In an earlier blog post I talked about the difference between implicit and explicit feedback. Implicit feedback is what you convey with your body language when you deliver a tough critique, for example, but soften it with a smile. Explicit feedback is that tough critique – it’s what you say.
Explicit feedback relies on implicit feedback much more than most people realize. So, when we’re asked what we thought of that presentation, that meeting, or that town-hall session, we almost always offer a mix of explicit and implicit feedback. The mix allows us to soften the harsh messages and toughen the soft ones. We may only say, “It was fine,” but our body language—the implicit feedback—conveys that we really thought the session was a disaster. Or the reverse. We can deliver some tough words but soften their impact with a touch or a smile that says, “It really wasn’t that bad.” And there are, of course, a whole host of meanings possible in between.
That’s how it works in the real world. In the virtual world, that comfortable mix of explicit and implicit feedback is impossible and things immediately start to go wrong. The manager who is used to offering minimal explicit feedback because she conveys a strong connection to her team nonverbally may find herself struggling in the virtual world, where she suddenly has to articulate everything that she previously could leave unsaid. If she fails to do so, then she risks leaving her team confused about her intentions and their performance.
Take out the implicit feedback on which the explicit messages depend, and you get confusion and alienation.
Let’s further explore the difficulties inherent in feedback in the virtual world. We’ve identified the basic problem: explicit feedback relies on implicit feedback to provide the emotional connections that make human relationships matter, that help people function effectively through the daily ups and downs of organizational life, and that help them endure.
Explicit feedback, in short, lacks the unconscious context of human emotional exchange. All too often online, feedback becomes trolling and rapidly descends into hate on all sides. Why is that? Why does this honorable form of human commentary from one person to another rarely work online?
Fundamentally, what has changed is the nature of trust. And as trust changes, so do the relationships, precisely because of how we are hardwired to form connections with people. Trust in the virtual world is much more fragile, though perhaps easier to establish initially. But the big difference comes when something threatens the trust.
And feedback depends on trust. In face-to-face relationships where there is trust, one party may do something to screw up, causing friction, anger, and even a bit of mistrust to creep in. But if the connection is strong enough, the feedback begins. The issue will get thrashed out, the perpetrator will apologize, and trust will be restored. Indeed, once restored, the trust may be stronger than ever.
How different it is in the virtual world! Once trust is threatened, it’s instantly broken, and it’s nearly impossible to reestablish it. People simply move on. Since trust was more fragile in the first place, it shatters with very little provocation.
Thus, virtual feedback has some obvious flaws. First of all, there’s much less of it because virtual feedback is simply harder to give than face-to-face feedback. Second, virtual feedback is less robust and more likely to cause irreparable harm. And third, the resultant weaker feedback has much less meaning.
There’s less spontaneous virtual feedback because trust is more fragile. Why should I enter into the first half of a feedback loop if my trust in you is not very deep and liable to be eventually broken inadvertently even if it isn’t broken deliberately?
The perils of the virtual world are many, and problems with feedback are at the heart of them.
(This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me?, due out from Harvard in October. You can pre-order it below.)