Benjamin Mitchell and the Trap of False Hypocrisy

One of the puzzles of intellectual life is how to criticize something you admire without sounding like you don’t admire it. Benjamin Mitchell has given an insightful talk about social dynamics in Agile projects. You should see it. I enjoyed it, but I also felt pricked by several missed opportunities where he could have done an even deeper analysis. This post is about one example of that.

Benjamin offers an example of feedback he got about feedback he gave to a member of his team:

“Your feedback to the team member was poor because:
it did not focus on any positive actions, and
it didn’t use any examples”

Benjamin immediately noticed that this statement appears to violate itself. Obviously, it doesn’t focus on positive actions and it doesn’t use any examples. To Benjamin this demonstrates hypocrisy and a sort of incompetence and he got his reviewer (who uttered the statement) to agree with him about that. “It’s incompetent in the sense that it has a theory of effectiveness that it violates,” Benjamin says. From his tone, he clearly doesn’t see this as the product of anything sinister, but more as an indicator of how hard it is to deeply walk our talk. Let’s try harder not to be hypocrites, I think he’s saying.

Except this is not an example of hypocrisy.

In this case, the mistake lies with Benjamin, and then with the reviewer for not explaining and defending himself when challenged.

It’s worth dwelling on this because methodologists, especially serious professional ones like Benjamin and me, are partly in the business of listening to people who have trouble saying what they mean (a population that includes all of humanity), then helping them say it better. He and I need to be very very good at what social scientists call “verbal protocol analysis.” So, let’s learn from this incident.

In order to demonstrate my point, I’d like to see if you agree to two principles:

  1. Context Principle: Everything that we ever do, we do in some particular situation, and that context has a large impact on what, how, and why we do things. For instance, I’m writing this in the situation of a quiet afternoon on Orcas Island, purely by choice, and not because I’m paid or forced to write it by a shadowy client with a sinister agenda.
  2. Enoughness Principle: Anything we do that is good or bad could have been even better, or even worse. Although it makes sense to try to do good work, that comes at a cost, and therefore in practice we stop at whatever we consider to be “good enough” and not necessarily the best we can do.

Assuming you accept those principles, see what happens when I slightly reword the offending comment:

In that situation, your feedback to the team member was poor compared to what you could easily have achieved because:
it did not focus on any positive actions, and
it didn’t use any examples”

Having added the words, what happens if Benjamin tells me that this statement doesn’t focus on positive actions and doesn’t cite an example? I reply like this:

“That’s a reasonable observation, but I think it’s out of place here. My advice pertains to giving feedback to people who feel frightened or threatened or may not have the requisite skills to comprehend the feedback or in a situation where I am not seen as a credible reviewer. And my advice pertains to situations where you want to invest in giving vivid, powerful advice– advice that teaches. However, in this case, I felt it was good enough (not perfect but good at a reasonable investment of my time) to ignore the positive (because, Benjamin, you already know you’re good, and you know that I know that you are good– so you don’t need me to give you a swig of brandy before telling you the “bad news”) and I thought that investing in careful phrasing of a vivid example might actually sound patronizing to you, because you already know what I’m talking about, man.”

In other words, with the added words in bold face, it becomes a little clearer that the situation of him advising his client, and us advising him, are different in important ways.

Imagine that Benjamin spots a misspelled word in my post. Does he need to give me an example of how to spell it? Does he need to speak about the potential benefits of good spelling? Does he need to praise my use of commas before broaching the subject of spelling? No. He just needs to point and say “that’s spelled wrong.” He can do that without being a hypocrite, don’t you think?

(Of course, if the situations are not different and the quality of the comment made to Benjamin is clearly not good enough, then it is fair to raise the issue that the feedback does not meet its own implied standard.)

Finally: I added those bolded words, but if I’m in a community that assumes them, I don’t need to add them. They are there whether I say them or not. We don’t need to make explicit that which is already a part of our culture. Perhaps the person who offered this feedback to Benjamin was assuming that he understood that advice is situational, and that a summary form of feedback is better in this case than a lengthy ritual of finding something to praise about Benjamin and then citing at least three examples.

…unless Benjamin is a frightened student… which he isn’t. Look at him in that video. He exudes self-confidence. That man is a responsible adult. He can take a punch.

Who’s the Real Monster?

