At our April 2019 meeting looked at the role of feedback in getting our teams to perform at their best level, helping us to achieve excellence.
The inspiration for this topic was a recent article The feedback Fallacy in Harvard business review, by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.
Most people acknowledge that feedback is important:
- “Feedback is the breakfast of champions” (Ken Blanchard)
- “We all need people who will give us feedback. That's how we improve” (Bill Gates)
- “The most important investment you can make is in yourself” (Warren Buffett)
At the moment the overriding belief is that the way to increase performance is through rigorous, frequent, candid, pervasive (all encompassing), and often critical feedback.
- Netflix has a culture of “encouraging harsh feedback” and subjecting workers to “intense and awkward” real-time 360s – according to Wall Street Journal.
- Bridgewater (biggest headgefund in the world – managing about $160 billion “require people to be extremely open, air disagreements, test each other’s logic, and view discovering mistakes and weaknesses as a good thing that leads to improvement and innovation.”
If our goal is best work, or excellence, is the current dilemma:
- how much, how often and using what app? More online feedback systems are starting to emerge ‘Hello360.me’ for example, or
- is finding better ways to give and receive feedback the key to helping people thrive?
How can we use feedback to improve performance?
Instruction vs Feedback
Instructions = steps to follow or factual information and that’s good. This covers things like checklists before a flight, operation or injection But instances where ‘base performance’ criteria can be pre-defined are becoming rarer.
Feedback = Telling people what we think of their performance
Current use of feedback
Our current use of feedback is underpinned by three theories:
- The source of truth. Other people more aware of your weaknesses than you and can show you. Colleagues need to tell you ‘where you stand’.
- Learning. You lack certain abilities and the learning process will be like filling an empty vessel.
- Excellence. That excellence can be defined; it has a particular look, so that you can strive to remedy your shortcomings.
We considered the merit of these theories and our thoughts and the HBR view:
Source of Truth
How good are we at rating others’ abstract qualities like business acumen or assertiveness?
Consider: (1)The rater (2) the role of random vs systematic errors
- Poor, because abstract qualities are subjective.
- We might be able to reduce our ineffectiveness by:
* A framework (Thomas International).
* Breaking the quality into clear competencies,
‘tangible’ expected actions.
* Absolute clarify of what outputs would
demonstrate the quality in evidence.
* Observations/just in time feedback
* Going through scenarios to test the quality/practice.
- Such ratings can be dominated by other issues – such as pay rises or promotions.
- Getting the ‘right’ rater is crucial
- Personal bias needs managing – someone close is likely to have some bias whereas someone less close may not have sufficient knowledge / information.
- Timing will have an impact.
- Approach should be tailored to the person being rated.
- Deliver bad news with good.
The HBR article covered:
The idiosyncratic rater effect
Humans are bad at rating others when it comes to abstract qualities like business acumen or assertiveness. The idiosyncratic rater effect means our ratings are more (over 50%) a reflection of the rater than the person being assessed.
That’s why it’s really hard to receive feedback – recipients don’t recognise themselves!
Random vs Systematic errors
We can’t mitigate the impact of errors by averaging many readings, perhaps using an app, because feedback errors are systematic, not random. Systematic is where there is a flaw in the measurement system – like asking someone who is colour blind to rate the redness of a rose. Getting more colour blind people to rate doesn’t help.
But we think we are good at abstract attributes – strategic thinking, potential etc. However, when Doctors ask you to rate your pain 0 (low) – 10 (high) they don’t challenge your five or try and calibrate it with other doctors to make sure all ‘fives’ are equal. They just ask you to rate it again at a different time. Only comparison is with yourself!
When people ask us to tell them ‘where they stand’ ALL we can do is share our own feelings and reactions: boring presentation to us – that’s irrefutable, but doesn’t make it a boring presentation.
Is learning like filling an empty vessel? Consider: (1) Learning completely new things vs extending existing knowledge (2) Focusing on what to ‘correct’.
- Learning when we ‘want to’ is much more effective than when we are ‘told to’.
- Is our age an influence?
- Yes – providing you know your learning goal.
- One needs to be in the right frame of mind to absorb new information.
- New information needs to be ‘revisited’ or consolidated to get it into our long term memory and make it practical.
- There’s a distinction between knowing things and being able to apply knowledge to situations.
The HBR article covered:
Research is that it’s less about trying to add what’s not there – more about recognising, re-enforcing and refining what is, because:
- Your brain grows most where it’s already strongest. (Joseph LeDoux – neuroscience professor at NY Uni –“Added connections are therefore more like new buds on a branch rather than new branches”. So start by understanding your patterns, not someone else’s!)
