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What can Fawlty Towers teach you about feedback?

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What can Fawlty Towers teach you about feedback?

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Fawlty Towers is arguably the most loved British sitcom of recent times.  Episode 6, The Germans, has provided perhaps the most enduring legacy.  It sees Basil receive some German guests to his hotel, and in a bid not to insult them, does precisely that for the duration of the episode, with the majority of jokes centering around World War 2.

Central to the joke is his pleading with Polly not to mention the war, after which Basil can do little but mention it.  This kind of thing is popular in all manner of fields of course.  For instance, when you focus on a pothole in the road that you’re desperate to avoid, you inevitably find yourself steering directly into it.  It’s the kind of thing that Edgar Allen Poe might call the imp of the perverse.

Research has shown that when we are stressed or otherwise mentally burdened, the part of our brain that usually acts as a brake to stop us saying the wrong things, can often become a mental prime instead, therefore increasing the likelihood that we’ll make those faux pas.  It’s like when you tell people not to think of a word, most of the time that word becomes the only one they can think of.

Much of our best work you see is conducted subconsciously via our motor cortex.  The motor cortex is a part of the brain that works best when it is left alone.  When we start thinking about what we’re doing, it often leads to us messing it up.  The yips for instance in sport, often occur not when we forget how to perform to our normal standards, but rather when we start focusing too much on what we’re doing.  By doing so, we turn over responsibility to parts of the brain that are great at thinking and worrying, but not so hot at actually doing the thing we want our body to do.

So how does this affect feedback?  Well it’s tempting when we deliver feedback to focus on what has gone wrong or what someone should stop doing in future.  Doing so however causes the recipient to focus on what they’re doing wrong, and research suggests this will only cause their performance to diminish still further.  It’s much better therefore to focus instead on what they should be doing right.

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