“Best practice” thinking itself causes these misunderstandings. Many people seek to memorize protocols such as “how to give feedback… always do this… step 1: always say something nice step 2: always focus on solutions not problems… etc.” instead of understanding the underlying dynamics of communication and relationships. Then when they slip and accidentally behave in an insightful and effective way instead of following their silly scripts, their friends accuse them of being hypocrites.

When the explicit parts of our procedures are at war with the tacit parts, we chronically fall into such traps.

There is a silver lining here: it’s good to be a hypocrite if you are preaching the wrong things. Watch yourself. The next time you fail in your discipline to do X, seriously consider if your discipline is actually wrong, and your “failure” is actually success of some kind.

This is why when I talk about procedures, I speak of heuristics (which are fallible) and skills (which are plastic) and context (which varies). There are no best practices.

I’m going to wrap this up with some positive feedback, because he doesn’t know me very well, yet. Benjamin, I appreciate how, in your work, you question what you are told and reflect on your own thought processes in a spirit of both humility and confidence. YOU don’t seem infected by “best practice” folklore. Thank you for that.



9 thoughts on “Benjamin Mitchell and the Trap of False Hypocrisy

  1. Great post, thanks.

    When you are getting feedback or advice the most important factor is if you can use it effectively.

    [James’ Reply: Are you sure that’s the most important factor? Maybe in a particular situation, such as receiving feedback from my son, the more important factor is that he feels listened to. I’m wary of context-free uses of the phrase “most important.”

    We can agree that it is often important to be able to use feedback.]

    When you giving feedback or advice the most important factor is doing so in a way that is most likely to result in it being used effectively.

    [James’ Reply: Again, that may not be the case. For instance, if I am giving feedback that I believe will certainly be ignored, such as in a political protest, I may still feel that it’s worth doing. I may be resolving an ethical problem within myself by doing that, or I may be communicating to more constituencies than just the one I am directing my feedback directly toward.]

    When you get feedback or advice that isn’t particularly well delivered (lets say much delivered in way that is much worse than the example – even cruelly given). Your reaction (if what you care about is getting better) should be based on what would help you be better, not the form the advice takes. If what you care about is doing what is suggested in a good manner (which may even be lousy advice) then your reaction should be based on how they give feedback, or advice to you.

    People are affected by how advice is given and in fact how much they like the person giving advice and whether they think the advice is good or not. Those are factors to consider in giving advice. In my opinion those are factors to overcome in accepting advice. If I miss good advice because the person delivers it inelegantly or I don’t like them or whatever it is I who lose.

    [James’ Reply: I agree. But I sometimes find that it takes too much energy and time to process hostile feedback, even though I know it may help. In doing so I understand I may be damning myself to poorer performance of a certain kind. To protect myself from that I cultivate colleagues who seem to know how to translate otherwise hostile-sounding feedback into information I can use. Like flora of the gut, they help me digest ideas better.]

    If the core issue the person raises with feedback is something you should address, do so. Don’t have that determined by how successfully they gave feedback. In the post one of the issues I think Benjamin was trying to address was providing better feedback and in encouraging logical thinking.

    [James’ Reply: He definitely applied logic, but he applied that logic to an incorrect view of the meaning of the feedback, and his colleague– in the heat of the moment– didn’t notice that.]

    Both of which are worthy and make sense doing. I would say that is a 2nd issue. Issue 1 is if the feedback has merit. Issue 2 is if the feedback provided could be improved and if the logic behind the explanation of the feedback is good.

    [James’ Reply: Makes sense.]

  2. Good post.

    A few top-of-my-head thoughts:

    “if Iโ€™m in a community that assumes them, I donโ€™t need to add them”
    You beat me to it. Likewise, you shouldn’t have to preface sentences with, “On that day, at that time…”, and bunches of other qualifiers.

    In a similar vein, I often flinch when I hear folks say things like, “Joe is a nice guy, but, he’s not a very good tester.” I think, “What does Joe’s ‘niceness’ have to do with anything? We are not discussing Joe’s ‘niceness’ and is is almost certainly inconsequential when discussing his testing skills. But, since you did mention his ‘niceness’, but did not mention his taste in clothing, I’ll assume you think that Joe dresses poorly. See how silly that is?”

    Finally, can we all stop starting sentences with, “In my opinion…” ๐Ÿ™‚

    [James’ Reply: I think how Joe’s niceness may come in is that the speaker wants to signal that he feels conflicted.]

