Positive feedback

Positive feedback gets a bad rap in the judge program.

One of the priorities of the judge program is our emphasis on constructive feedback. It's often assumed in our conversations that constructive feedback must be negative. A judge does something poorly, and we give them details on why it was bad and how to do better next time. As a result, positive feedback is often seen as vapid and useless. This reputation is not entirely undeserved, but it doesn't tell the full story.

Bad positive feedback

The reason that this reputation is somewhat deserved is not because of anything intrinsic to positive feedback, but rather due to how current judges use it. A lot of judges, in a misguided effort to give more positive feedback, give unhelpful positive feedback. Any time there's an expectation of impersonal feedback, such as a conference feedback form or an end-of-day briefing, you'll see stuff like "you did a great job", "I enjoyed your presentation", "I appreciate you coming out to this event", etc.This tends to be especially bad when feedback is required.

The reason these sorts of statements are useless is because they're uncorrelated with what actually happened. If your team lead tells you "you did a good job today" regardless of how good a job you actually did, then that statement isn't conveying any information. You may as well carry around a piece of paper that says "you did a good job today" and just read it at the end of every event. In order for feedback to be meaningful, the probability of receiving that feedback needs to depend on the actions you actually took.

SMBC Comics

Negative feedback of course has the same problem in theory; if someone always tells you "your announcements were bad" no matter how clear your announcements actually were, that's equally useless. But this doesn't tend to happen, because there's no significant incentive to give negative feedback. Negative feedback can make people upset at you, so judges tend to avoid giving negative feedback unless they see a strong reason they need to do so. Positive feedback on the other hand has a lot of incentives pushing people into giving it; telling people they're great makes them like you!

So people try to exploit this social dynamic by giving "positive feedback" that isn't really feedback at all. Then this becomes a social norm, where this sort of vapid positivity is expected.Here is a real quote from a former Grand Prix Head Judge:

“As GPHJ we were supposed to give every TL a grade and review. Rating anyone below 4 out of 5 almost immediately lead to an angry email by that judge to yourself, the TO, their RC, etc. In the end I think the average grade we gave was something like 4.3 out of 5 because we didn't have the time for that kind of drama, making the whole concept useless.”
This dilutes the value of all other positive feedback, since it makes people less able to trust that it's sincere.Another factor with regards to conferences in particular is that attendees don't always have a great idea of what they learned. People can come away from a presentation feeling like it was great and they learned a lot, when in fact they didn't actually retain the important parts. So they're honestly reporting their impression of the presentation, but as a presenter, I need to take that with a grain of salt.

Another reason that positive feedback gets seen as vapid is because it's usually less detailed. Even sincere pieces of positive feedback are often something like "you did a good job today", whereas almost no one would say "you did a bad job today" and leave it at that. I'm not certain why this is, but I suspect it's due to the same dynamic as above. People know that positive feedback will be well-received, so they're lazy and do the bare minimum. For negative feedback on the other hand, they need to put in enough effort to signal that they care about the recipient and aren't just trying to hurt them.

Good positive feedback

Unfortunately, this frequent misuse of positive feedback has led to people perceiving all positive feedback as being unhelpful, when that's not at all true. There are two primary ways to give people good positive feedback: Make it convey information, and make it detailed.

For the first part of that, all you have to do is be more selective with your feedback. I will never tell someone that they did a good job unless that's actually true. This means that on the occasions where I do tell someone they did a good job, they can trust that that's actually meaningful, and I'm not just "being polite". Treating each other this way leads to less superficial relationships, where we can trust each other to be honest and don't have to worry that we're being lied to.

The other important aspect of positive feedback is specificity. If someone tells me that I did a good job, even if I can trust that they meant it, it's not all that helpful, since it doesn't give me anything to focus on. That doesn't mean it's useless! Sometimes I'll see someone give a presentation that was just very solid overall. In those instances, I will give them generic positive feedback, since nothing in particular stuck out to me. But when something does stick out to you, make sure to mention it!

Consider some feedback I got from a recent conference:

“I have had multiple Judge conferences with Isaac as a presenter and I truly think they are among the most knowledgeable of presenters. It is always a treat and I actually wasnt going to stay for the final seminar until I saw that they were presenting it :) This Seminar was no different , it is so important to know how to handle mistakes and know that mistakes will happen. It really humanizes the judge and that is something that everyone should remember. Big thanks to Isaac, it is always a pleasure."

This is pretty vague. However, it includes enough detail specific to me that I know this isn't something they just tell everyone. As such, it's still meaningful positive feedback, and I appreciated that they took the time to write it up. While it doesn't tell me what in particular I should try to do more of, it gives me a general sense of "what you're doing right now is working", which lets me know that I don't need to radically change my approach. This is still useful!

