Feedback Is Not A Waste Of Time

Feedback Is Not A Waste Of Time: What “The Feedback Fallacy” Got Wrong

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Is giving feedback a waste of time? You might think so if you read Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall’s Harvard Business Review article “The Feedback Fallacy,” which purports to debunk much of our thinking about feedback. Buckingham (of the Strengths Finder fame) and Goodall argue that giving negative or “improvement” feedback is misguided, egotistical and counterproductive. But don’t despair: A careful reading of their article reveals that sensible, targeted feedback conversations are still essential to helping people improve and learn to work together better.

The authors argue that feedback doesn’t work. Period. They claim, “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.” This claim rests on three premises: Other people don’t have any claim to objective truth, talking about shortcomings hinders learning and there is no universal standard of excellence. I’ll address each in turn:

1. Truth: Buckingham and Goodall assert that the guidance of others is worse than useless because it is not objective. They are right that feedback is subject to bias, but it doesn’t follow that we have nothing to offer our co-workers in sharing our observations and guidance. In fact, it is often very useful to have subjective feedback about how we are being perceived, so long as it doesn’t claim to be universal or objective. A skillful feedback intervention is a two-way conversation that focuses on specific behavior and its results or impact. For example, instead of saying, “Your presentation needs to be more high level,” say, “I got lost in the details and had a hard time understanding your objectives or the context.” For my clients, it is often hearing about the impact of their behavior on their co-workers that really helps them understand their blind spots and motivates them to change.

2. Learning: The authors hop on the neuroscience-lite bandwagon and claim that criticism shuts down the brain’s ability to learn, while positive reinforcement makes the brain receptive to learning. Based on very narrow research, they recommend that we should limit our feedback to only positive reinforcement of good behavior (which lines up nicely with Buckingham’s career-long commitment to a strengths-based approach to leadership). Here, I just plain disagree. Immediate correction of negative behavior is often a great way to learn. Moreover, even if pointing out a shortcoming may trigger a fight-or-flight response that temporarily makes it hard to absorb input, later reflection often results in learning or awareness. Personal experience has taught me that the initial sting of improvement feedback dissipates and we learn over time. Again, a well-managed feedback conversation involves balancing appreciation with guidance and is sensitive to when the recipient becomes emotionally flooded or triggered. In addition, as one of my colleagues cleverly pointed out, isn’t positive feedback just as subject to bias and distortion as negative? It seems like if we buy the author’s premise about objectivity, we should refrain from all comment, positive and negative.

3. Excellence: Finally, stating the obvious, the authors note that there is no universal, gold standard of excellence. This is, of course, true. Excellence looks different on different people and in different contexts. Skillful feedback is careful to speak in specifics rather than generalizations and is sensitive to context. Especially with feedback about “soft skills,” it is always important to empower the receiver to take in and adapt feedback to their style and personality.

While I am not addressing every detail of Buckingham and Goodall’s article, I encourage you to check it out and to read the Washington Post’s interview with Buckingham. The authors make some salient points about flaws in the current trend toward a no-holds-barred approach to feedback, but they way over-reach with their conclusions. They rightly call attention to the fact that many companies are embracing radical candor uncritically and unskillfully, and that brutal honesty run amok may cause harm. However, there is good evidence that a high feedback culture promotes high performance. The real correction for biased, destructive feedback is a humility, curiosity and a good model for skillful feedback that focuses on specific behavior and its results. So go ahead and give the gift of feedback. Here’s a reminder of the key elements:

  • Start with a growth mindset and think of feedback as a two-way conversation, not a one-way delivery.
  • Offer both appreciative and improvement feedback.
  • Focus on specific, observable behaviors and their results and avoid judgment and generalization.
  • Speak with humility from your own point of view and your subjective experience and observations.
  • Don’t assume or speculate about the other person’s intentions or motivation.
  • Ask questions and be curious and open to learning.
  • Watch for signs that the recipient is shutting down and hit the pause button as needed.