Feedback of any kind rarely helps people perform better, no matter how much you dress it up and call it something pretty. In fact, telling people what they need to do differently, however well-intended, actually can block learning and prevent growth.
As a result of reading the article The Feedback Fallacy in the March-April 2019 Harvard Business Review, I have dramatically altered my approach to giving feedback. (I suspect you might, too.) Authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall maintain that offering feedback, regardless of how kindly or diplomatically it’s delivered, actually constrains the recipient’s ability to learn and grow. And they have plenty of research to back up their claim.
In this edition of Communique, I summarize some of my biggest “aha’s” as I read the article, along with my own reflections about the implications, especially for those of us who train, coach or facilitate others as part of our work. Read on to discover just some of the reasons that any kind of feedback can backfire spectacularly, why much-vaunted 360-degree feedback instruments can be so flawed, and learn what steps you can take to encourage others to thrive and excel. (Hint: It doesn’t start out by saying “Can I give you some constructive feedback?”)
- Humans are unreliable raters of other humans. We simply don’t have the objectivity to internalize what vague qualities like business acumen, resourcefulness or initiative look or sound like. We can only go by our own sense of what “good” looks like, which is informed by our perceptions of our own expertise, biases, leniency or harshness as raters, feelings toward the recipient and a host of other factors. In short, our assessments are often more distortion than truth. Such a distortion is magnified multiple times when we aggregate several colleagues’ assessments into “average” scores (think 360-degree type feedback instruments). If we wonder why feedback can be hard to hear, it may be because we can’t recognize ourselves in others’ version of the truth, since feedback often has more to do with the person giving it than the one receiving it.
- Feedback rarely helps people learn. In fact, it often does the opposite. That’s because, according to the authors, learning is a function of recognizing, reinforcing and refining what’s already there, and less a function of adding a brand new idea. Our brains grows fastest where they’re already strongest, and we learn best by building on what we are doing well, rather than learning from someone else’s notion of what we’re doing poorly. Take people too far out of their comfort zones, and they start to tune out. When people receive feedback in their comfort zones, they’re far more likely to be open to new possibilities and growth.
- Stop insisting that every person strive for a one-size-fits-all notion of “excellence.” I might be a captivating presenter because I know how to tell stories that hook my audience from the first minute. You might engage audiences with your masterful use of data to make business cases so compelling that they’re virtually impossible to argue with. So which one of us would get an “excellent” rating when it comes to presentation skills? Excellence, according to the authors, is a unique expression of each person’s individuality – an easy, natural and intelligent expression of our best extremes. To apply identical standards of excellence to people who may exhibit their talents and skills in such different ways seems ludicrous. And yet, many organizations rely on the use of predetermined notions of excellence against which they measure everyone in their organization.
- Be on the lookout for excellent outcomes. To give effective feedback, call someone out in the moment when they achieve a great outcome, whether they have discovered a new way to speed up a painfully long process, successfully overcome a key client’s strenuous objection, or helped to defuse the pressure for a team facing yet one more impossible deadline. Be specific about what worked from your vantage point. Examples: You showed a stroke of brilliance when you offered to work with Sarah to create an irrefutable business case to sell her board on choosing us. When you had the courage to call out the dysfunctional team dynamics during our last meeting, everyone seemed to breathe much easier.
- Make it personal. It’s not enough to simply observe that something was “great” or “outstanding.” Be specific about what action, choice of words or gesture caused you to take notice. Then describe how their action or idea made you feel or think. (Example: When you stood up and started your presentation with that stunning statement followed by silence, I felt like I was in the presence of a master storyteller.) Nothing is more meaningful, credible or motivational than hearing or seeing the effect someone has on their leader or colleague. By sharing your personal reactions, you are sharing your truth, rather than attempting to judge that person against someone else’s idea of what excellence should look like.
- Stop to unpack what’s working well. Take the time to examine something that’s really working, peeling it apart layer by layer. Example: “Here’s what I noticed first. Then I heard you…and then I saw you …and then all of a sudden…..and then everyone…..and then you…” and so on. By replaying what you saw or heard in detail, others will develop a keener sense of what excellence feels, sounds and looks like from their vantage points, opening up their brains to be more receptive new information, leading to growth and change.
- Start in the now. If someone seeks out your feedback about a problem, first ask them for a few things that are working well now. (These may pertain to this problem, or something else entirely different.) This positive reinforcement helps prime the brain with oxytocin, which helps open up the mind to new possibilities and creative solutions.
- Go to the past, and then back to the future. Then ask them to think about a problem they’ve solved in the past. How was that one similar to this one? How did they solve it last time? What worked and why? By asking them how they solved a similar problem in the past, they can begin to imagine what it felt like to solve that problem and to realize that they already have ideas they can build on now. Coming back to the future, ask them to envision the outcome of successfully solving this problem. What solutions might they try as a starting point? What tangible steps they can take right now? Your goal here is to help them build on the knowledge they already have so they can visualize a solution for the problem they’re wrestling with today.
At best, feedback might be helpful for correcting mistakes in the rare cases where there are right and wrong steps that can be evaluated objectively. But for the most part, the authors say, humans do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we “really” are, and what we must do to fix ourselves. We excel only when people who know and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and when they see something within us that really works. Maybe it’s time to think about how we can approach giving feedback in ways that lead people to achieve their own unique forms of excellence, rather than letting other peoples’ predetermined views get in the way.
The Feedback Fallacy in the March-April 2019 Harvard Business Review by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall
How to Talk to an Employee Who Isn’t Meeting Their Goals by Sabina Nawaz, Harvard Business Review, Feb. 27, 2019
How to Listen Deeply in a Virtual World – downloadable tip sheet excerpted from our tips guide, 120 Essential Tips for Leading Amazingly Productive Virtual Teams, available for purchase on our site