The Feedback Fallacy
Why we are giving feedback so wrong
“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.”
A Senior Partner at the Boston Consulting Group once told me, speaking of the development and promotion culture there: “the organization’s promise is to provide you with the best possible opportunities to grow – in return, you have to be willing to learn and develop yourself.”
This very positive circle has been the cornerstone of my philosophy for personal development, both for myself and the people I work with. At the center of this cycle is a rigorous, frequent and objective (at least as objective as possible) practice of giving and receiving feedbacks, with your team, your boss and your colleagues. This traditional model operates under the strong assumption that feedback meant to improve people’s performance is useful. But is it always the case?
When it comes to soft skills and abstract attributes (e.g. leadership, interpersonal skills, ability to persuade…), i.e. competencies that can take many forms to achieve a similar result, science tells us that the way we usually give feedback is completely counterproductive.
Neurosciences help us understand why the assumptions that underline the agreed-upon idea that feedback is a good way to grow are flawed:
“An outside view is always useful to pinpoint what we do not see ourselves”. In fact, the subjectivity of our feedback is such that more than half of it reflects our own characteristics (not the person’s we give feedback to). Worse, practicing the art of feedback, or diversifying the data points (by asking more people their opinions), does not improve its quality – if anything, aggregated feedback reinforces the bias. Buckingham and Goodall compare it to asking color blinds what color a rose is: you don’t get any closer to the actual color by asking more of them. Feedback is therefore more of a distortion than the truth.
“Learning happens outside of our comfort zone”. Well, not really. Learning is less about filling the blanks and more about recognizing, refining and reinforcing what is already there. Positive feedback creates more synaptic connections in our brains. By contrast, negative feedback is perceived as a threat and creates a reaction of survival in our nervous system: we focus on the threat, but the rest of our brain slows down.
“Excellence is a universal ideal that can be defined and codified for everyone to work towards”. It is the other way around: excellence is idiosyncratic, it comes in many forms and shapes and is the expression of an individual’s personality. There is not one definition of a funny artist, there are only diverse forms of excellence in humor. Therefore, the pursuit of excellence is a process that should start from and build on people’s natural strengths and preferences, not forced into a pre-defined ideal.
Now, what do we learn from this and how can we improve the way we give (and ask for) feedback to foster excellence, instead of just fixing mistakes?
First, the authors tell us, look for outcomes. Since excellence is always a function of individual characters, let’s start from the forms of excellence we witness in our colleagues’ and team’s behaviors. Let’s pause when we notice them, engage with our colleagues to analyze what in what they just did was so unique, and encourage them to replicate it. But not only the content of the feedback is important, the delivery counts tremendously as well. Adopting a humble mode of communication that offers our truth, our point of view is usually better received than a judgment or a rating, especially when people know you care about them.
After all, feedback should (and can) only be a subjective data point among many others. It is a process that should strive to bring the best out of all of us by paying close attention to our performance and caring deeply for one another’s personal development.