The Feedback Fallacy

Source: Marcus Buckingham, Ashley Goodall, Harvard Business Review, March/April 2019

For years, managers have been encouraged to praise and constructively criticize just about everything their employees do. But there are better ways to help employees thrive and excel. ….

…. To be clear, instruction—telling people what steps to follow or what factual knowledge they’re lacking—can be truly useful: That’s why we have checklists in airplane cockpits and, more recently, in operating rooms. …

….Underpinning the current conviction that feedback is an unalloyed good are three theories that we in the business world commonly accept as truths. The first is that other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses, and that the best way to help you, therefore, is for them to show you what you cannot see for yourself. ….

…. The second belief is that the process of learning is like filling up an empty vessel: You lack certain abilities you need to acquire, so your colleagues should teach them to you. ….

….. And the third belief is that great performance is universal, analyzable, and describable, and that once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of who each individual is. …..

…. 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. What we mean by “feedback” is very different. Feedback is about telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better—whether they’re giving an effective presentation, leading a team, or creating a strategy. And on that, the research is clear: Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning. ….

…. What these three theories have in common is self-centeredness: They take our own expertise and what we are sure is our colleagues’ inexpertise as givens; they assume that my way is necessarily your way. But as it turns out, in extrapolating from what creates our own performance to what might create performance in others, we overreach. Research reveals that none of these theories is true. The more we depend on them, and the more technology we base on them, the less learning and productivity we will get from others. To understand why and to see the path to a more effective way of improving performance, let’s look more closely at each theory in turn. …..