Traditional Feedback Doesn’t Work Here’s How to Fix It

Dear Springboard:

I need to give one of my direct reports some feedback and I’ve been avoiding it. I know how lousy I feel when my boss criticizes me and it’s awkward for both of us.

My direct report needs to shape up. I just want him to do his job better and step into his leadership, which I know he can do.

Sign me,

Gun-shy About Pulling the Trigger

Dear Gun-shy:

Feedback can be tricky. Many of us are uncomfortable with both giving and receiving feedback.

Too many employees get little of the feedback they want and one reason is their manager wants to avoid the whole process.

A recent magazine article challenges some of the conventional wisdom of the benefits of feedback that is critical in nature.

While there is still a place for critical feedback, especially if the performance is noticeably lacking, criticism (even if it’s constructive) will not lead to excellence but only middling performance at best.

To bring out the best in someone and have them strive for excellence is most effectively achieved through encouragement.

This is the basic message of Why Feedback Fails, the cover story of the March-April issue of Harvard Business Review.

The authors, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, cite extensive research that recommends sharing our positive reactions when we notice someone doing something well; sharing our response then and there; and, the importance of being specific about what they did well.

This is in stark contrast to what many of us have believed is the right course of action. The authors cite three major flaws in the conventional wisdom of delivering criticism as a way to induce best behavior.

First, the idea of giving someone feedback assumes we are more aware of someone’s weaknesses than they are.

A core issue here is that we are not good raters of other people. Research confirms we cannot accurately evaluate others on abstract behaviors, like assertiveness or executive presence.

What’s more, try as we may, we are not at all objective in our observations; indeed, our feedback is actually more about us and our characteristics than about them and has a name: the idiosyncratic rater effect.

The article does not say we should throw up our hands and doing nothing. Instead, accept that our noticing is not an objective truth; we can share how we personally experience this person and stop there. It is our truth and, to us at least, accurate.

All that said, there are times when someone will need course correcting feedback. That’s
OK. The message is to not expect that it will inspire one to reach for excellence.

Second, another dimension of feedback is the belief that our person simply needs to receive input for knowledge and skills, that in some way they are incomplete.

Research has concluded that effective learning is less about adding something that isn’t present than it is building on what is already there.

From a practical standpoint, this amounts to leveraging strengths rather than shoring up weaknesses. The authors say, “Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.”

This is because negative feedback is received as an attack of sorts and our brains go into fight or flight mode. This moves someone into survival mode and it virtually wipes out the possibility of thriving, let alone creativity and innovation.

Again, there are certainly instances where an individual needs information and training; the point is that it can improve performance but only so far.

An effective learning environment focuses our attention on what we are doing well and how we might do it better. The cliché that we must get out of our comfort zones to learn is actually misleading.

As the HBR article says, “Take us very far from our comfort zones, and our brains stop paying attention to anything other than surviving the experience.”

We learn the most in our comfort zones. We’re not feeling defensive and so we’re receptive.

I like to think of development as a process of growing out of a comfort zone.

Third, the authors challenge the idea that there exists a knowable, measurable standard for excellence, and that once someone’s performance is compared to an ideal, they can take corrective measures to align with that ideal.

Excellence can be loud and excellence can be quiet. It is the idiosyncrasies of what an individual brings that makes their version of loud or their version of quiet excellent.

To support someone to strive for excellence is best done through encouragement.

While not in the HBR article, another effective approach to helping someone learn and grow is the technique Feed Forward.

It proposes: rather than looking back and evaluating how things went, instead paint a picture of what desired behavior and ideal outcomes look like and invite our person to strive for that objective.

In a broader context, studies have measured the relative impact of positive, affirming messages and negative, critical messages.

The findings show that a little negative feedback goes a long way and that for teams and relationships to be most productive, the ideal ratio of positive to negative messages is about five positive messages to one negative.

It turns out this is true for relationships in general and the same ratio holds for marriages according to psychological researcher John Gottman’s findings.

The bottom line?

Criticize if you must, but do so sparingly with moderate expectations.

Choose instead to appreciate and encourage to bring out the best.

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