- Attention from others on our strengths catalyses learning. Focusing on what to ‘correct’ lights up the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ nervous system – narrowing brain activity to impair learning.
Choose a well-known comedian and discuss what it is they do that makes them funny. Consider: is this the opposite of boring?
- ‘Funny’ is subjective so it’s impossible to give feedback on a generic platform.
- But we might be able to break comedy down into different genres (slapstick, satire, observational etc.) and then identify the conventions or components involved, taking into account the audiences’ tastes and practicing until perfect. For example ‘nested loops’.
- The connection with the audience, props, language.
- Funny is in the mind of the person / audience and is subjective. It reflects our owne views
All theories take our own expertise and what we see as our colleagues inexpertise as a givens. We can’t all be right – or can we?
The HBR article covered:
Is excellence easy to define but hard to achieve? Or, almost impossible to define yet relatively easy to reach?
Why are people funny? It’s idiosyncratic (personal, unique, particular)
Excellence is not the opposite of failure. Studying disease doesn’t tell you about health, exit interviews don’t tell you why others stay.
Summary review of the current approach
Latest research shows reveals
- that the idea that what makes us good performers can be applied to others, is wrong, and
- telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, infact telling them how we think they should improve hinders learning.
We end up with less learning and productivity.
We should stop identifying failure, as we see it, and giving feedback about how to avoid it, as this approach leads at best to adequacy.
How to use feedback to increase performance
So if not defining what good looks like, telling people how they currently fall short and then putting the onus on them to learn new skills to bridge the gap isn’t the way forward for feedback, what is?
Remember that for Instruction this might be a valid approach!
Look for outcomes
Note when something good happens!!!
Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry didn’t review missed tackles and dropped balls. Instead, he created highlight reels of good play. This approach harnesses the power of praise PLUS increasing performance by showing ‘personal excellence’.
So highlight ‘moments of excellence’ so that recipients can recognise, anchor, recreate and refine it.
Dissecting good – Share what you saw and how it made you feel.
Avoiding judgements and ratings is more powerful.
Team members can invite more detail on a ‘good job’ (not to pile on praise) but “What did you think worked well?” – to render the unconscious, conscious so that you can understand it, improve it and do it again.
Useful feedback in practice
Share what you saw and how it made you feel.
Recipients can invite more detail on a ‘good job’.
|Can I give you some feedback?||
Here's my reaction.
Here's how I saw it
How was it for you?
Can we have a chat – I noticed that …
Here are three things that really worked for me.
What was going through your mind when you did them?
|Here's what you should do.||
Here's what I would do
What do you think you should do?
|Here's where you need to improve.||
Here's worked best for me, and here's why.
|That didn't really work.||
When you did X, I felt Y or I didn't get that
Do you think that worked?
|You need to improve your communication skills||Here's exactly where you started to lose me.|
|You need to be more responsive||When I don't hear from you, I worry that we're not on the same page.|
|You lack strategic thinking.||I'm struggling to undertstand your plan|
|You should do X (response to advice request)||What do you feel you are struggling with, and what have you done in the past that's worked in a similar situation?|
The italicised greyed suggestions were those made at our meeting – the other are based on the HBR article.
Avoid remedial interrupts that stop you dissecting good.
Because remediating (a poorly handled call, missed meeting, project going off the rails) inhibits learning and gets you no closer to excellent performance. You need your team in the rest and digest mindstate!
Responding to requests for feedback – present past and future
Often what they might need to ‘fix’ to get promoted.
If a team member approached you they are dealing with a problem now. Enquire about three things that are working well right now to prime them with oxytocin – the ‘love drug’ or ‘creativity drug’ so that they are open to new solutions and ways of thinking and acting.
When they had this problem like this in the past – what was the solution?
What do you already know that you need to do? Offer up your own experiences to help clarify their own – but the premise is that they already know the solution – you are just helping them recognise it.
Don’t make whys the focus. ’Why didn’t that work?’ leads to conjecture and concepts. Instead. Focus on what’s.
Arguments for radical candour and unvarnished pervasive transparency have a swagger – implying that only the finest and bravest can handle it and escape mediocrity – and a leaders ability to lay out team members faults is a measure of integrity!
We don’t do well when someone with unclear intentions tells us where we stand or how good we ‘really’ are, and what we must do to fix ourselves.
We excel when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works.