What a Baking Show Can Teach Us About Constructive Feedback

BBC and Binge GBBO Final.jpg

The worldwide TV phenomenon The Great British Bake Off (or The Great British Baking Show, for us Americans) is one of the most charming and engaging shows in recent memory. It has a lot going for it:

  • Captivating, mouthwatering close-ups of every imaginable type of baked good.

  • Friendly contestants with amazing accents who have a genuine talent and passion for baking.

  • Delightfully bawdy commentary by the hosts.

  • Useful tips for viewers who may get inspired to expand their own repertoires.

To TV audiences who automatically associate reality television with manufactured drama, outlandish antisocial behavior, and cruel criticism bordering on abuse, The Great British Bake Off is a breath of fresh air – or more accurately a breath of healthy competition and good sportsmanship. One of the most frequent raves I hear from fellow fans is “I love how everyone is so NICE to each other.” Not only are the contestants friendly toward one another, they actually help each other out to complete their bakes within the time limit. And while the judges, Mary and Paul, have to provide critique and make an elimination in every episode, they do so in a way that demonstrates utmost respect and consideration for the efforts and skills of the contestants.

Although we all say that we want constructive criticism so we can do better in our professional and recreational activities, we are very bad at both telling people things they may not want to hear and hearing less-than-ideal information about ourselves. This is why I find the judging segments of each episode especially fascinating: Mary, Paul, and the contestants demonstrate the best techniques for providing and accepting feedback.

I've put together a set of 4 basic rules for giving and 4 basic rules for receiving constructive feedback based on my Great British Bake Off binge.

Basic Rules for Giving Constructive Criticism

Inherent in the term “constructive criticism” is the goal of educating the recipients by providing clear, honest, and useful feedback that they can use to modify and improve their performance going forward. When providing this type of feedback, you want to make sure to craft the message in a way that makes it directly applicable. Here are my 4 rules for how to do just that.

1.  Stay within the defined context: Keep all of your comments about the particular activity, product, or task at hand. Don’t generalize about overall performance, or bring up concerns about other activities.

2.  Be objective: Leave your emotions and opinions out of it – stick to the verifiable facts. Don’t assume someone performance on a particular test is representative of his/her work ethic or performance quality overall.

3.  Be specific: Give examples to fully explain what was less than stellar, and highlight where reality fell short of expectations. It’s your jobs to make sure the recipient has a clear understanding of how their results differed from the ideal.

4.  Don’t only focus on the negative: Unless the entire performance is a disaster, make sure to point out what was done right. Calling attention to strengths is a great way to reinforce those skills! You only want to encourage improvement where improvement is needed.

Basic Rules for Receiving Constructive Criticism

No one likes to hear that we are not 100% perfect and good at everything all of the time. It’s not pleasant to be told of our weaknesses. In order to improve, however, we need to know exactly where we are falling short of expectations. Here are ways to be better recipients of constructive criticism so you can apply the information going forward.

1.   Listen: Our need for self-preservation is strong, but it is important to not shut down when receiving criticism. Try to not only hear, but really understand the feedback. If you need more information, ask questions, ask for examples, and make sure you know how what you did different from what was expected.

2.  Don’t get defensive: Fight the urge to immediately explain or defend yourself. If you still disagree with the feedback after giving yourself some time to process and really understand the feedback, you can set up a time to explain your decisions or actions. But trying to explain yourself or push back right away makes it seems like you are making excuses and can’t handle honest criticism.

3.  Be willing to learn. Even Olympic champions recognize that there is room for growth. If you are dedicated to your skills and talents, you should strive for continuous improvement, and therefore appreciate when someone takes the time to give you a different strategy or suggestions for how to do better next time.

4.  Don’t only focus on the negative: If we hear five pieces of feedback and four of them are glowing positives and one is negative, we are likely spend way more time obsessing about that one criticism and deem our efforts a failure. Fight that urge. It is as important to understand and build on our strengths – what we do well – as it is to learn from our weaknesses.