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Feedback is overrated–this is what employees need instead

While feedback can be useful for correcting harmful mistakes, it’s not the best method for helping an employee excel. This is what does work.

Feedback is overrated–this is what employees need instead
[Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LOT 11146-11]

The annual review used to be the time to talk to employees about their performance. Lately, though, it’s not nearly enough. Studies show that employees (especially younger employees) want feedback—lots of it—so companies are delivering with all shapes and sizes. From upward to downward, peer to management, solicited, unsolicited, and anonymous, feedback has turned into an industry, but is it helping anyone excel?

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No, say Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, coauthors of the new book Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World.

“The science on human development has found that people don’t grow when you don’t pay attention to them,” says Goodall. “In the workplace, we’ve focused on rigorous and candid feedback as that attention. If we’re all about helping someone grow and getting the most out of person, how does what we think of them or who we think they are help?”

Why Feedback Doesn’t Work

Feedback provides a prescriptive way to fix what’s not good, but it’s based on fear, says Buckingham. “When you look at attention and feedback, we’re frightened by feedback,” he says. “Fear is good if you want to survive, but not if you want to thrive. Fear keeps us locked in adequacy.”

While feedback can be useful for correcting harmful mistakes, it’s not the best method for helping an employee excel, Buckingham continues. “Fixating on remediation and repair isn’t going to get you very far,” he says. “It gets you to not failing.”

The problem is that our theories of excellence are backwards, says Goodall. “We live in a world that contain systems, processes, and things that break,” he says. “We’ve all been brought up that when something is broken, fix it and it works again. We’ve extended that to humans. We think, ‘All I’ve got to do is fix the problem,’ but people aren’t toasters.”

Another fault with feedback is that it’s impossible to tell someone else how to do something well because you don’t know how their brain works.

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“Learning is insight,” says Buckingham. “Insight is a feeling of knowing generated from within at a biochemical level, adding more synaptic connections to preexisting synaptic connections. Each person’s brain is uniquely wired. Learning is adding refinement, precision, and creative patterns within. What sounds like good advice to you could be crap and not helpful to someone else.”

Focus on Attention Over Feedback

Managers are always in failure-prevention mode, says Buckingham. “It’s far easier to tell someone what they’re doing wrong from your point of view,” he says. “We say it’s hard, but leaving feedback is like throwing a grenade over the fence. The other person is in pieces, but you walk away.”

Companies that train managers on how to deliver those feedback grenades more gently are teaching them the wrong skill, the authors say. Humans crave attention, and while feedback is attention, it’s not the right kind.

You don’t grow by fixing a deficit, says Goodall. “Our theory of excellence is removing all the defects,” he says. “But you become brilliant by finding out what works and finding out how to magnify and amplify that.”

Catching the great moments has the power to transform someone, says Buckingham. “The highest priority for a company and employee is noting where a customer leans in or a piece is made perfectly or a patient responds,” he says. “Your job is to find that. What just worked? Don’t congratulate; investigate. The focus then becomes how to leverage that into sustained action.”

This approach is powerful, but it’s also difficult. “It’s hard to overcome your natural instinct to congratulate somebody and then move on,” Goodall says. “Instead you need to interrogate that moment of excellence, and we’re not used to doing that.”

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To help employees excel, start with stuff that worked. “Determine what you’ve done in the past, and build on that, says Goodall. “That’s how you actually uncover rhythms and patterns and motion in someone’s performance. A moment of good is the foundation and raw material for what is great.”

Focusing on “that” instead of “stop that” brings companies into the excellence business, says Buckingham.

“Right now, the feedback model puts us in the adequacy business,” he says. “Companies say they like diversity, but only when it comes to gender, race, and age. Otherwise, homogenous is more convenient. Tidy is efficient, but it’s not better. So we lean into feedback and tell you how you don’t match the model. Good team leaders make the most out of uniqueness.”

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