    • I try to stick with “I think…” and “I wonder if…” (when I remember). I can’t remember the last time I used “in my opinion”, but I can’t be positive I haven’t. I tend to state things with too much certainty for the context. I think. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. James, I agree with your thoughts. One of the things I continually struggle with is completely presenting my thought in writing – normally I think of 4 caveats I should make then what I say is so long I get tons of complaints it is too long.

    [James’ Reply: Well, one thing is probably you aren’t talking to Context-Driven guys. We like caveats.]

    In general I have tried to reduce that. But I often leave things with too much imprecision (that is too much that is/can be wrong). Trying to be clear, complete and conscience is something I still need lots of work on. Your points about really most isn’t right… are exactly my thoughts.

    I think not wanting to take the “time to process hostile feedback” is something everyone does though often with less self awareness. And it extends beyond “hostile” to any type that is hard to process (different people have different points they struggle with most). If it is too much bother to figure out why this is useful (logically, emotionally…) we don’t want to deal with it.

    [James’ Reply: Sure. Also note that the goal of feedback may be to help me get better– but perhaps I am already good enough. Or perhaps the feedback isn’t taking into account every salient factor.]

    We will seek out people that we work well with. We will pay more attention to feedback from those who have given us feedback in the past that we used to make a change and saw a good result (either because they are perceptive in seeing the problem, skilled at presenting the case to us, skilled at showing us a way forward, skilled at providing feedback we can actually use (you can give me all the feedback in the world about how to be a better pro basketball player I am not going to be able to use it effectively).

    [James’ Reply: Certainly.]

    And much more we will block, ignore and deflect feedback we don’t want – whether it is hostile, confusing, impossible for us to figure out how to act on, unconvincing… That is why, if you care about having your feedback listened to you often need to design it for the person you are talking to – do they want it all dressed up with compliments about their overall wonderfulness, do they want you to provide some possible options for doing things differently, do they want you to explain the impact of the issue…

    [James’ Reply: Yes. But sometimes I don’t care very much whether my criticism is acted upon, because not listening carries its own form of punishment. Sometimes the reason I give criticism is that I feel “someone should give this guy a chance, at least” even though I’m not very invested in whether he makes anything out of it. For instance, imagine you see someone pushing on a door that won’t open. You know it’s not locked, but that he is pushing on it the wrong way. You try to tell him that, but he says “get lost!” Well, you could take more time and effort to craft a diplomatic way to get him to hear you, or you could just leave him to his own folly. What’s it worth to you?]

    I think most people are frustrated with feedback that “takes too much energy and time to process.” I think this is why there is so much talk about giving effective feedback. I see too little talk on how to take even effectively given feedback and use it to improve, which is a big part of taking too much energy to implement.

    [James’ Reply: If I have to work with people and I can’t blow them off (my wife and son, for instance) then I will work hard to talk to them in a way they find easy to hear. It may be that they have a duty or an interest to accept my feedback, but that’s not something I can control.]

    My opinion is that many people have trouble processing the feedback they get, but even more so they have trouble figuring out what to do with it even if they could understand what the issue was (I have a feeling that isn’t nearly as big a problem for you but I am just making guess). Even if they can really see what could be improved, turning that into actual improved performance is often not easy.

    [James’ Reply: It’s just the ordinary problem of learning and designing, right?]

    There are lots of details to consider in order to provide effective feedback. If your goal is to get the feedback used (such as when you are coaching an employee) I think it is often wise to spend the most time on helping people with process of improvement. If people get feedback they can easily use to improve and they can see the results they often want more. The same ideas as your “feedback into information I can use.”

    And when I say “they can see the results” that again is an indication that it might be an effort to improve feedback in an organization will be enhanced by increasing people’s ability to see results (which to me is about understanding data, understanding processes, customer focus, systems thinking…).

    Well I went on far to long and it is still not very clear I don’t think but, that is the best effort I could make today…

  4. Booooring!

    [James’ Reply: Thank you for your keen critique, which cut to the heart of the matter. I now see the world differently. Everything before now is as a colorless plain of dead grass, and the future looks like rainbows playing with sea nymphs– all because of you helped me see the truth.]

  5. Very interesting post – if you are interested in improving team functionality and personal effectiveness (otherwise you are reading the wrong post). I am regularly coming across people grappling with how to receive and give feedback and deal with the associated emotional baggage. Also, the idea of considering context when approaching problem solving and communication has been extremely useful in my teaching and practice of IT support.

