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Feedback isn’t the problem, but the way that we deliver it is broken

A learning and development specialist argues for the importance of feedback in an individual’s learning process.

Feedback isn’t the problem, but the way that we deliver it is broken
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The March/April issue of Harvard Business Review featured an article titled, “The Feedback Fallacy” on its cover. In it, the co-authors argue that feedback in the workplace is mostly useless, even potentially damaging, because it’s based on flawed assumptions, hidden biases, and unrecognized ignorance.

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As a learning and development professional and the creator and teacher of an online course called, “Feedback is Fuel,” I have a very, very different perspective on the value of feedback in the workplace. I believe it is both valuable and necessary. I agree with the Harvard Business Review authors that feedback focused solely on shortcomings isn’t effective. But I don’t think that the problem is feedback itself, but the way that managers frame and deliver it. As humans, we’re not always the best judges of our own performance, so it’s irresponsible to suggest that people should close themselves off to a precious resource for self-improvement.

The importance of intent

In his beloved last lecture, the late Randy Pausch, PhD, spoke directly to this need for us to hear honest feedback. Two of my favorite quotes from his talk are: “When you’re screwing up, and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you,” and, “You may not want to hear it, but your critics are often the ones telling you they still love you and care about you, and want to make you better.”

What’s missing from the HBR article is the vital role of positive intent (which Pausch alludes to in his speech). Telling people what we think of their performance does help them thrive and excel, but only if we genuinely want to help them and take time to understand the context. If we give feedback with the intent of “fixing” someone, then chances are that our feedback becomes defeating, rather than motivating, to the recipient. But when we have (and demonstrate) empathy toward them, and we intend to bring out their full potential, then we’re arming them with the tools to do just that.

Companies have a responsibility to cultivate a supportive environment

The good news is that many companies are already evolving their approach to feedback, and I think that millennials are responsible for driving the change. We know millennials want feedback as well as career development, and they’re asking for both. We should celebrate this. Companies need to value employees who embrace personal growth, pursue big professional goals, and want to understand their career options.

Now, it’s on employers to cultivate an environment where it’s safe to talk openly about mistakes, and where feedback works for both the giver and the receiver. That’s precisely why I created my course–because people can and should learn how to do it right.

In their article, the authors suggest, for example, rephrasing a comment like, “You need to be more responsive,” to, “When I don’t hear from you, I’m worried we’re not on the same page.” First of all, these are both forms of feedback, contrary to the authors’ assertion that feedback is a fallacy. In their examples of revised feedback, the information doesn’t come off like a personal criticism. Instead, they frame their statement to help the recipient understand the impact, where they can improve their communications, and why that’s important for achieving their goals. That’s good feedback.

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On the other side of the equation, training can also help feedback receivers learn not to react defensively or feel attacked. This comes with developing the right mind-set and understanding that personal growth is usually uncomfortable. I went through this process myself when I transitioned from being a high school teacher to leading corporate training. In the classroom, no one was observing and critiquing my daily work, but a survey went out after every one of my company training sessions, and I was inundated with feedback on virtually every word I’d said. I won’t lie, that was a painful experience–but I got used to it and came around to see that well-intentioned feedback was the best way to make my future training even better.

We can’t just set people loose to judge their coworkers–particularly if they don’t have positive intent or full context. But I argue that it’s dangerous to dismiss feedback as a “fetish” or fallacy.

We all need to be exposed to lots of feedback and learn to get comfortable giving and receiving it. This is just one of the countless “soft skills” in high demand today, alongside critical thinking, conflict management, and relationship building. And we can all get better at these skills, regardless of where we are in our lives and careers. But guess what: You need feedback to fuel the journey of self-improvement. That’s not a fallacy.


Shelley Osborne is the head of learning and development at Udemywith 14 years of experience in the education sector and in corporate learning and development.

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