The mistake around feedback

The increasingly frequent initiatives for ‘radical transparency’ in today’s organisations reflect a deep-seated conviction that the best way to boost performance is through rigorous, frequent, frank, pervasive and critical feedback.

Clearly, giving instructions can be essential, especially when all steps in a process need to be perfectly implemented. This is particularly sensible with a novice.

But out of these cases, which are becoming increasingly rare, recent scientific research shows us that giving others feedback on their performance does not help them to develop and excel, and even telling them how they should improve actually hinders their learning.

It is important to understand that this idea that feedback has being pure benefit is supported by 3 theories that are generally accepted as truths in the business world.

1- The theory of the source of truth: others are more aware of your weaknesses than you are.

2- The theory of learning: the learning process is similar to filling an empty tank and therefore feedback allows you to develop the skills you lack.

3- The theory of excellence: excellence is universal, can be analysed and described, and once defined, it can be transposed from one person to another, regardless of who they are.

These 3 theories have one thing in common: they are self-centred. They are based on the principle that our way of doing things is necessarily that of others.

Research shows that none of these theories is true.

1/ The fake idea of the source of truth:

The first problem with feedback is that humans are not good judges of their fellow human beings.

Many psychometric studies have shown that individuals lack the necessary objectivity: our evaluations are influenced by our own understanding of what we judge in others, our own impression of what looks good for a given skill, our severity or leniency as evaluators, and our intrinsic and unconscious biases. Research shows that we are particularly unable to assess abstract characteristics such as strategic thinking, potential or political savvyness.

The only area in which humans are an unquestionable source of truth is that of their emotions and feelings.

So we can tell someone what convinced us, what irritated us, what bothered us in what they did… but we cannot tell them whether their performance was good or not. At most we will be able to tell them what we thought about it. These are our truths and not his.

2/ The reality on how we learn:

Learning is not so much about adding something that was missing but more about identifying, reinforcing and perfecting what is already there. There are 2 reasons for this:

• It is in the field that we master the best that we evolve the most neurologically (our strengths are our areas of development). Brain science teaches us that the growth of neurons and synaptic connections is much greater where individuals already have the highest number of neurons and synaptic connections.
• Attention to our strengths by others accelerates learning while attention to our weaknesses blocks it. Indeed, studies show that when we face criticism, it is the sympathetic nervous system that comes alive (the one that manages the fight/flee responses and pauses all other parts of the brain to ensure our survival) while when we connect our dreams and the means to realize them, it is the parasympathetic nervous system that comes into play (the one that promotes a sense of well-being, cognitive, emotional and perceptive openness).
We often hear that the secret to learning is to get out of one’s comfort zone, but these results contradict this idea because the brain only thinks about surviving the experience in those moments and does not develop any new connections.

Whereas when we are in our comfort zone, this is when our neural pathways are the most abundant and therefore, we are the most open to possibilities, the most creative, the most intelligent and the most productive.

3/ The quest for excellence:

We spend our professional lives trying to achieve excellence, believing that the definition is simple and that the difficulty lies in understanding how we should go about it. However, we take the problem completely backwards because excellence in any field is almost impossible to define, but it is relatively easy for each of us to achieve it if we do so spontaneously and naturally. Humour and sport are good examples…

To help others to achieve excellence, the first step is to give up on identifying failure and giving people feedback on how to avoid it. Divorce teaches nothing about how to make a happy marriage, illness teaches nothing about health… Similarly, failure teaches nothing about excellence.

a/ Searching for results:

Excellence is an output, so try to notice when a customer reacts with interest to sales arguments, when a project is running smoothly. Point out this moment and you offer the other person a model that is already present in him or her so that he or she can recognise it, anchor it, recreate it and perfect it. That’s learning.

b/ Play back your instinctive reactions:

Do not fall into praise – it doesn’t do much good either. Instead, describe what you felt when the other’s moment of excellence caught your attention. There is nothing more reliable and credible than sharing what you saw in the person and what you felt. You then send them back the image they have just left of the world through your eyes. It is both humble and powerful because it is no longer a judgement or an evaluation.

c/ Explore the present, the past and the future:

Before responding to someone who asks you for feedback on their performance or on what they should correct, think about these three steps:

• Start with the present: first ask your colleague to tell you 3 things that are working for him or her right now. By asking this question, you increase his or her production of oxytocin (creativity hormone) and therefore open him or her up to new ways of thinking and acting.
• Then turn to the past: when you have encountered a similar problem in the past, what did you do that worked?
• Finally turn to the future: what are the things you already know you must do? Do you already know what works in this situation?

The focus should not be on the causes of a problem as this leads to speculation and conceptual leads. It is better to focus on possibilities and results.

In conclusion, giving feedback is one of the hot topics in business today. Arguments in favour of total openness and raw transparency are popular. It suggests that only the best and bravest among us can face these truths with courage; that those who shy away from working in a climate of incessant judgment are doomed to mediocrity. It also suggests that as leaders, our ability to look our colleagues straight in the eye and list their faults without blinking is an indicator of our integrity.

At best, this obsession with feedback is only good for correcting mistakes in the rare cases where the steps to follow are known and measurable. At worst, it is toxic, because what we often expect from our employees is that they use their unique talents to serve the common good.

In short, we only excel when people who know and value us explain how they have experienced and felt our performance, and especially when they see something in us that really works.

To go further, I recommend the excellent book by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall: “Nine lies about work: a freethinking leader’s guide to the real world” and the article by Harvard Business Review Press.

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