presentation or read through their article, then tell them what we thought. We might ask them some tough questions like “Who’s the audience?” Or “What’s your purpose in creating this content?” These sessions rarely end with us walking away dumb founded at the perspicacity of our colleagues, although that does happen on occasion. As long as it's clear we've put serious time and effort into our content we typically hear something like "looks great!"

If you’re like me you probably enjoy hearing the "looks great!" part of this feedback, but you needed something different. You needed feedback that makes you re-think your premise, or gives you insights into points you left out that could strengthen your position. You needed someone to ask questions you had not considered. 


The problem with the traditional approach to feedback - where we review their content, then form our feedback - is WYSIATI. It’s the shortened way of saying “what you see is all there is,” a phrase coined by Nobel Prize winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman. WYSIATI is an extremely common cognitive bias, and if you’re not aware of it you just may go your whole career without providing much in the way of truly helpful feedback.

The basic idea of WYSIATI is that once we've been exposed to something it's hard for us to see what isn't there. Our minds focus on what is in front of us, what we saw or heard, and they struggle to find what else could have been there to make it better.

Here’s a simple example of the WYSIATI cognitive bias at work.

Angela is a CEO. She’s intelligent, strong, and outgoing. Is she a good leader? 

You’re answer? Probably a resounding “Yes.”

But what if the fourth attribute I have to share with you about Angela is that she’s corrupt? See the problem? Our minds have a very hard time seeing what isn’t in front of us. 

The take away

The next time someone asks you for feedback, try not to get too far into their message before pausing. Consider taking a few minutes to consider what sort of content or message you would create if you were in their shoes before hearing their whole presentation. 

If you do this you will actually be able to give your feedback, which is why they came to you in the first place. If you don't take the time to pause and reflect on how you would approach this topic before hearing what the other person has to say you will be stuck seeing the world through their lens, not yours.

Diversity of thought is hard to come by. Give the feedback people want from your unique perspective by overcoming WYSIATI.

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