Provoking thought

The Regrettable Invention of Impactback

I wanted to to tell you this last week as a reaction to your last piece, but it sounded like feedback, so I dropped it.

It appears the result of my public musing on toxicity of feedback has resulted in feedback deprivation: a few people have admitted they would have given me feedback (also positive) on various things — but, because I’ve fallen off the feedback religion, they didn’t.

I understand, but it also made me realize that being completely feedback deprived is a bit like talking to a wall. Or in my case, like writing letters to Santa. I hope he enjoys them, but I never hear back. And it makes me feel a bit insecure. Did Santa get any value out of all the letters I wrote to him?

You can self-reflect all you want, but many of the things we do in my profession aren’t that easily tracked day-to-day on a KPI dashboard. It’s extremely useful to get at least hints on if something is happening.

Essentially what I need is a system that roughly looks as follows:

  1. I take some action, e.g. forward an email, say something during a meeting — you know, management stuff
  2. I need to understand the impact this action has on people
  3. I then need to decide whether to adapt my approach based on whether the impact found in step 2 has had the (to me) desired effect 4. GOTO 1

You could describe this as some sort of cycle where the end feeds back into the beginning. But what to call it...


All joking aside, there’s a subtle difference with common feedback practice in this loop: in most feedback loops step 2 generally isn’t “clean” data. It tends to come with judgement: good, bad; above expectations, below expectations.

Classic feedback example:

In that meeting you publicly disagreed with me. How dare you! Never do that again!

The judgement: disagreeing with me in public is bad bad bad. Thumbs down. No no.

That aspect is the potentially “toxic” part. Sure, if this feedback is coming from your boss, it’s worth to listen, but perhaps it’s better not to act on it. Your boss may not like you public disagreement, but is not speaking up in the company’s best interest?

As a feedback receiver, the input signal that I need is the impact my action had. I, in turn, will then be able to judge if this was satisfactory or not. Your boss not being happy being disagreed with is just one such impact signal, but perhaps the impact your disagreement had on others made it all worth it.

So... all I need to hear is impact back.


That's one terrible term I just coined there.


But what's done is done. There’s no turning back.

Here is the format for impactback:

  1. Describe the situation/action in question
  2. Describe the impact it had on you, others, the environment

“When you disagreed with me in that meeting (1), I got angry because I felt it undermined my authority (2).”

“Ever since you gave that talk about Cypress (1), I’ve noticed many more engineers add end-to-end tests to their code (2).”

“Whenever you lean back eating your sandwich (1), mom and dad have a lot more bread crumbs to clean from the floor (2).”

“When you called me an doody head (1) it made me feel teary tear (2).”

No judgement, just facts. It’s for the receiving end to figure out how to use this input, to judge if the impact was desired or not.

Those familiar with nonviolent communication (NVC) will immediately see the parallel. The key thing in nonviolent communication is to separate observation from judgement (and then flush the judgement down the toilet). So, if the term impactback won’t fly (spoiler alert: it won’t), we can rebrand this thing as NVF — Nonviolent Feedback.

Impact reactions

I’m on a roll, so let me riff on this some more and challenge one of the core mechanics of social networks. 🤯

The judgement part of feedback is very much encoded in the tools we use. Look at Facebook with its judgmental “like” button — sitting there, mocking us. Do we really want to know if people liked something, or would we prefer to understand its impact?

I’ll speak for myself: I don’t really care if you like what I write; what I care about is whether it gave you something — anything, ideally something beyond the pure enjoyment of my excessive use of the em-dash. Did you learn something? Did I change your perspective on something? Did I make you reflect on something? Ultimately, that’s what I’m after. Sure, it’s no secret, I enjoy writing, but there’s a reason I’m posting these things in a public place and not just send them as letters to Santa. I hope they are somehow useful. I hope they make some sort of difference.

To lower the barrier to entry, perhaps social networks should consider adapting their reactions systems to be impact-based, rather than judgement-based, for instance:

😄 this made me laugh

😭 this made me sad

🤯 I'm in a state of mindus blownus

🤓 I learned something

🙄 this confused the crap out of me

🤷 whatever

I’d much prefer it. You? Zuck, are you listening?

Anyway: impactback — terrible name, excellent concept — if I may say so myself.

This post was originally published as an issue of my weekly newsletter “The Muselet.” Liked it? Consider subscribing.