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The feedback myth

The Feedback Myth


People perform better when they feel good!


The deliberation about feedback at work isn’t new; the question is how can we improve the way we give feedback.

We all want when giving feeback to help people perform better, and in particular to feel good about themselves. Hence the question, How can we help each person succeed and shine?

Telling and instructing people what steps to follow or what factual knowledge they’re missing—can be truly useful: Hence we have checklists in airplane cockpits in operating rooms, or procedures on safety rules. As the HRB wrote in one of their recent articles, “There is indeed a right way for a nurse to give an injection safely, and if you as a novice nurse miss one of the steps, or if you’re unaware of critical facts about a patient’s condition, then someone should tell you. But the occasions when the actions or knowledge necessary to minimally perform a job can be objectively defined in advance are rare and becoming rarer”.

Giving Feedback is rather different, its is about telling people what we think of their performance and in what way they should improve—the feedback topic could be on their management style, managing a team, their presentation skills, their capacity of creating a strategy, … Research shows that telling people our perception of their performance is doesn’t support them succeed nor surpass themselves. Quite the contrary! It actually hampers learning.


Unreliable feedbacks



There are of course cultural differences depending on the country your live/ work in and this may influence the feedback style: Differences in communication, valuing time, attitudes towards management roles, uncertainty avoidance, power distance, achievement versus ascription, hiw people express their emotions, just to name a few.


Nonetheless the problem with feedback is that individuals are unreliable assessers of other individuals. Our assessments are deeply coloured by our own understanding of what we’re assesssing others on. We all have our own sense of what is needed for a particular skill, we can be tough or more lenient, and we all have our own inherent and unconscious distortion. More than half of your rating of someone else reflects your characteristics, not his/hers. In other words, the research shows that feedback is more bias than truth.


In the business world three « believes » have been commonly adopted:

– Others are more aware of your weaknesses than yourselves

– When you lack certain aptitudes you need to develop, your colleagues should teach you what to do

– Great performance is universal, it can be analysed, and described, and once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of the individual.


Taking into account the three points above we can distinguish one common factor: self-centeredness. We have a tendency to believe that our expertise has more value than the inexpertise of our colleagues. “My way is necessarily your way”.

Research reveals that depending on those “believes” the less learning and productivity we will get from others.

This explains why, despite a large offer of seminars and training available on how to give and receive feedback, it takes such an effort.

We are very accurate when it comes to measuring and expressing our own feelings and experiences. Coaches or Doctors are a perfect example; they’ll ask, “On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest, how would you rate your pain?” And if you say, “Five”.  They will not challenge you on your “five.” They won’t tell you wrong and tell you that actually your pain is a “two”. They will not ask their colleagues if there have been other “fives” that day and make sure that this rate is exact. Coaches and doctors know that you are the best judge of your pain or feeling.

When we relate this back to our business environment: we don’t know the precise reality about our colleagues, at least not without bias.

You colleagues might ask you for feedback, or you might be asked by your managers to provide feedback. But you can’t—none of us can. What we can do is share our own feelings and experiences, our own reactions. We can say to someone if he’s persuasive to us; or his presentation is boring to us. We won’t not be able to tell him where he stands, but we can tell him where he stands with us. Those are our truths, not his. This way we are accurate.


Our brain and learning



Research shows that focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.

“Our brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and narrows its activity. The strong negative emotion produced by criticism “inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment,” states psychology and business professor Richard Boyatzis.

Richard Boyatzis eplains: “The parasympathetic nervous system…stimulates adult neurogenesis (i.e., growth of new neurons)…, a sense of well-being, better immune system functioning, and cognitive, emotional, and perceptual openness.”

When we are asked to get out of our comfort zone it has been proven that our brain goes into survival mode and does not pay attention to anything else. Hence learning will be impaired.

When positive or constructive feedback is given, our brain is open to possibilities, more insights and will be more productive.


How to help people grow



To start, managers should stop giving feedback on failures or how to elude them.

In order to help our colleagues grow, we should focus on the positive outcome. For example, one of your team members has done something which created a positive outcome, underpin it, say to the person: “Well done” and underline the positive outcome. Make him aware of the outcome of what really worked.  Give them the chance to gain insight on what they did. By anchoring the positive outcome and make them aware of it, you will help them to learn. This helps the person to anchor the learning, possibly reproduce the pattern, improve it, etc


Change your feedback language



Feedback with impact describes what you noticed when a colleague was doing something excellent. Sharing what you saw and how it made you feel, is the most credible and convincing feedback. Expressions such as “This is what I noticed, and the reaction I had” or “When I saw you that it made me think…” or possibly just “Did you realise what you did there?”

When you want to give improvement feedback, use sentences like “I am having problems to understand your plan” (instead of “You need to improve your strategic thinking”. Coaches often ask” What do you feel is holding you back to improve “…”, and what have you done in the past that’s worked in a comparable situation?” If something is not working: “When you did “…” , I felt” ….”, etc

In a nutshell; When you talk about your reactions/feelings and give specific details you aren’t judging or assessing the person. This changes all.

When you see a team member doing something that works really well, ask the person to stop and analyse together what he/she did.


Enhance the learning



Help them to explore the present, past, and future.

When you are asked for feedback test the following:

A manager coach will do the following:

Explore the present. When a team member comes to you with an issue don’t tackle the problem directly. A manager coach will asks their team member to share you a couple of things that are working for him/her right now.  Inviting the person to think about specific things that are going well will adjust his brain chemistry and helps to be open to new solutions and new ways of thinking or proceeding.

Explore the past. Ask, “When you had a similar problem in the past, what did you do that worked?” It’s highly likely that he/she has faced this problem before. They will have gained insight in the past, by helping them to refelect they will realise they found solutons already.

Eplore the future. Ask, “What have you identified you need to do? What do you already know works in this situation?” You can of course suggest to share an example of your own experience to reflect on. The idea is to help the person realise that they have a possible solution already.


The aim is to invite the person to explore “what do they want to happen?”, “what outcome are they looking at? What actions could they undertake?

Feedback should not be toxic, it is not about making a judgement. Good feeback helps the person to feel good in order to perform well. Make them aware of what they are good at and how they can become even better.

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