You’re Doing Feedback All Wrong

Managers are expected to give feedback. It goes with the responsibility of leading a team of employees. The idea is that by giving compliments and constructive criticism, they will correct errors and improve the performance of their employees. If they do this task well, their teams will excel. This will lead to happy employees and a successful business. At least, that seems to be the logic.

As a managing partner at a consultancy, I feel the pressure to give candid feedback, telling people what they are doing wrong and helping them get better. It seems to match our “Teach and Learn” value pretty clearly. And, since we’re surrounded by high achievers, the expectation of excellence is pretty high. To keep it that way, we need to teach through feedback.

But has giving candid feedback really made a difference? I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of feedback in my long career. When I look back across my experiences, most of my managers really didn’t know how to give feedback. And what they gave wasn’t helpful. It fit the category of, “Be more like me, less like you,” which I always struggled with understanding and accepting. How do I avoid doing this to the people I care about?

The Feedback Fallacy

A colleague recently shared “The Feedback Fallacy” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, which discusses some research about feedback. Given the recent interest in the approach of companies like Netflix and Bridgewater Associates (who advocate giving brutally honest feedback), the authors wanted to investigate the right way to give and receive feedback.

They started by clarifying the problem. If the only reason to give feedback is to help people do better, perhaps the real question is: “How can we help each person thrive and excel?” The authors found that the answer to that question moves us into the space of learning and excellence. And this shows us what we are getting wrong with feedback: telling people what they need to do to improve hinders learning.

The article is long and provides much evidence into what does and does not work when giving feedback. Instead of going deep into each area, I wanted to focus on some key learnings for me.

What I’ve Learned About Feedback

1. It’s not about the giver.

Based on their research, the authors conclude that “telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.” Our thought that it should make a difference is based on false ideas (or theories) commonly found in business:

  • Great performance is universal and can be achieved if you do certain things. (The Theory of Excellence)
  • Other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses. (The Theory of the Source of Truth)
  • You lack certain abilities, and your colleagues should teach them to you. (The Theory of Learning)

What all these theories have in common is self-centeredness. They assume that the manager’s way is necessarily the employee’s way to a great performance. But in extrapolating from this position, we overreach. When feedback is more about you than them, it doesn’t work.

2. Humans are not reliable raters of humans.

Studies have shown that humans are not effective at rating other humans on abstract qualities such as leadership or assertiveness. When we try to do this, we bring our emotions, our inherent biases, and our opinion on what good looks like to our evaluation. As their research shows, “Feedback is more distortion than truth.”

We are, however, a source of truth when it comes to how we feel and our own experiences. The author uses the example of how doctors ask us to rate our pain. The doctor can’t tell us a rating of six is wrong because they have no way to prove it. Your rating is yours, not theirs.

So when someone asks for feedback on where they stand, all you can truthfully tell them is where they stand with you. You can tell them that their presentation is too long or boring to you—but it may not be to others. This is your truth and not necessarily theirs.

3. Learning happens best on our strengths.

Our brains develop throughout our lives, but how they develop differs from person to person. In areas where neurons are tight and thick, you will grow more neurons than in sparse areas. These thick areas of neurons are associated with our particular strengths. For example, people who do well with mathematical concepts have clusters of neurons in areas of the brain that are used in mathematical problem-solving.

Critical feedback has the effect of putting the brain into a threat mode, which instinctively narrows its activity. Instead of stimulating neurons to grow more, the opposite effect happens. Learning is thus impaired.

We learn best when someone else focuses us on what’s working within us—those parts of us that are our natural strengths–not on where we are failing or someone’s sense of our failure.

4. My excellence is not your excellence.

Finally, excellence in any venture is unique to you. There is no universal standard of excellence—it is impossible to define. Each person’s expression of it is unique and part of their individuality. 

The authors state, “For each of us, excellence is easy, in that it is a natural, fluid, and intelligent expression of our best extremes. It can be cultivated, but it’s unforced.”

If feedback is about getting excellence from someone, we need to do three things to help them achieve it:

  • “Yes, That!” – Call your colleagues’ attention to something they did that really worked. Help them gain insight into what worked so they can anchor it, refine it, and repeat it.
  • Share Your Observations – When you see a moment of excellence from someone else, share what you saw and how it made you feel.
  • Highest Priority Interrupt – If you see something that is really working, stop everything, call attention to it, and dissect it with the people involved so they understand it.

Sometimes you will have to give feedback when something goes wrong and you have to deal with it. When you do this, remember that you are only remediating a problem. By providing negative feedback, you are inhibiting learning and not getting any closer to your goal.

The Importance of Moving People Toward Excellence

Focusing feedback on people’s faults is the worst possible way to help someone. If we don’t trust a manager’s intentions or know where we stand with them, we will never improve under their feedback.

We only really excel when people who care about us tell us what they experience and feel. This is especially true when someone sees something great in us that really works and takes time to tell us about it. If you want to provide the kind of feedback that leads to positive growth, make it your goal to call out the greatness in those around you.