What You Believe About Feedback Is Probably Wrong

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Jul 3, 2019

Note: The following is an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Fair Talk: Three Steps to Powerful Feedback


“Those who take management seriously – professional leaders – see giving feedback as a craft to be honed to the same sharpness as their technical skills.” – Jay Zimmerman, talent leader, Aon

There are few things that the management gurus are unanimous about. But they are unanimous about the value of feedback. It is conclusively proven. In fact, these days it is rare that a management speaker, consultant or business publication fails to mention the critical role of feedback in enhancing performance.

Yet the idea of feedback, even the mere word, makes us uncomfortable.

Which is odd, really, as we are introduced to feedback early on in our lives. Think back to your school days. Recall the tests, corrected by your teacher in strong, red ink (why is it always red?). That was feedback. We were OK with it. We give feedback to help us improve. And we were right. A study at a leading UK university confirmed what we intuitively knew getting feedback led to better performance by students. What’s more, the researchers found that stronger students benefited more from feedback than their less able classmates. The same should be true for the world of work.

So why do we change our attitude towards feedback once we transition from there? After all, we embrace feedback in all other aspects of our life. In fact, ratings are the new normal! In today’s world everything is rated. Feedback flows freely. Uber drivers and passengers’ rate each other; product ratings on Amazon influence what we buy; restaurants get instant feedback from TripAdvisor or OpenTable; and hairdressers can improve their service by checking their rating on Yelp!

And, if we care about the ratings – that is, if we care about the feedback – we adjust our product or our service to meet the needs of our customers and clients. Surely, we would want a lot of feedback, and the sooner the better. So, what goes wrong in organizations?

In society, it is the law (statutes and regulations), not intuition that guides us. In a laboratory, validated methods determine the processes and the approaches that are used. Marketers base their strategies on market research. Unfortunately, this is often not true about leading others. Here, we often resort to gut feeling, assumptions, convenient interpretations, personal preferences and flavours of the day.

Organizations tend to believe things that are simply not true.

We believe it is these tendencies that contribute to the noise around feedback at work. In our review of the science of feedback, we found six common myths that managers hold about feedback. These myths cause us to disregard a practice that has been proven to help others learn.

Myth 1: Feedback happens anyway

You should not believe: “Feedback is everywhere. Why should I get involved? They’ll figure it out.”

Ah, magical thinking. In a storybook, feedback, like the good fairy godmother, appears exactly when it is needed most. In the work context many leaders expect employees to somehow just… ‘know’. The idea that feedback just happens has been refuted, time and time again, study after study. Managers typically do not give feedback. And it does not just magically occur.

Myth 2: Employees don’t like feedback

You should not believe: “People don’t like feedback. Why should I add to their misery?”

Hardly startling revelation that we don’t like feedback! And indeed, there is evidence that people don’t like feedback. Employees dislike it to such an extent that many will actually dodge feedback opportunities if they can – and especially when there are performance issues. A study aptly titled “Are You Hiding from Your Boss?” discovered that in 24% of cases following a poor performance incident, employees tried to avoid their manager.

But this truth has been distorted to the detriment of employees and their performance. First, each employee is different. Those who value feedback, are used to receiving it and are orientated on performance are much more likely to ask for feedback and act upon it.

Second, what we like and whether we are satisfied are different. The correlation between satisfaction with feedback and performance is high and confirms that feedback can have an incredibly powerful, positive effect on performance. Conversely, dissatisfaction with feedback has a negative impact on performance factors, for example on accountability and confidence in doing a task. In other words, performance improvements depend on satisfaction with feedback.

So, acting on a belief that “employees don’t like it” throws the proverbial baby (the opportunity to improve performance) out with the bath water. It’s like an annual check-up with our dentist. We may not like the conclusion that we need a filling. But we ought to be satisfied that the diagnosis is through and accurate. And a skilled dentist can deliver the message without making us feel bad for not having brushed properly. Regardless of how ‘happy’ we are, addressing the problem is best. We are satisfied with the feedback and take corrective action. Smile!

Myth 3: The manager is the oracle of performance

You should not believe: “The pressure is all on me. I have to get it right. Not one else can assess performance.”

Most of us would accept that the role of the manger is critical. But, if asked to reflect, we would eventually agree that this is another half-truth. If there is a lack of trust, employees may discount the feedback they get from their manager.

Research confirms that “source credibility,” or trust in the person giving feedback, affects the perceived accuracy of the feedback and the desire to respond, both of which can affect subsequent performance. When trust and personal engagement with your manager are low, feedback won’t drive the desired outcomes.

Managers are important. But if, as a manager, you believe that the whole feedback ordeal is all down to you, two things are likely: you may miss out on finding inputs from a range of reliable sources, which could make the feedback both more credible and more accurate. Or, it will all just feel like too much pressure. After all, you might get it wrong.

Myth 4: Feedback is good; Frequent feedback is better

You should not believe: “More is better!”

