While many supervisors believe that giving frank feedback to their staff is the best—and only—way to drive excellent performance, research shows that "telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning," Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall write in Harvard Business Review.
Is feedback really an 'unalloyed good'?
The act of giving feedback, or "telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better," has long been celebrated as the most effective way to drive high performance, Buckingham and Goodall write.
They note that three main theories fuel the belief in the effectiveness of feedback and lead managers to assume feedback is an "unalloyed good."
The first is called the "theory of the source of truth." This theory asserts that other people can recognize a person's strengths and weaknesses more easily than the individual can. "[T]he best way to help you, therefore, is for them to show you what you cannot see for yourself," Buckingham and Goodall write.
The second theory, called the "theory of learning," is built on the belief that "[y]ou lack certain abilities you need to acquire, so your colleagues should teach them to you," according to the authors.
The third belief, called the "theory of excellence," purports that a stellar performance is "universal, analyzable, and describable," and "can be transferred from one person to another" by having one person tell the other what they are lacking, Buckingham and Goodall write. For instance, they explain, "If you're a manager, your boss might show you the company's supervisor-behaviors model, hold you up against it, and tell you what you need to do to more closely hew to it."
However, Buckingham and Goodall write that none of these theories has consistently held up in studies. In fact, "Telling people what we think of their performance doesn't help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning," they write.
Why feedback fails
One fundamental problem with feedback, according to the authors, is that "humans are unreliable raters of other humans"—meaning that you may not be able to determine what traits your staffers need to improve on in the first place.
"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," they write.
For example, they cite a neurological study of students that found that when students were asked to focus on what they needed to correct or improve, their brain's "fight or flight" response kicked in. But when students were asked to focus on achieving their goals, the "rest and digest system," or the "parasympathetic nervous system," lit up.
"Your brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and narrows its activity," Buckingham and Goodall write. "Learning rests on our grasp of what we're doing well, not on what we're doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else's sense of what we're doing poorly."
How to help your staff excel
So if feedback isn't always the answer, how can supervisors help improve their staffers' performance?
According to Buckingham and Goodall, rather than asking how their workers can "do better," supervisors should instead ask how they can "help each person thrive and excel" in their own way. And to do that, they write, you must the three practices that promote excellence:
1) Reward positive outcomes. "Excellence is an outcome," Buckingham and Goodall write. When a colleague does something well, supervisors should recognize their achievement. By highlighting the team member's good patterns, you can help them "recognize what excellence looks like for [them]," they write.
2) Communicate your instinctive reactions as what they are: personal. "The key is not to tell someone how well she's performed or how good she is," Buckingham and Goodall write. Instead, describe your initial reaction to their moment of excellence as well as the times when they were not quite hitting the mark. For instance, they write, instead of saying, "Here's what you should do," say, "Here's what I would do." And rather than simply saying, "Good job," supervisors should offer more details, they write. For instance, you could say, "Here are three things that really worked for me."
3) Focus on the present. "If a team member approaches you with a problem, he's dealing with it now," Buckingham and Goodall write. So rather than asking about what went wrong, ask your colleague to explain what they think is going well in the moment, they write. Next, explore the past by asking them how they successfully confronted a similar problem in the past. This allows the other person to explore their own way of achieving excellence to find a way forward. Next, focus on the future by asking what they know they should do (Buckingham and Goodall, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2019).
Advisory Board's take
Micha'le Simmons, Senior Consultant, HR Advancement Center
It's always exciting to see researchers investigating how managers can best help team members improve. Buckingham and Goodall's article is a good reminder that effective feedback is a two-way dialogue, one in which the team member should be doing more talking than the manager. The manager's role as coach is to ask the right questions and share their own observations to spur the team member's thinking about how they can improve.
Based on Advisory Board's research, we think one of the most important parts of delivering effective feedback is being able to distinguish between instances that call for collaborative coaching conversations, such the ones outlined above, and corrective coaching conversations. To do so, managers need to consider the results team members are achieving, along with the effort they're putting into their work.
A collaborative coaching partnership is the right approach for team members achieving solid results, whom you want to help reach new levels of strong performance. But for team members who are struggling to deliver results, we recommend managers take a more directive approach, telling the team member where they're falling short and why it matters. (Yes, this means giving "feedback"—even recognizing all the inherent challenges in doing so!)
Of course, there are more and less effective ways of having these difficult conversations, and it's certainly important to consider how the team member may feel upon hearing the message.
To learn how to give feedback more effectively, download the slide deck from our webinar "How to Deliver Effective Feedback," where you'll learn how to select the most effective type of feedback conversation, how to deliver difficult feedback in a way that ensures your message is truly heard, and more.
Then, get the slides from the other webinars in our popular series "Management Master Class":
- The 7 Conversations Managers Must Have With Employees
- The Manager's Guide to Retaining New Hires
- How to Get More Done (With Less Stress)