Near Amsterdam, there is a suburb of single-family houses all built at the same time, all alike. Well, nearly alike. For unknown reasons it happened that some of the houses were built with the electric meter down in the basement. In other houses, the electric meter was installed in the front hall.
These were the sort of electric meters that have a glass bubble with a small horizontal metal wheel inside. As the household uses more electricity, the wheel turns faster and a dial adds up the accumulated kilowatt-hours.
During the oil embargo and energy crisis of the early 1970s, the Dutch began to pay close attention to their energy use. It was discovered that some of the houses in this subdivision used one-third less electricity than the other houses. No one could explain this. All houses were charged the same price for electricity, all contained similar families.
The difference, it turned out, was in the position of the electric meter.
The families with high electricity use were the ones with the meter in the basement, where people rarely saw it. The ones with low use had the meter in the front hall where people passed, the little wheel turning around, adding up the monthly electricity bill many times a day.
The above anecdote is taken from the book “Thinking in System” by Donella H. Meadows. In the book, it is used as a reference to discuss the importance of positioning in decisions.
However, the story struck a different note with me. It is amazing to note how user behavior gets changed when they regularly get the feedback about the meter usage. When the user is able to see the increase in the meter reading, they are able to change the pattern of usage. The other set of users who are alien to the usage, get the shock only when the bill gets generated. They must also have the same scope for making changes in the usage. In case they might have got feedback earlier, they could have brought in some change in the pattern of usage. This would have reduced the bill amount for them too.
Feedback plays similar role in our personal as well as professional lives. Missing feedbacks can give us feeling of being left out or illusioned. Giving timely feedback helps to continue good work, improve on the week points. It also helps to understand the way our work or behavior is being perceived. We can use the feedback discussion to understand the perspective better and correct any confusion we see in interpretation.
Mostly the reason why we miss out on feedback discussions is when we either feel it unnecessary or too difficult to do. Many times, we feel that things are already clear out there and there is no need to talk about something specific. However, one important point is that same story is narrated differently by different narrators. So, it is important to talk on common points to ensure that the stories are not becoming contradictory. This is true for relations at personal and professional levels. Shared goals can only be worked well, if everyone sees them in same light.
Another point is that we are never good at difficult conversations. Feedbacks around any shortcoming or negative thing is most difficult to deliver. We fear disappointing someone and causing a heartbreak. However, this can lead to the hidden resentments. The pile up can lead to worst outburst at later stages and much pitiful results. Feedbacks add time and opportunity to bring in a timely change.
One common misconception around feedbacks is we intend them to be a formal and process-oriented communication. Whereas, as if we look closely feedbacks are an opportunity to connect. With the usual roles and responsibilities, we have, at times it is not possible to connect with everyone. Regular feedback conversations can help us to connect and know someone better. In the situation where these opportunities to correct are not present, people can feel isolated. In such isolation either they stop growing or start growing aside. Both are dangerous situations.
Being open and conscious to feedback is also equally important. If in above anecdote, even with meter placed in front hall, users chose to pay no attention to meter speed, they would get the bills of high value. So, if the receiver keeps blind eye to feedback, even a constructive and well-intentioned feedback can do no help.
To end with a quote from Steven Levitt
“The key to learning is feedback. It is nearly impossible to learn anything without it.”
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