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What’s Missing in the Great Feedback Debate

Jun 6, 2019

Feedback is having a bit of a moment in the leadership press lately.  

Marcus Buckingham’s latest HBR piece argued that most of it is so harmful as to be worthless.  According to Buckingham and Goodall, the basic problem is that you are too trapped in your own self-centered point of view to provide others any value.  Your perspective is biased and you’re too narrowly prescriptive. Added to that, they contend, is that focusing people on their shortcomings only demoralizes them and doesn’t help them improve.

It’s a compelling argument, because we’ve all gotten feedback that was off-base, unhelpful, and just bummed us out.  And we’ve all seen something work for someone else, but not work for us.

Others, including Jack Zenger and some folks from CCL, have come out to defend feedback. The key, they claim, is to deliver feedback skillfully.  Having a good process and paying close attention to things like language and tone can make feedback effective.  Added to that, they contend, is the need to help people deal with serious shortcomings in order to improve performance.

It’s a compelling argument, because we’ve all benefitted from well-delivered feedback at some point.  And we’ve all seen someone improve their performance by fixing a weak area.

So, who’s right? Both and neither.  As my wife likes to quote me saying, “it’s a combination of factors”:

  • Yes, there is a lot of lousy feedback out there.
  • But it is possible to do it well.
  • Yes, nobody has a monopoly on the truth.
  • But there is value in sharing different perspectives.
  • Yes, constantly hammering people on every shortcoming is brutal.
  • But people do need help with important problems that get in their way.

The appeal of the black and white arguments is that they promise easy answers.  If feedback is all bad, I can just not do it and sleep easy. If it’s just a question of the right wording, then I can parrot some key phrases and be all set.  But if it were that easy, we’d all be doing it well. The truth is that working with other people to change their behavior is the hardest thing most of us will ever do.

My team and I work with a lot of managers and leaders, who want to engage their people and drive performance and development in their organizations.  We absolutely help them on the skills piece, because there are ways we talk to people that tend to work, and other ways that unintentionally backfire on us.  It’s important to get that right, but it’s about more than skills and techniques.

We also work with people on shifting their fundamental approach to these interactions.  If we’re not coming from the right place, then any feedback, no matter how skillfully delivered, will still be hollow and it won’t work.  Here are four recommendations for approaching feedback that I think are missing in much of the current debate:

Have a Two-Way Conversation

“Giving feedback” is explicitly framed as a unilateral process: I have the feedback and the goal is to give it to you.  In the fantasy version of this scenario, the person receiving the feedback says something like, “Thank you for pointing that out. I’ll go implement your wonderful advice right away.”  If they don’t, we call them “resistant” and then we push even harder. Come on. That’s just trying to control someone and tell them what to do, under the guise of feedback. Nobody is fooled and nobody likes it.  

Instead, go in with the intention of having a two-way conversation.  Yes, you get to say what you think, but you spend even more effort getting the other person to talk, so you can find out what they think and why.  The beauty is that the more we listen to other people, the more they listen to us. When you stop pushing so hard, you get less resistance. When you create space for the other person to consider the issue, you engage their own capacity for critical thinking. You might even learn something yourself, which brings us to the second point:

Look for the Whole Picture

The scenarios given by the proponents of feedback generally assume that the feedback is correct and valid.  When we go into a conversation assuming that we’re right, we tend to spend a lot of energy trying to convince others that we’re right.  But we all know that people are often wrong. Nobody has the market cornered on the truth. You might be wrong, or at least not have the whole picture.  And even if you are right, jamming it down somebody’s throat doesn’t tend to provoke a positive reaction.

Instead, go in with the intention of getting the whole picture.  Work to fill in the gaps in your own understanding and to gather facts that you don’t have.  It’s amazing how powerful it is to acknowledge out loud that you might not have all the answers.  If you ask someone what you are missing, they just might tell you. And if you both walk away with a fuller understanding of the issue, then there’s a better chance you can do something about it together. Which brings up the third point:

The Goal is Helping the other Person

At the end of the day, feedback should be about helping the other person.   But, all too often it’s not. If you find yourself searching to come up with some feedback, because ritual requires it, then it’s probably not worth giving.  If you’re “giving feedback” more to vent your own frustration, then consider going to the gym and hitting a heavy bag instead. It would be better than beating up on your people.  If you find yourself pointing out a litany of trivial faults under the banner of feedback, then just stop it. That’s not helping anyone.

Conversations about performance and development are hard work for both people.  Have them when you see a real opportunity to help the other person. Don’t waste that time and energy on stuff that doesn’t really matter.  Also remember that your fellow human beings are constantly trying to sniff out your intentions and interpret your actions against them. If you don’t come with the right intent, they will sense it and all your skillful techniques will just feel like manipulation.  

Besides, what kind of leader do you want to be anyway?  I think most of us would like to be known as someone who helps people succeed in their jobs and develop in their careers.  That probably won’t happen without conscious effort. Which brings me to my last point for the day:

Don’t Forget Positive Feedback

Most of the debate about feedback assumes that it’s always negative.  This is a terrible assumption, that drives the behavior of many managers.  I have literally sat in a workshop, where we asked leaders to pick an issue to raise with their highest performers, only to have them scratch their heads and complain that there isn’t much to “ding them on”.  How many of your high-performers are sitting around hoping their manager will find some little thing to “ding” them on? That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is zero.

The truth is that people, across the performance spectrum in your organization, are doing some things well – possibly many things very well.  If you want them to continue doing those things, and possibly do them more often, then you should tell them that. If you want the message to really land, you should be specific about what they are doing well and why it’s important.  How much value could be created in your organization if people spent 10% more time doing the things that we know work? How about 20%? That’s the potential of positive feedback. Please spend time doing it.

Those are some ideas from my experience, I hope you find them helpful.  What changes in approach have you seen make feedback work?