The Weight of Words
Evaluations and the Feedback Fetish
By Melissa M. D’Alelio
The power of feedback has long fascinated me—perhaps first as a bossy older sister, then as a struggling elementary school reader, next as a high school teacher, and now as a lawyer. I learned quickly, as I suspect many of us do, the great weight of words. They can be used to inspire and motivate and to hurt and dissuade. I continue to be fascinated by how best to invite, give, and receive feedback. A 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall entitled, “The Feedback Fallacy,” was recently brought to my attention. The authors persuasively challenge long-held beliefs about how and why to provide feedback, offering more powerful ways to help people grow.
Buckingham and Goodall start by acknowledging that the feedback style du jour is “radical transparency,” which reflects the overriding belief that the way to increase performance is through “rigorous, frequent, pervasive, and often critical feedback.” They quickly highlight, however, that the question of how to best give feedback begins with the mistaken presumption that feedback— “telling people what we think of their performance and how we think they can do it better”—is always helpful. Indeed, Buckingham and Goodall assert that telling people what we think of their performance does not help them thrive and excel, and that telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.
The first problem with feedback, according to the authors, is the “source of truth.” In short, “humans are unreliable raters of other humans.” People do not have the objectivity to hold a stable definition of an abstract quality, such as business acumen or persuasiveness or assertiveness, and then accurately evaluate someone else on it. Buckingham and Goodall explain that evaluations are deeply colored “by our own understanding of what we are rating others on, our own sense of what good looks like for a particular competency, our harshness or leniency as raters, and our own inherent and unconscious biases.” In short, the research confirms that feedback is more distortion than truth.
Another problem with feedback, per Buckingham and Goodall, is the presumption that feedback contains useful information, and that this information is the magic ingredient that will accelerate learning. Research points in the opposite direction. “Learning is less a function of adding something that isn’t there than it is of recognizing something, reinforcing, and refining what already is.” According to the authors, research shows that the brain grows most where it is already strongest. It also shows that attention to strengths catalyzes learning, whereas attention to weaknesses smoothers it. In short, focusing someone on their shortcomings or gaps does not enable learning, it actually impairs it.
How, then, do we help people excel? Buckingham and Goodall aptly explain: “If we continue to spend our time identifying failure as we see it and giving people feedback on how to avoid it, we’ll languish in the business of adequacy. To get into the excellence business, we need some new techniques.” Here are a few that they propose:
- Look for outcomes. Take note of excellent outcomes and bring your team’s attention to them. By helping others recognize what excellence looks like, we offer a chance to gain insight.
- Replay instinctive reactions. The key is not to tell someone how well they performed or how good they are. After all, we are not the authority on what objectively good performance is. Instead, describe what you experience when a moment of excellence catches your attention. As Buckingham and Goodall highlight, because this is not judgment or a rating, it is, at once, “more humble and more powerful.”
- Never lose sight of the highest-priority interrupt. As leaders, we should selectively interrupt to draw attention to something that is working and take time to discuss and dissect it, not to highlight something that is not working.
- Explore the present, past, and future. When people ask for feedback on their performance, try: (1) starting with the present, and asking what three things are working for them now; (2) go to the past, asking what worked when they had problems like this previously; and (3) turn to the future, asking what they already know they need to do and what works for their situation.
Buckingham and Goodall’s article is not only powerful, but practical. They provide examples of language to utilize in order to incite growth. For example: Instead of asking, “can I give you some feedback?” try saying, “here’s my reaction.” Instead of “here is what you should do,” consider “here is what I would do.” Instead of “that did not really work,” opt for “when you did x I felt y.” Instead of “you lack strategic thinking,” try “I am struggling to understand your plan.” In this way, you more accurately convey your experience through your own lens and offer it for what it is worth.
Buckingham and Goodall conclude: “the fetish with feedback is good only for correcting mistakes in the rare cases where the right steps are known and can be evaluated objectively.” This is seldom the world in which we live. At worst, feedback is toxic because, “what we want from people—and ourselves—is not, for the most part, tidy adherence to a procedure agreed upon in advance, or, for that matter, the ability to expose one another’s flaws. It’s that people contribute their own unique and growing talents to a common good, when that good is ever-evolving. . . .” Here is to that vision!
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