When it comes to giving someone at work feedback do you tend to step up or step away? Perhaps you’re worried that you might hurt someone’s feelings, that your insights will be taken the wrong way, or that no matter what you say it won’t really make any difference at the end of the day.
“The debate about how to give and receive better feedback assumes that feedback is always useful in helping people to do better at work,” explained Ashley Goodall who is the co-author with Marcus Buckingham of the new book Nine Lies About Work: A Free Thinking Leaders Guide to the Real World, when I interviewed him recently. “But while giving people clear instructions and advice on what steps to follow, or what factual knowledge they are lacking can be useful for simple tasks, research suggests that this kind of feedback is not useful if you want to help people to consistently thrive and excel at work.”
In fact, studies have found that telling others how you think they should improve can actually hinder learning. This is because unfortunately, many of our beliefs about what makes good feedback are based on three myths:
- The first is that other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses and therefore the best way for them to help you, is 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.
- 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. Hence you can, with feedback about what excellence looks like, understand where you fall short of this ideal and then strive to remedy your shortcomings.
The reality however, Ashley explained is that studies have found that humans are generally unreliable raters of other humans. Your unconscious biases, leniency or harshness of rating, and definitions of abstract concepts and competencies, can all get in the way. For example, your understanding about what strategic thinking is, can be very different from the person you are evaluating. Excellence is idiosyncratic and each person’s version of it is uniquely shaped by their individuality and strengths.
In addition, studies have found that learning is less a function of adding something that isn’t there, than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already works well. Focusing on developing strengths doesn’t mean you don’t need to care about things that people can’t do, or about improving performance. But if someone isn’t delivering the outcomes you need, it’s important to help them fix this in a way that generates real learning, and build on what they already have that works for them.
For example, Deloitte found that the defining characteristic of their best teams was that people felt they had an opportunity to use their strengths each day − the things that they were good at and enjoyed doing − as they went about their jobs. This is because when you play to your strengths you get better outcomes, more productivity, more connection, more innovation, and it accelerates performance.
Ashley suggested that you improve people’s performance by:
- Sharing strengths in teams – consider what your strengths are, what energizes you at work, and what you gravitate towards. Then based on these strengths, write down three things that others can come to you for when they need support. For example, it might be that you love editing prose and are willing to help others out with this. When you do this as a team you’ll start to find that someone’s strengths are somebody else’s weakness, and by encouraging people to ask each for help, and by drawing on different people’s strengths, you can improve engagement, collaboration, and psychological safety, as your team starts to find new ways to create opportunities to value, and appreciate what each person does best.
- Interrogate brilliance – when someone performs well often the tendency is just to congratulate them and move on to the next thing. A more useful response to a moment of brilliance, however, is to stop and ask: What worked? What was going in your head during this performance? What did it feel like? What did you connect to? How can you recapture that? Keep interrogating in this way until you can help yourself or others understand in great detail what it was that worked, so the performance can be built upon and repeated. When you access what works for you, then you can make it more deliberate, more explicit, and more powerful.
- Focus on momentum, not potential – the organizational practice of investing in those with potential and casting aside others who are deemed as not being able to grow, is unsupported by evidence and can be deeply harmful. Brilliant team leaders work from the premise that every brain grows differently and therefore inquire about individual strengths and aspirations. It can be more helpful to consider people’s momentum rather than potential. Try asking: What’s your direction? How fast are you moving through the world? Do you want to change your direction or momentum?
Is your feedback magnifying people’s strengths and building their momentum?