(Photo by Andrew Le)

One of my colleagues told me that not long ago she saw a woman CEO of a large company slap her Vice President of Human Resources in the face in front of others because she didn’t like what she said.

Yes, that is a bad feedback method and the worst kind of leadership. And, of course, we know that.

What I didn’t know is that many of the feedback methods I have been using, and I suspect many of you, too, may not be helpful in helping our people excel.

The Feedback Fallacy. In a recent article The Feedback Fallacy in Harvard Business Review Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall write about their research into this very topic. They write, “Telling people what we think of their performance and how they can do better is not the best way to help them excel and, in fact, can hinder their development.”

They describe how research indicates: (1) We humans are not reliable raters of others and certainly much weaker than we think; (2) Most feedback is perceived to be criticism and “criticism inhibits the brain’s ability to learn;” and (3) Excellence is what they refer to as “idiosyncratic” – it is unique to the person – just because you see it in one person doesn’t mean it can be replicated in another.

Instruction Versus Feedback. The authors remind the reader not to confuse “instruction” and “feedback”. Instruction is very important and may include teaching technical information about what tasks to do, what steps to follow, and specifically how to do work. “Feedback” often focuses on the behavior of the person and what we think of how they are doing and how we think they can improve.

Three Myths. The article describes in great detail three myths about feedback. The first myth is that other people (supervisors) are the best source of truth for the individual. This is wrong because over 50 percent of a supervisor’s rating or feedback is based on her/his own characteristics and bias.

A second myth is that the process of learning is like “filling-up an empty vessel.” If one lacks something it is up to her/his supervisor or trainer to teach them. They refer to this as the theory of learning. The problem with this idea is that learning is not just about adding information to your brain, it is more about how the individual processes that information and creates a lasting competency.

This learning can only be done in the learner’s brain and Buckingham and Goodall’s insights into how the brain reacts to outsider input (feedback) was fascinating. Input that allows the brain to use its strengths will likely help the person learn better and excel. When the brain receives input that seems to focus on fixing weaknesses the brain perceives this as a threat and the brain’s activity narrows and withdraws. Effective learning is actually shut-off.

The third myth is that excellence or great performance is “universal” and that if we define what it looks like we can transfer knowledge and skills to each person so they can be excellent, too. This they refer to as the theory of excellence. While it is likely true we can often collectively agree what excellence looks like, how each outstanding person does what she or he does is unique and must be created by that person.

To make this point, Buckingham and Goodall used a few interesting examples – here is one. Most people will agree that Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld are “excellent” comedians who make most people laugh. However, Martin became most famous for his avant garde physical comedy with phrases like “I’m a wild and crazy guy,” while Jerry Seinfeld talks about his views on “nothing” with a sarcastic tone. Both guys excel at comedy, but use their different physical and intellectual strengths to excel.

Feedback Excelerators and Tips. I must admit, the hardest part of processing this article was trying to figure-out how I could change my feedback behavior to embrace Buckingham and Goodall’s ideas. They remind those of us who give feedback to first be aware that our view of a “failure” is based on our own experience, characteristics, and bias and is likely not like the recipient’s.

While Buckingham and Goodall do discuss four tips for shifting our feedback methods, their suggestions on changing our feedback language was most interesting to me. (See Table) Here are the four tip areas for helping us shift our feedback.

  1. Look for outcomes, stop the action. When we observe someone performing in an excellent fashion, like handling an angry customer, stop the action after they are done. Say, “Let’s stop. Do you see what you just did right there? Tell me what was going through your mind as you just calmed down that customer.” This pulls the person’s mind back to something that really worked for them.
  2. Replay your instinctive reactions. We need to learn to replay in our minds how we felt as the person performed their task in an excellent fashion. Remembering we are not always the best authority on what is excellent and what is not, we should express how we felt in that certain moment. For the angry customer example, you might say, “What you just said to that customer calmed me” Other examples are: This is how that came across to me. This is what that made me think. We are trying not to sound like we are judging the person, but rather expressing the unique “dent” they made in the world just then.
  3. Never lose sight of your highest-priority interrupt. Every supervisor has to help their team solve problems and they often have to interrupt to make sure things don’t go too far off the rails. However, these are not high-priority interrupts. High-priority interrupts are those when you stop someone who is doing something well and helping them see the strengths they are using. The better they understand these strengths, the better they may be able to use those strengths the next time a problem arises.
  4. Explore the present, past, and future. Any time a colleague or direct report comes to us for help with a problem, they are likely feeling stressed. Begin in the present by asking, “what is going well for you right now?” Since our goal should be to activate their brain’s oxytocin – the person’s creativity drug – just thinking about this question will help them do this.

 Now move into the past by asking, “When you had a problem like this in the past, what did you do that worked?” Then help the person walk-through those steps they used that worked for them.

Then to move forward into the future, ask the person “What do you already know you need to do or what do you now know will work in this situation?” If necessary, it is okay to offer our own suggestions based on experience. We might say, “When I was in a similar situation, here’s what I did and why.” See how this phrase is subtly different from, “Here’s what you should do.” With the preferred question you are letting the recipient take-in your experience and think about how they would execute a similar pattern of steps.

I will leave you now to think about how you might shift your feedback strategy. I will do the same.