Using Feedback to Increase Performance


Using Feedback to Increase Performance

This page was last updated on April 30, 2019

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:

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.

If our goal is best work, or excellence, is the current dilemma:

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:

  1. 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’.
  2. Learning. You lack certain abilities and the learning process will be like filling an empty vessel.
  3. 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

           * 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.

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’.

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:


Choose a well-known comedian and discuss what it is they do that makes them funny. Consider: is this the opposite of boring?

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

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’.

Instead of Try
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 …

Good job!

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.


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