The impact of positive feedback

While negative feedback provides a lot of value, it's fundamentally about something you did poorly. Even if you appreciate the help, on an emotional level this can easily be demoralizing. Positive feedback provides validation, which everyone needs some of from time to time.No matter how much some people pretend they don't. :)

I got some positive feedback at a recent conference. Someone came up to me afterwards and asked "hey, you run Outside The Asylum, right?" They then told me that they really liked the confidence article I had written recently, and that it had helped them with their own imposter syndrome. This was really validating! I usually focus on hard skills, so this one was a bit out of my comfort zone, and I was worried that people wouldn't find it useful. Finding out that someone had not only liked it, but it had helped them in a concrete way, made me really happy. Even better was the reason; I asked them if there was anything in particular that made my article more beneficial to them than other articles on imposter syndrome, and they said it was the specificity and attention to detail; I clearly defined my terms, talked about specific effects different mindsets have and the reasons for that, and discussed the psychology and social dynamics behind them. Taking this sort of reductionist approach to topics is something I do a lot, and hearing that it worked for them gives me more confidence that I should continue writing more soft skills articles of that style.Like this one!

Giving positive feedback also increases the value of your negative feedback. If you only give negative feedback, people will come to see you as, well, negative. They're going to shy away from what you have to say, and start dismissing your feedback more easily. "Don't listen to them; they're always complaining about other people". While this is obviously not how people should respond to negative feedback, it's going to happen, and balancing your negative feedback with positive is the best way to avoid it. We want to build trust that we aren't just looking for reasons to critisize people and make them look bad. So to maximize your impact, you want to aim for around half positive and half negative feedback on average.

Giving balanced positive and negative feedback also helps prevent the overconfidence or underconfidence that can occur if someone receives entirely positive or entirely negative feedback. And giving positive feedback affects you too; if you get used to only looking for negatives, it becomes harder to find positive things even when you're looking.

Most importantly, positive feedback is more effective at changing people's behavior! People respond more strongly to rewards than to punishments, and for all that we wish this weren't the case, most people will take constructive criticism as a "punishment".I say "most" rather than "all" because I've managed to train myself to have a positive emotional reaction to constructive criticism. I don't just want feedback on a cognitive level, but on an emotional one as well, and I don't reflexively shy away from it. I assume the same sort of emotional modification is possible for others, but most people aren't going to do it. (Even if just unconsciously.)

(I was going to write up a much longer section here, but just read that article, it explains the benefits of positive feedback much more eloquently than I can.)

Finding positive feedback

Mistakes are easier to notice than positive behavior. Mistakes annoy us, catch our attention, and make us want to complain about them. Seeing people doing a good job is just the norm, and it tends to fade into the background.This is more the case for experienced judges. Newer judges may see another judge do something in a way they never considered, and they'll think "wow, what a good idea". Experienced judges have already seen most good ideas, so it's just normal for them, and it's the less effective approaches that stick out from what they're used to. This means we have to activly work to notice the positive things that people do.It also means that positive feedback tends to be rarer, which is another thing that increases its value.

So just watch people, and keep an eye out for opportunities for positive feedback. When you see someone do something well, tell them about it. This doesn't need to be a big formal thing; just a quick "hey, I just saw you do X; your approach of Y was really effective; good job!" is enough. Again, don't lie. These sorts of quick reassurances are a great way to help a newer judge build up their confidence, but if they find out that you were doing it even when they messed something up, you will destroy their trust in you and make everything worse.

When doing this, keep the recipient in mind. If you give a new L1 a compliment on handling that question about state-based actions correctly, they'll appreciate it. If you give the same compliment to an experienced L3, they might find it a little condescending.Though any good L3 will recognize the intention behind the statement and not take offense.

The best positive feedback is about things the recipient is struggling with. If they have a poor opinion of their abilities in some area, it's going to mean a lot more to them to hear something positive about that area.In more general terms: All feedback, both positive and negative, is most useful when its content is unexpected. If the recipient can easily predict what feedback they're going to get, then by definition that feedback isn't providing them with new information. When feedback is surprising, that means the recipient is learning something they were previously unaware of.

(People often tell me that they're impressed by how well I know Magic's rules/policy and how clearly I can explain it to others. This is nice to hear, but I already know that, so it's not really useful to me. When a rather critical L3 pulled me aside at a judge party to tell me they had seen how hard I'd been working to improve my social interactions, that meant a lot more to me.)To be clear, I'm not saying you should avoid positive feedback about something the recipient already knows; it'll still be appreciated and help reinforce good behaviors. It's just not as useful.

Pass along feedback you hear from others. If I hear something positive about a judge, I'll try to find them and pass along the compliment. If this means they end up hearing it twice, that's not a big deal.

You can even just thank people for doing things at all. Whenever anyone posts a tournament report, even if it's poorly written, I'll usually thank them for writing it. That's still an improvement over having not written anything at all!