  6. I have a fundamental issue with the whole “say something positive” idea.

    Personally I hate positive feedback. In the words of House MD; “It’s not that I’m always right, it’s just that I find it hard to operate on the opposite assumption.” When people are giving me positive feedback they are not giving me any new information that can help me improve, which means they are wasting mine and their own time. I want lots of negative feedback so that I can discover things that I can improve about myself and the way I work. If I’m already aware, a little reminder never hurt.

    In this day and age with people being raised on a positive feedback loop, people who are nasty enough to point out things that are actually useful to me seems to become fewer and further between. The few people I have met in the context driven community seems to be unique in the way that they are unafraid of pointing out my flaws and seem open to discussion.

    Now, I’m aware that this may just be the autism talking and that other people may not be like this, so I try to give positive feedback as often as I remember to, but I still don’t understand why it’s helpful in any way.

    [James’ Reply: I feel the same way, but I can also see some real value to friendly, supportive communication. When I tell you something I like about your work, I am actually giving you information, because you are learning that I NOTICED. It is not automatically the case that people will realize or appreciate what is good about your work. When I convey that I do, you know that at least some part of what you are trying to do is making it across to at least some other people. Further, if there are 96 good things about what you do, and I mention 3 of them, that gives you information about what specifically I am sensitive to. It’s telling you something about me. If another few people mention the same things, it’s telling you not only about them, but about how some of your work is having a similar effect on different people.

    By listening to the compliments that you do NOT receive, you may also glean something useful.

    By feeling appreciated for your good intentions, furthermore, you may be better able to listen to how your actions fell short of achieving the object of those intentions.

    I understand the theory… I just don’t like obsession with rules. Let us apply this concept (of positive feedback) heuristically.]

  7. Enjoying this discussion and the original post particularly thanks James.

    One of the many distinctions I heard many years ago I think from NLP is between mismatchers and matchers (arbitrary and binary simplification before you pounce on me) and I’ve just clicked that perhaps you (and maybe Richard) are mismatchers. I am very much a matcher. I suspect that could sometimes cause conflict.

    [James’ Reply: Maybe. For me a more fundamental issue than matching/mismatching is that I’m more sensitive to trouble than I am excited by harmony. Harmony is optional. Trouble is potentially catastrophic. I want to know about trouble. In that sense, you can call me a “sentry” personality. I’m on the lookout for danger.

    When someone not my friend gives me a gift, I wonder if it’s a trojan horse. When I get “positive feedback” from someone not my wife or best buddy, I wonder if it is concealing a dagger.]

    re the +ve feedback being useless I disagree. If you accept any value in the strength-finder studies from Gartner and their conclusions, then if positive feedback helps people become more aware of and clearer about and to focus on their strengths and develop them, and negative feedback distracts them with thinking about what their not so good at, then I’d say +ve is more important, if we had to pick one.

    [James’ Reply: I wouldn’t say that friendly “do more of that” messages are useless, either. And actually, I use them quite a lot in my work when I am talking to people who are vulnerable (and almost everyone is vulnerable around me, just because when I encounter people it’s usually when I’m in a teaching role). But I would say that positive messages generally make ME feel suspicious or nervous when I am on the receiving end. I don’t want to be lulled into thinking that things are okay. I need to stay on guard; be a sentry.

    I also feel that we should focus on improving strengths, rather than on remediating weaknesses, but that’s a different issue. I can criticize someone as part of helping them improve their strength. In other words, the valence of the feedback is orthogonal to the matter about which you are feeding back.]

    In my life the most powerful feedback have been that which has led me to feel or think in new ways (or in old ways but to new degrees) and whether it is +ve or -ve is almost completely unimportant. An minor example would be your post starting this thread – I may perhaps never quite be able to think of the term hypocrisy in quite the same way again.

    cheers, John

    [James’ Reply: I appreciate your criticism. You did that well.]

  8. We all have mixed motives and this obviously applies to giving feedback: praise can be to do with me serving my interests rather than assisting the one being praised. When does confidence stray into arrogance? I think it is when it is perceived as unfounded and unreal. Similarly with praise: ‘Say something positive’ as described denotes an artificial automatic approach to positive feedback. If the feedback is based in something real and substantial, and helps someone else see the lie of the land more clearly, then it can have some value, whether positive or negative. Where it is done with hidden motives (hence the dagger) then it is clearly of value to try to discern this. I suppose a lesson from reading this discussion is to check your motives, even when trying to encourage someone.

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