I stumbled upon an article of Harvard Business Review on why feedback rarely does what it's meant to. They argue that the good of feedback is based on 3 widespread theories, that are in fact not true. At NNORM, we agree that those 3 theories are wrongfully accepted as truths, but we strongly believe that the fact they're not true does not make or break a feedback culture. When you haven't noticed the benefits of feedback, there's a big chance you've been doing it wrong.
When you haven't noticed the benefits of feedback, there's a big chance you've been doing it wrong.
I'll start by summarizing each of the 3 beliefs and why HBR is disproving them, followed by our arguments on why these beliefs are not devaluating feedback. We'll finish off by giving you tips on how to do better and enjoy the benefits of feedback for yourself and your team. 1. The theory of the source of truth
The first belief is that for feedback to be of value, we believe others are more aware of our weaknesses than we. So we need them to tell you the truth about your performance and where it needs to improve. This belief is false in the sense that how others rate you on for instance your strategic thinking or presentation skills, reflects more their own characteristics than it does yours. We don't know and can't tell the truth about our colleagues objectively. The only truth we can tell is the one on our own feelings and experiences. (HBR, 2019) We're convinced that because feedback is not a truth, it doesn't mean it's not valuable. When you give or receive feedback you should be aware that what is told is not an objective truth, but an opinion. The value of that opinion lies in the way you phrase and present it to others. Let me show you an example. DON’T: I didn't like your presentation. DO: I felt confused when you showed the slide with the graph on it, I didn't fully understand it. The first type of feedback does not hold any value and is definitely not going to help the presenter improve. They might say they didn't like it because they prefer more visual presentations, which is a pure personal preference and certainly doesn't necessarily apply to others. It also doesn't give much information. What did they not like? Why did they not like it? The second example has much more value. You start by stating a personal emotion or state (confused), which makes the remark less of a critique to the receiver. It's also clear what exactly the point of improvement is. Even though it's still just one person telling you this and thus definitely not a truth, if for one person the slide is not 100% clear, there's a big chance there will be others with the same issue. Also, when you're working in a people-based organization, you're probably collaborating with or coaching other people. The feedback you get from them is not to be generalized and definitely not a truth applicable to others. However, it does give you points of improvement regarding the bond between you and them. e.g. I sometimes feel like I don't know where we are on our project, maybe you could communicate more often to me about it? This does not mean that your communication style as a whole is insufficient, it only means your communication style towards that single person can be improved in order to improve your relationship with them.
2. Theory of learning The second belief is that you need feedback from others to know which skills you're missing, so that you can develop those. HBR argues this belief is false, because learning is more about recognizing and reinforcing what's already there, than it is to add something that's not. We grow more in the areas of our strengths, so the true development opportunities lie there. They mention that our brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and that the strong negative emotion produced by criticism invokes impairment. (HBR, 2019) We have 2 nuances to add on this statement. First of all, feedback is not only about negative things or things that can be improved. Feedback should also be given on things that you're doing great. Feedback can thus help to detect your strengths, so that you can develop and grow them even further. Secondly, the reason why people respond defensively or negatively on feedback can be because the way you phrase the feedback is wrong. When giving feedback, make sure to give it on behaviour and not on identity. Let me give you 2 examples to illustrate this. DON’T: You were annoying during our last workshop DO: It was annoying that you always interrupted others during our last workshop
The first example is feedback on someone's identity, which will very likely result in them feeling threatened. The second example on the other hand, focuses on someone's behaviour during one workshop. It's not the person itself that was annoying, it's something specifically they did. This feels less as an attack and is also easy to take with you and pay attention to during a next workshop. 3. Theory of excellence
This belief implies that excellence is universal and that a person's performance can be measured against an ideal to see where they fall short. The theory is wrong, because every person has an own unique version of excellence. We thus don't help each other by holding up someone's performance against a prefabricated model of excellence and giving them feedback on where there are gaps - think about leadership feedback tools, 360° performance models, etc. HBR states that studying failure will not lead to excellence. (HBR, 2019) This theory being wrong does not devaluate feedback. It's true that every person is unique and that comparing yourself to a universal model won't necessarily make you excel. However, comparing your performances to the ones of your personal best self will make you grow. In that case, you don't seek feedback from others, but from yourself. To do this, take some time every week or after finishing an important task and reflect on what you could have done even better. If you're a coach of team leader, you could help your coachees do this by asking them regularly to evaluate their past performance and to come up with improvement points for themselves. You might learn things about other people's failures and you will definitely learn things by studying your own failures or the ones of your team. Making this part of the culture and routine in your job, will enable continuous improvement. Do you want to integrate a qualitative feedback culture in your team or company? Contact us for next steps or guidance!