Feedback: Food of champions or flawed concept?

Matt Driver
March 30, 2021

Feedback, the giving and receiving of it, has a prominent place in most Individual development Plans (IDPs). And there is an assumption in many - or most - organisations that feedback is vital to support learning and high performance. But is this true? MF's Matt Driver takes a closer look...

What’s my own experience of feedback?

I spent many months in previous jobs designing and implementing 360° feedback systems.

If I'm honest, the resulting coaching sessions, digesting the results, often felt awkward, and very rarely achieved the kind of insight or breakthrough that had been assumed. I’ve had the same experience with countless other ‘bespoke’ 360 systems.

So now whenever one of my clients tells me about their 360-feedback process, I feel slightly nauseous.

I’ve had a similar feeling reading about organisations which use words like ‘candid’, ‘rigorous’ or ‘radical’ to describe the kind of feedback they encourage.

I used to have a colleague (not in MF I hasten to add) who used to say 'feedback is the food of champions'. It used to make my stomach churn.

I am sure many of you will have had similar concerns about how notions of feedback have been bandied about over the past two decades or so.

Well, it seems that some of these misgivings have been well founded. Because, while the assumption has always been that feedback is a great way to raise the bar and improve our game, on the whole it tends to have the effect of reducing engagement and lowering performance.

How so?

We were always told to balance constructive and negative feedback. To make it specific and behavioural.

But if I tell you that you do Task A really well and Task B not very well, and I even give you the reasons, what will you go away thinking about?

Task B of course - and my comments about your performance gap.

There is a very well-researched phenomenon in the human psyche known as the ‘negativity bias’. This means that negative experiences, language and, obviously, feedback, have significantly more impact than positive ones do.

So once you tell me how I am not performing as well as I should, you are already in deficit.

What happens next?

Well, because you're desperately trying to be nice to me and balance things up, your positive feedback becomes very general and rather tokenistic.

This is another finding from research: that our negative feedback tends to be much more specific than positive and, as a result, much of what we deem to be positive feedback has very little impact or is seen as insincere.

Given that the only reason we may wish to give feedback to somebody in the workplace is to help them do better does the process really deliver against the objective?

Marcus Buckingham, a psychologist and researcher, would argue that it does not. He has shown that, most of the time what we give, believing it to be helpful feedback, in fact lowers performance.

Getting in the right mindset

Instruction or information is of course essential. I need factual information in order to get to grips with a new job or new technology.

There are right ways to do some things – for example to give a COVID jab.

But I cannot give feedback with the same mindset: ‘I have what you need’, ‘I know what you need to know’.

Contrary to what many managers believe, most staff are more aware of their own weaknesses than their managers. So it would actually be best to get them to tell their boss in what areas they are weak.

Avoiding standardisation

Another common error is that good performance can be standardised: we can identify what excellence looks like and tell you how you are doing against that profile.

But when you look at most 360° feedback instruments, the coach or HR manager who sits with you talks about 'strengths' and… (they hesitate and looks down) 'areas for development'.

They don’t like to say ‘weakness’. And, therefore, the implicit suggestion is that highest scoring areas, i.e. strengths, are not areas for development.

And the ones that are, tend to be areas we are weak at and will never be strong at. Research suggests that they will probably de-energise and demotivate us.

For this reason British academic Alex Linley describes 360° feedback as 'a recipe for mediocrity' because it almost accidentally suggests everyone should be the same.

These instruments tend to focus the recipient on areas of weakness. But if you focus on low performance, you do very little to actually raise performance just as reducing depression does not lead to more joy and exit interviews tell you why people are leaving your organisation but they do not tell you why others stay.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that for Buckingham, Linley and many others, our greatest areas for development are our strengths:  the things we tend to do naturally well and which give us energy and motivation when we use them.

What conclusions can we draw?

We’re not saying that feedback is never useful (although some writers would).

But it’s clear from the evidence that there are several pitfalls and that what passes as ‘feedback’ is often of very limited use. It can even have the opposite effect from that intended.

From our experience, it’s always worth questioning our assumptions before offering feedback.

Some of these may be about:

  • The purpose of telling people: it’s important to consider what the aim is in giving feedback, otherwise the wrong outcome may result
  • The source of ‘truth’: the recipient of feedback is likely to know more about their own weaknesses than the giver.  So ask first, use a coaching approach. Only use ‘tell’ if 1) it’s essential and 2) they definitely don’t know.
  • The definition of ‘excellence’: top performers in sport, medicine and management have very different styles, personalities and ways of doing what they do. Don’t confuse high performance with a set of so-called competencies.
  • Rationality: performance conversations are not primarily cognitive processes. They are emotional experiences: so the feelings a feedback recipient takes away are what will make the difference.

Could a new approach to feedback be a game changer in your industry or organisation?

If so, then talk to us.

We're working with organisations across the globe to help them supercharge people development and performance.

Useful links:

https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-feedback-fallacy
https://hbr.org/2020/06/good-feedback-is-a-two-way-conversation
https://www.gallup.com/workplace/267251/why-employees-fed-feedback.aspx
Linley, A., (2008) Average to A+. Coventry: CAPP Press

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