The Feedback Fallacy

The feedback fallacy article from Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall challenges our actual assumptions on feedback.

Th later tendencies in management go for transparency and openness to constructive criticism. People are encouraged to give and receive feedback regularly on the assumption that this will drive them towards excellency.

The authors point out that studies show that this practice is based on 3 distinctive and wrong assumptions:

  1. Our evaluation of other’s performances is objective.
  2. Telling them what’s wrong will make them learn a better way of doing it.
  3. We can describe the concept of “excellence” objectively, and drive people towards it.

But studies show that we give feedback from our personal point of view, thus our own interpretation of the performance of others is subjective.

The first problem with feedback is that humans are unreliable raters of other humans. Over the past 40 years psychometricians have shown in study after study that people don’t have the objectivity to hold in their heads a stable definition of an abstract quality, such as business acumen or assertiveness, and then accurately evaluate someone else on it. Our evaluations are deeply colored by our own understanding of what we’re 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. This phenomenon is called the idiosyncratic rater effect, and it’s large (more than half of your rating of someone else reflects your characteristics, not hers) and resilient (no training can lessen it). In other words, the research shows that feedback is more distortion than truth.

And what works for us as solution to a particular situation may not work for them, so our advice to solve their problem may not strike a chord on them, nor help them with the issue at hand.  What’s more, receiving criticism blocks our learning ability.

 Another of our collective theories is that feedback contains useful information, and that this information is the magic ingredient that will accelerate someone’s learning. Again, the research points in the opposite direction. Learning is less a function of adding something that isn’t there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already is. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that, neurologically, we grow more in our areas of greater ability (our strengths are our development areas).[…]
Second, getting attention to our strengths from others catalyzes learning, whereas attention to our weaknesses smothers it. Focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.

Further more, our view on what’s excellency is also subjective.

Excellence is idiosyncratic. Take funniness—the ability to make others laugh. If you watch early Steve Martin clips, you might land on the idea that excellence at it means strumming a banjo, waggling your knees, and wailing, “I’m a wild and crazy guy!” But watch Jerry Seinfeld, and you might conclude that it means talking about nothing in a slightly annoyed, exasperated tone. […]

Excellence seems to be inextricably and wonderfully intertwined with whoever demonstrates it. Each person’s version of it is uniquely shaped and is an expression of that person’s individuality. Which means that, for each of us, excellence is easy, in that it is a natural, fluid, and intelligent expression of our best extremes. It can be cultivated, but it’s unforced.

Constructive feedback is particularly given by others when they see that you failed (to their standards). They encourage you to try a different behaviour to reach excellence. But it is very difficult to derive it[ndr: excellence] from failure:

[…] Excellence and failure often have a lot in common. So if you study ineffective leaders and observe that they have big egos, and then argue that good leaders should not have big egos, you will lead people astray. Why? Because when you do personality assessments with highly effective leaders, you discover that they have very strong egos as well.

If you ask yourself  “How to Help People Excel?” Here is their advice:

Excellence is an outcome, so take note of when a prospect leans into a sales pitch, a project runs smoothly, or an angry customer suddenly calms down. Then turn to the team member who created the outcome and say, “That! Yes, that!” By doing this, you’ll stop the flow of work for a moment and pull your colleague’s attention back toward something she just did that really worked.

Reinforcing their best behaviour seems logical, and making people notice it in the moment is still better advice, as sometimes it’s difficult to know what we did to achieve the good result, what abilities we used, what made it work 😉 Noticing our sensations and impressions on the moment may help us.

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