This is a case of “Yes, but.” There is certainly evidence that frequent feedback is good. But can there be too much of a good thing? An academic study demonstrated that there is a tipping point where an increase in the frequency of feedback leads to a decrease in task effort and performance. This goes against the conventional wisdom that employees need a lot of it, especially as they are learning a new task or role. In fact, the same research confirms that too much feedback is particularly harmful at the early learning stage. Learning something new requires room for experimentation and learning from our own mistakes.

These results are supported by another study. In a field experiment, researchers manipulated the frequency and amount of performance feedback. They found that giving detailed information on how someone was doing led to a significant improvement in performance. However, it only served the purpose when provided over a sufficient period of time. When feedback was too frequent, performance was significantly worse than when detailed feedback was given less frequently. Working on stuff takes time. Getting new information too often diffuses our focus and actually leads to a decrease in performance.

Myth 5: ‘Bad’ feedback is bad

You should not believe: “I must give only positive feedback. Negative feedback causes conflict. Why would I want problems? And how on earth can I ‘appreciate’ bad results?”

There is a myth that negative feedback is bad. Maybe it stems from a fear of demotivating employees. Whatever the case, there is a misplaced idea that we should focus on “appreciation.” We like appreciation. There is nothing wrong with praise and recognition. However, the risk of dogmatically following the belief that “bad” feedback is bad is threefold:

  • Leaders avoid giving feedback altogether. We learn this early on from our parents: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”
  • Leaders sugar-coat the message. By the time they have turned the ‘bad’ feedback into something that is… well… not bad, it no longer has any practical value.
  • Leaders deliver the message poorly. Leaders are notoriously bad at being feedback messengers: global data show that the skill of giving feedback constructively is at the bottom of the competency list of managers and executives.

The idea that “bad feedback is bad” is an example of a conveniently distorted fact. Research tells us that the nature of the feedback – that is, whether it is positive or negative – has virtually no effect on performance. Studies say that positive feedback may lead to a decrease in effort, just as negative feedback may boost a person’s desire to achieve more.

Performance is highly contextual. And, when feedback is properly situational, its bad rep evaporates. Robin Sharma, the author of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, tweeted that “Negative feedback can make us bitter or better.” You choose!

So, there are many factors that need to be taken into consideration in order to match the right message to the right person in a specific situation. Following are a few examples:

  • Example 1: Positive feedback can increase motivation when it is given to people who want to achieve, who take risks and who are sensitive to rewards (called a “promotion focus”).
  • Example 2: Negative feedback can increase motivation when it is given to people who want to avoid trouble, who are generally cautious and who are sensitive to punishment (called a “prevention focus”).
  • Example 3: Negative feedback can be especially beneficial in “critical events,” which are novel, uncertain, first-time situations where an individual cares deeply about the outcome such as leading a new team or managing a crisis.

The blanket belief that “bad feedback is bad” aligns with most people’s desire to avoid conflict. Instead, it is easier to believe that feedback needs to be motivational and uplifting. This may feel intuitively right. However, the evidence says that, while positivity and optimism may increase people’s persistence in completing a task, they actually have an insignificant impact on performance. Some scholars go as far to say that “the only useful feedback is negative feedback.” Others offer a softer perspective, saying that the motivational component of feedback can be positive or negative, depending on the person and the situation.

As a leader, your job is to drive performance. You must provide feedback on what stands in the way. Helping employees temper their non-productive behaviours leads to a better mood at work, greater job satisfaction and stronger organizational commitment.

We stand for focusing on things that matter. And, if that means delivering a few unpalatable messages to the alter of performance, then that’s what we want to see. We strongly advocate for giving fair feedback, and, even then, it is because there are performance-based reasons for doing so.

Myth 6: Feedback is the panacea

You should not believe: “Once I’ve delivered the feedback, my work is done! They’ve heard me and are going to change.”

This is another case of “Yes, but”. A careful review of the facts affirms that simply providing feedback does not necessarily move the needle. An influential meta-analytical study demonstrated that only half of feedback interventions actually result in an increase in performance, while in a third of cases performance goes down after feedback.

For your feedback to be in the half that increases performance, you have to take into account a variety of factors and synthesize them into a meaningful, high-quality message. You have to make the message relevant to performance and meaningful for the employee. You have to support the employee’s improvement effort and provide feedback on progress.

The belief that feedback is the panacea is a myth. “Feedback is a powerful leadership tool that can help to drive performance” is the reality.

In this world, we would want your employee to be satisfied, not necessarily happy, with thoughtful feedback. This fair feedback would have taken into account all the relevant information. You would have focused on what needs to change, not only on what they’re doing right. They would hear the feedback and act on it because it’s in their interests to do so and they wouldn’t have necessarily been aware of the points raised unless someone credible had told them. What keeps you from trying to create this world in your own team? Nothing.

Key points

Many managers, and organizations, embrace these six common myths about feedback. Acting on these myths can result in suboptimal results. Knowing the scientific facts about feedback will improve how it is given, creating more self-awareness in employees and contributing to better performance. Forming a point of view based on science will help you to avoid the risk of your feedback not achieving the desired impact.

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