What is the Michael Jackson Theory of Feedback

Few months back listening to one of Noah Kagan’s podcast episode, (the one where he talks about his conversation with Jonathan Coon of WikiBuy.com) he mentions something called the Michael Jackson Theory of Feedback. No, this wasn’t a theory by Michael, instead is a theory based on Michael Jackson.

I am paraphrasing the explanation about the theory here. But listen to the episode from 4:40 minutes.

Michael Jackson decides he wants to get a new nose job and he undergoes surgery. He asks his friends “How do I look?” His friends don’t want to lose out on all the free hotel, travel and money, so they say that he looks great and it is wonderful. Next he goes and changes his cheek bones or some other part. And every time his friends keep feeding Michael Jackson’s big inflated ego because they don’t want to offend him. Pretty soon his face becomes this messed up monstrosity.

michael jackson face transformation over the years

Maybe if one of his friends had given critical and constructive feedback or if Michael was open to hearing about honest opinion, he would have saved his face (literally). He didn’t keep friends who challenged him.

Why I always criticise my friends

I have a similar story from my life. I have a friend, from college who loved art and music. He used to draw a lot and create digital music on his computer. Whenever he showed his work to a bunch of us, I used to give him critical feedback. How his drawing doesn’t obey the laws of physics or why he should try a different genre of music, etc.

The other friends kept saying that his work was amazing and he should keep at it and he will eventually become successful. One of the friends (who later became my wife) kept asking why I always criticise his work?

I always used to reply, I want him to grow and become better – not stay the same. I think his standards are higher than this. So I prefer to give him constructive feedback which he can use to fix in his next work. Just saying “Wow! Amazing!” isn’t going to help him grow.

Also the day he is going to step out into the real world and work with big organizations, none of his friends are going to be there to support him. He has to face his boss and his work alone. And he will be compared and critiqued against other better team members. If he kept hearing only positive feedback now, all the negative feedback he is going to receive later will break his heart.

Criticism in Teams and Organisations

I see the same pattern repeating itself again and again in various companies and organizations. People are worried that they will hurt other’s feelings if they give honest but critical feedback. So they shut their mouth or worse, say that it is amazing. The other half of the problem is the person receiving feedback. It is important to understand that the criticism is only going to help you be better in your work.

The number one indicator of whether a company/organization/country is developed or not is whether it can accept criticism and feedback. If the employees or citizens are not allowed to criticise others, it is doomed for failure.

Here are 3 things to remember when you are receiving criticism.

Be open to hearing feedback

Don’t be defensive when you hear criticism. Don’t keep churning out the same old style designs or code. Be responsive to changes in your industry. Having an open mind towards hearing both positive and negative feedback is important. You don’t have to act on all feedback you receive. You definitely have more context about your domain and can make an informed decision. But always listen to what others also say.

People are holding you to a higher standard

When others criticise your work (code or design) they are implicitly saying “What you did is good, But I expect even greater things from you next time”. By understanding and reframing the criticism like that, you change your entire mentality about the person. You realise that this person doesn’t hate your work, but only wants you to do a better work.

Understand that it isn’t personal

Some people assume that any kind of feedback is about themselves and take it personal. Sometimes they take it as a feedback against their race/religion/gender. No one cares about who you are. If someone is critiquing your work, it is just that – a criticism about your work and your work alone. Don’t try to read too much between the lines.

There are times when engineers are told “You know nothing about design” and designers/marketing people are told “You are not technical or can’t understand code”. Think of people as what they are. Understand everyone has some skill set/knowledge about how things will work. Don’t dismiss someone’s criticism just because he belongs to a different team or doesn’t have some fancy degree that you have.

Conclusion

If programmers/designer/everyone understands the above 3 points about receiving criticism and feedback, then people will also be more open and start giving better and constructive feedback. Unless people feel safe giving feedback, you are not going to get real honest opinions about your work. And finally you might end up becoming like Michael Jackson’s face.

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