Feedback, Gullibility and The Barnum Statements problem

A new colleague told me last week that the first time that we met I was a complete jerk. They obviously didn’t use the word ‘jerk’, but I sounded ‘jerkish’. It hurt . Aside from the obvious professional concerns some of the things they were describing were things I would hate to have associated with me as a human being. I went away crestfallen, regretful and with my head buzzing full of conflicting sentiments

  • It might have been a one off
  • What if everyone thinks like that?
  • What if not everyone thinks like that – but quite a few do?
  • How many is too many people thinking you are a jerk?
  • Would ‘too many’ be a percentage or a number?
  • What if it is a part of my character that I can’t change?
  • What parts are those?
  • Who do I trust enough to tell me if it is true?

I spent the entire week worrying about it. At times I was sitting down to meetings feeling uncomfortably unsure of myself.

When we talked again this week I asked them again about what I had done and how I had acted.They said that they had met me last year at an event – but when they named the event it turned out that I hadn’t even attended it. It turned out the were thinking about someone else entirely. Moving past the fact that it seems odd George Clooney was attending an HR conference (we often get confused) it shows how unreliable feedback can be.

I still feel like I’ve been a jerk because I’ve spent all week convinced that I had been. In fact I’ve got some things that I’ll do differently even though the feedback turned out to be false. In fact I now have a pretty good mental list of times that I might have acted like a jerk. Which is useful.

My experience of watching people respond to feedback through the years is that truthful feedback is less important to a successful outcome than their desire to respond to feedback. To put it another way – give a person who wants to improve suggestions of things that they can improve and they will. Give someone less committed the complete truth and they will rationalise it away.

Barnum Statements are descriptions that seem tailored for an individual, but actually are generic enough to apply to almost anyone. You could give a set of leaders the same feedback and tell them it was their 360 and they would believe it and act on it.

Try this as your feedback and see how you get on.

  • Sometimes it seems like you spend time on the wrong priorities
  • Occasionally I don’t think you appreciate your impact on others
  • It’s clear sometimes that you are more enthusiastic towards some projects than others
  • You have a tendency to be too critical of yourself
  • I think sometimes you push yourself too hard
  • You have potential to have an even better career
  • I sometimes think you aren’t as confident as you seem to come across
  • I’ve seen some really strong leadership from you and I’d like to see more
  • It seems you like a degree of change, but become less happy when you feel boxed in
  • I’m not sure we always see the real you at work
  • Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic
  • I really find we get on better when you are at your most relaxed
  • I think you are generally a really strong contributor and you know the areas you need to work on

Some examples are from me, some from the original study by Forer. I’m guessing some of the above rang true for most people. it’s worth noting that later research indicated you are more likely to believe this if

  1. you believe the results are specifically about you
  2. if there is a balance of positive and negative examples
  3. if you believe it is from a credible source

Think 360 feedback or the last psychometrics you took and the qualified person giving you feedback.

Feedback – the least important thing is the possibly the truth..

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4 thoughts on “Feedback, Gullibility and The Barnum Statements problem

  1. David, thanks for the post. A critique of psychometrics is that it says more about the person providing the feedback than it does about the person who is the subject of the assessment. Having received training in some of the instruments, I’m sceptical of their worth where they are be shrouded in a language imposed by the tool itself. We are highly suggestible beings (sometimes for very good reasons, including evolutionary ones). And language, a cultural tool, matters.

  2. Another point to add….

    Words count — for good, bad but never indifferent (which usually means we were are at the moment)…

    Growing up with a narcissistic parent, the hardest thing I had to learn was this:
    An unkind word unsaid is the kindest word said…

    You have a face that could stop a clock…

    … OR …

    You have a face that makes time stand still…

    Both mean the same thing to a person that has a frame of mind that lacks empathy…
    But not to the recipient, even when they are of the same frame of mind…

    I believe psychometrics looks for patterns — I’m a novice at this stuff which means I could be wrong when I say it doesn’t look at intent but at reactions similar to Pavlov’s dog experiment…

    If all this is true then without any sense of wisdom, doesn’t knowledge look more stupid than ignorance?

    IF someone just became defensive I did >not< saying knowledge is not power, it is… but it is the sword with which we craft our conversation.. and without a sheath, a sword is vulnerable to isolation, being left behind, in the wrong place at the wrong time…. yes???

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