Professor Patrick Barry believes firmly in the power of feedback to improve performance. He has taught and written extensively about the topic, and now he has collected his thoughts in a book—the first in a projected series—titled Feedback Loops: How to Give and Receive Quality Feedback.

Borrowing a phrase from fellow author/academic Julie Lythcott-Haim, Barry said effective feedback can be “the ultimate human growth hormone.” 

“I like that description because when thoughtfully delivered and processed, feedback has a wonderful way of accelerating people’s development and performance. It’s like a steroid for self-improvement,” Barry said.

Barry—a clinical assistant professor of law and the director of digital academic initiatives at the Law School—has written several books on advocacy, including Good with Words: Writing and Editing, The Syntax of Sports, and Notes on Nuance. He has made Feedback Loops available as a free, open access e-book as well as a traditional paperback. 

Barry recently answered five questions about some of the topics covered in the book:

1. Why is it important to provide different types of feedback in different situations?

There are a couple of law professors at Harvard who, in a book called Thanks for the Feedback, identify three different types of feedback: appreciation feedback (applauding someone’s effort and performance), coaching feedback (showing them a better way to do something), and evaluative feedback (telling them where they stand). If you only know how to provide one of those, you are going to limit the help you can provide. You might also create some feedback friction: somebody who comes to you for coaching feedback, for instance, may get increasingly frustrated when you don’t offer anything other than appreciation feedback. Even praise can get tiresome when what you are really looking for is some developmental guidance.

Feedback works best, I think, when it is carefully tailored to the individual needs, goals, and interests of the recipient. Whenever I ask people about the particular kind of feedback they’d like to receive, nobody ever says, “The most generic feedback possible.”

2. What is the single biggest thing people tend to get wrong about the concept of feedback?

The optimal ratio of formal vs. informal feedback. Especially in schools and big organizations, a substantial amount of time and other resources is spent on formal types of feedback (grades, performance reviews, annual reports), even though a lot of the best learning and insights are generated by informal types of feedback (quick debriefs after meetings, frequent check-in chats over coffee, personal notes of encouragement via text or email). 

I’m not saying that formal feedback is valueless. The documentation it provides can clarify expectations and usefully catalog someone’s development. I simply worry that formal feedback tends to get overemphasized and often arrives too late to be helpful. Why wait for December’s end-of-year review to fix a problem that started festering all the way back in February?

3. What makes “noise” such a problem when we’re thinking about feedback?

Noisy feedback, which is feedback that is so unpredictably inconsistent that it becomes pretty much meaningless, creates cognitive chaos. Imagine I cook a meal for six people. One of them says they hate it. One of them says they love it. Two of them say it is too salty. And two of them say it is not salty enough. What exactly am I supposed to do with that information? Should I add more salt next time? Should I add less salt? Should I scrap the recipe entirely? 

Anybody who has received wildly different reactions to a paper they wrote, outfit they bought, or social media post they shared knows how frustrating this kind of noisy feedback can be. You’re left without a clear sense of how to proceed.

4. How can feedback be an effective tool in fighting “impostor syndrome”?

People who are struggling with feeling like a fraud can be tremendously helped by the support and reassurance that come from feedback that essentially says, “Your input and insights are valuable. We’re really glad you’re here.” Even the smallest gestures of welcoming and belonging can have a powerful impact. They’re like imposterism kryptonite. 

5. What’s an important pitfall to avoid when delivering feedback? When receiving it?

Among the arguments that Professor Patrick Barry makes in his new book, “Feedback Loops,” is that people shouldn’t underestimate the importance of informal feedback that is done well.
Among the arguments that Professor Patrick Barry makes in his new book, “Feedback Loops,” is that people shouldn’t underestimate the importance of informal feedback that is done well.

When delivering feedback, it can be helpful to first check if the person is actually ready to receive your feedback. A cognitive psychologist named LeeAnn Renninger offers a couple of questions you can try asking. One is—and I’m paraphrasing a bit—“Do you have a few minutes to talk about how that meeting/presentation/interview/project went?” The other is something like, “I have some ideas on possible ways to improve. When would be a good time to share them?” The key to both questions is to understand that surprise feedback is risky feedback. Blindsiding someone—especially with criticism—isn’t typically a great way to build rapport. 

As for receiving feedback, I get nervous when people (including myself) only have a single, homogeneous source of feedback. Less than ideal things tend to happen, for example, when teenagers exclusively get feedback from other teenagers or when dads exclusively get feedback from other dads. A better approach, in my view, is to create a productively diverse “Feedback Board of Directors.” Groupthink isn’t a feedback virtue.