Shaming Feedback vs Growth feedback - take homes from Duolingo.

Can we talk all things feedback? Feedback can be beneficial for doctors to gain awareness of strengths and opportunities for improvement.  As physicians that went through innumerable tests and critiques before and during medical school, throughout training, and in ongoing board certification and quality measures, we can fall into some unhealthy patterns around evaluations.  The impact of any feedback actually depends, not only on the methods and the giver, but on how it’s received. 


Thankfully over the last few years, there has been an emphasis on quality feedback processes in residency training.  I personally feel it’s better than 20 years ago - intentional encouragement for feedback to be specific, timely, positive and constructive, involving the self-reflection of the resident, with mutually designed goals and action plans. I also know in the world of academics, it’s not perfect every time.  But the effort is in place. So, this blog will not focus on the giving of feedback.


What I haven’t observed as often is tips for residents to receive feedback. In my years as core faculty and now in coaching, I recognize the opportunity to speak to using feedback in a way to harness growth. 


I was reflecting on this recently while using an app to learn French. In the beginning easy stage of “hello” and “goodbye,” it was fun to realize my 2 years of high school French weren’t a complete waste. I kept getting questions right with a pleasant little celebratory sound.  However, it wasn’t long until my conditioned physician brain started cringing when I would miss a question.


But why? Why would I expect that even though I never became proficient with 2 years of formal instruction that I should answer perfectly now, decades later, with 2 weeks using an app? Well, because, it’s in my conditioned physician brain nature. I was taking a wrong answer (along with the disappointing sound it makes) personally. In my mind, I could see Duo, the owl, rolling his eyes and shaking his head saying, “she’s hopeless.”


I reflected back on receiving feedback in my own residency training – it was the same.  I wanted to hear I was doing great, I loved people-pleasing and depended on external validation. Constructive feedback, in my brain at that time, meant failure. 


As I continued to advance in my French app recently, I was able recognize that each time I missed something, I learned something.  Brilliant. I remember Dr. Alpert, cardiology’s gift to medical students, making us commit to an EKG interpretation before he would give us the answer. “Put your quarter on the table so I know you’re invested.”  We don’t have to view getting something wrong as failing. It’s an amazing tool for learning.


The same is true with informal or formal feedback.  When you get a review, here’s how I like to encourage residents to look at it.


Since you likely first reflect on the constructive feedback, we will start there. Recognize that it’s easy to view it as negative. But what if you start to train yourself to see it as opportunities to grow and excel? If you never get constructive feedback, does that mean you have no room to progress? Have you peaked in your ability to be a great physician so early?  Why wouldn’t you want to see it as the opportunity to grow rather than a stick to beat yourself with? Don’t let the inner critic hijack this opportunity.


Examine it. Can you let your defense mechanisms down to see it objectively? What part of the ‘negative’ feedback is true? What can you learn from it? Make a mental note and plan to grow in that area. Is there something you objectively disagree with? Ask for clarification from a place of curiosity. Once you have been objective, had a good exploratory conversation about it, if there remains something you disagree with, then let it go. You don’t have to own it. There is no need to ruminate or perseverate. 


Constructive feedback summary: Step 1. Be objective, open and curious. Step 2. Learn and commit to growth.  Step 3. Move on.


Now, even more important, at least with most of the residents I’ve interacted with is the positive feedback. It is so quickly dismissed by trainees. I feel like they know the “sandwich” method involves positive comments on both sides of the “negative” observations and they assume the attending is cavalierly giving obligatory positives in order to get to the “problem.” I can tell you that in 12 years of interacting with faculty, I don’t know of any who have ever made up something positive just to make a Reuben.  


There are a few things going on here.


First, historically the brain is hard-wired to remember negatives over positives. Recognizing the sounds of a saber-tooth tiger was a bit more important than remembering the best smelling flower. In addition, many physicians are prone to having a mental filter – a thought distortion where all the good is filtered out and the negative is magnified.  When used in a feedback session, it leads to reinforced self-doubt, negative self-talk, and shame. None of which are useful for growth. The other is impostor phenomenon also known as impostor syndrome, where the resident really believes it was some fluke that someone put a positive comment down at all and they are waiting to be discovered as being a fraud.  


In any case, becoming aware that you dismiss the positive is very important. Then, you have to begin to train yourself to make space for the positive.  Since it’s so engrained and automatically dismissed, you have to learn to give room to consider it. Pause. Reflect on it. Ask your brain for examples of how the positive observations are true. You already have your brain pointed in the direction of reinforcing negatives, but I’m asking you to redirect your brain. See the positives that others do. Quiet the inner critic. Own the positives. We need each and every one.  Don’t give the balance over to the constructive feedback. Celebrate the wins!


For those who really struggle with impostor syndrome, consider writing and keeping record of all the positives and reviewing them regularly. Become aware of all the gimmicks your brain is using to dismiss it. Ask yourself what will happen if you accept it as true? Address those thoughts that come up. Many have almost a superstitious underlying belief that if they think they are good in an area or are excelling, they will become complacent or be set up for failure when the other shoe drops. This is your brain lying to you because it is trying to keep you safe.  


Positive feedback summary: Step 1. Become and remain aware of positive dismissal. Step 2. Pause, give space for it in your mind. Reflect.  Step 3. Look for evidence that it’s true. Step 4. Celebrate!


The great thing about feedback is YOU get to decide what it means to you. If you consistently choose the most helpful way to interpret it, you’ll reach greater heights. Atteindre l’excellence avec un esprit de croissance.  


Have a joy filled day,  Tonya


Now’s a great time to sign your program up for resident group coaching plus sessions and/or faculty CME group coaching sessions or faculty.  Learn more here:

Are you a family medicine resident? Schedule a free discovery consultation with the coach to learn more about how coaching can help you in training and throughout your career and to see if it will be a good fit. 

Are you a program director, core faculty or a residency behavioral scientist?  Schedule a video conference so I can tell you more.




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