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The Feedback Fallacy: A Rebuttal

Some of you may have noticed Harvard Business Review’s cover story in the March-April 2019 issue, entitled, “The Feedback Fallacy,” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. This headline certainly captures our attention, which I’m sure was the point.

Considering my recent blog, “Feedback is a Gift,” I felt I should comment on the HBR article.

First of all, I know firsthand from teaching graduate students and coaching clients across many industries and continents, that many managers want to learn how best to give feedback that is objective, meaningful, and actionable, and is delivered in a way that boosts confidence and improves performance.

As Steve Hunt points out in his very excellent response to the HBR article here, not only are there hundreds of studies looking at the impact of feedback on performance, “the overwhelming consensus is feedback improves performance if it is delivered the right way in the right conditions”. That is the reason that leadership development professionals and experts such as David Bradford, Senior Lecturer in Leadership at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, study, lecture, and write about how to deliver feedback that creates high performance.

Secondly, the authors’ description of competencies – such as strategic thinking or political savvy – as “abstract” ideas and therefore not able to be assessed by others is simply wrong. A good competency model breaks these competencies into specific skills. For example, a company’s competency model might describe strategic thinking as the ability to view the company at both a macro and micro level; to address change; to have a vision of the future; and to inspire others.

Behaviors can be observed and assessed by an experienced individual, and most certainly it is possible for us to learn from others’ inputs and change our behaviors in the future. For example, a coaching client I worked with was asked to describe how digitalization would impact his business in 10 years. Since he spent his time putting out daily fires, he had no answer. We determined that he needed to schedule time on his calendar to read up on industry trends, talk to experts and anticipate the likely changes in his business. Once he communicated a vision of change, his team launched an exploration of new products and partnerships to be prepared.

Thirdly, despite the attention-getting headline, when they say, “we learn most when someone else pays attention to what’s working within us and asks us to cultivate it intelligently”, it seems that the authors believe in feedback as long as it’s based on understanding only what we do well. It’s true that feedback should address what we do well. By the same token, using a tactful approach such as, “I really found it effective when you did this (something done well)” then adding, “Next time why don’t you try this (presenting a new idea or technique for something to do better or differently).” This brings us back to the idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to deliver feedback. Request a free copy of “The Feedback Formula: 6 Steps for Delivering Honest, Effective Feedback” here.

Finally, when the authors of the HBR article present the idea of expressing our own reaction or feelings to something – like in a statement “I’m struggling to understand your plan” – vs. absolute statements – like “You lack strategic thinking” – this is no different than the technique David Bradford presents to a Stanford audience and excerpted here. As Steve Hunt points out, the authors present techniques for effective feedback as new insight rather than as established and accepted practices.

In conclusion, feedback is not a fallacy. There is a lot of research establishing its value and there are effective techniques for delivering it to improve performance. Great leaders take the time to observe and provide thoughtful feedback to develop future leaders.

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Feedback is a Gift: How to Give Appropriately

In last month’s blog, we reviewed 5 dimensions of global manager behavior that are essential to effectively supporting the leadership development needs of team members. This month we take a deeper dive on one of those dimensions: Giving developmental feedback.

Several surveys have shown that people want feedback and believe it is valuable. In fact, those under the age of 30 want it regularly: weekly, if not daily. More than that, giving feedback may be the key to retention of millennials, who are now 1/3 of the workforce and by 2020 will comprise nearly half.

According to a 2016 Clutch HR survey, “40% of millennials do not consider themselves fulfilled at work”, which is nearly 2 times greater than Gen-X employees and almost 4 times greater than Baby-Boomers”(1). Feeling fulfilled is a key to retaining employees and as it turns out, regular feedback increases millennial fulfillment:

  • “Of the millennials whose managers do provide accurate and consistent feedback, 72% find their job fulfilling.
  • Of the millennials whose managers do not provide accurate and consistent feedback, only 38% find their job fulfilling”(2).

Let’s consider how to give feedback that keeps employees engaged. When you are responsible for the development of others, it requires making a commitment to spend the time and make this a significant part of your responsibilities. Feedback that is effective for leadership development is specific, behavior-based and supportive.

  1. You must be prepared to be specific. When I was first responsible for a team of high potential young leaders, the immensity of the responsibility hit me. In order to provide good feedback, I would have to observe everyone in action to see or hear for myself what was done well and what could be improved. It is not effective feedback to say, “good job!”, nor does it suffice to get only input from others.
  2. Focus on what you have observed, not inferred: effective feedback focuses on a behavior, (“I noticed that you have been arriving late for our early morning meetings”) not the person, or your idea of their issue or intention (“you must have trouble getting up in the morning” or “you lack respect for me and your colleagues”). Sticking to the facts will mitigate emotional reactions, yours and theirs.
  3. Communicate support and caring: Ideally you have a trusting relationship with the person receiving the feedback. If they know you come from a place of caring and that you are supportive of their career goals, the feedback will be received well and will create dialogue.

Also, remember that feedback is not advice. It is much more effective to explore alternatives and let the recipient decide what action to take, than to impose your ideas on them. Ask the individual to come up with a recommendation of how to practice a new behavior. And finally, keep in mind that asking “why” something was done in the wrong tone can provoke defensiveness. It is better to ask what or how something was done.

Team members of all ages want feedback. They just want to know it comes from a supportive place and is objective and specific. Let your team members know you care.

(1)(2)Clutch Survey, Engage Millennial Employees with Feedback and Evaluation, December 2016.

Tracey Cantarutti, PhD, is the founder of TLC Leadership Options, Inc., an Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Consultancy. She can be reached at tlc@tlcleadershipoptions.com.