Power and Lane Blurring in Feedback

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Here’s a great and ancient story from Book 35 in Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History, considered the largest work to have survived the Roman empire.

A Greek painter named Appelles of Kos would display his paintings publicly while hiding behind them so he could hear honest feedback from viewers. As the story goes, one of those viewers was an expert shoemaker who commented about how the footwear of a person in the painting had the wrong number of straps.

Appelles adopted that feedback and, the following day, displayed the painting again, this time with the recommended number of straps.

The shoemaker viewed the new painting and was thrilled that his feedback was incorporated. But he didn’t stop there. He commented on how the legs were wrong and could have been better. At this point, Appelles came out from behind the painting and told the shoemaker to keep his feedback about the shoes, his area of expertise.

This is the origin story of ne supra crepidam, a Latin expression that means “not beyond the shoe.” The story reminds me of so many feedback lessons, including the importance of:

  1. Seeking feedback
  2. Processing feedback
  3. Giving constructive feedback

Ne Supra Crepidam & Feedback Communication

Inside an open-air ancient Roman structure, participants look at a massive painting.
Is anybody behind the painting, listening for feedback?

Workplace feedback communication can offer a helpful lens through which to see various power dynamics. This especially comes into focus when I see organizations split up feedback training, with people managers only learning how to give feedback and early-in-career individual contributors only learning how to receive it.

In essence, organizations tend to assume everyone knows how to and will:

  • proactively receive and leverage feedback
  • only provide high-quality, helpful feedback

This assumption means that if it even exists, feedback training doesn’t address either with any depth. As countless studies highlight, many feedback givers are so undertrained or stressed that they don’t give it, and many receivers are leaving their companies because they aren’t getting the feedback they want and need.

And those up the hierarchical power ladder often assume the role of feedback giver on various topics, including those outside their domains. While feedback givers need not always “stay within their lane” when giving feedback, they should be aware of when their confidence in one domain may be causing overconfidence in another (see the Dunning-Kruger Effect blog).


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