Getting Feedback Right

April 16, 2019

Getting Feedback Right

Feedback has been getting a fair share of bad press lately. However, in my opinion, detractors are conflating feedback (which is a good thing) with how it is delivered (which leaves much room for improvement). 

Feedback is at the crux of the scientific method and is at the heart of all kinds of human endeavors. For example, the Apollo 11 spacecraft deviated from its target 99 percent of the time. Constant feedback and adjustment against the desired course enabled the astronauts to ultimately to land a man on the moon. Today, Formula One cars’ telemetry systems transmit thousands of data points per second back to computers and engineers so they can tune the engines and other components in real time to maximize performance. 

With organizations and individuals, positive change begins with awareness. Feedback is essential for building that awareness. For example, videos of our performance are essential to improving our presentation skills. Engagement surveys inform our efforts to create better places to work. Individual feedback helps us make better decisions and become more effective leaders. The problem that people usually have isn’t with the feedback itself, but how it’s delivered. 

Think of someone who has had a tremendously positive impact on your life. Odds are they guided you in a careful and loving way. That’s feedback done right because, at its heart, it arises from a trusting relationship. Now think of the leaders and managers you’ve worked with, and around, who were always critical, even contemptuous, showing little regard for your development and well-being. What was the impact and ultimate value of their feedback?

Feedback can do both harm and good. It’s no surprise that Kluger and DeNisi’s seminal review of 131 studies found that over a third of feedback interventions actually decreased performance. And while Bridgewater’s widely reported practice of “radical transparency” underpins the success of its investment portfolios, it also comes at a cost of losing over a third of its talented first-year hires. 

All communication conveys three components; the information, the emotion, and the intention. All three are affected by pre-existing relationships. What is communicated and how it is perceived are determined by the nature of this relationship. 

While supportive and growth-oriented communication techniques are helpful when delivering feedback, the paranoid tendencies of our limbic brains will pass everything someone says through a "friend or foe" filter. That’s why delivering feedback that will be effectively received requires more than communication tips. You need to be experienced as a trusting partner.

First, let’s look at the issue of information accuracy. I disagree with recent criticisms that manager and peer feedback is subjective, generally unreliable, and more distortion than truth. People can offer fact-based and constructive feedback. There are reasons why we seek out good doctors, mechanics, and consultants for the best diagnosis and recommendations. Tapping into the insights from co-workers with firsthand observations of our behavior can be very illuminating. 
Another recent criticism is that we should avoid negative feedback altogether because it impairs learning. Personally, I would be very frustrated if my coaches did not point out my shortcomings and help me focus on improvement. What’s necessary for delivering effective feedback is not whether its positive or negative, it’s whether we trust the source, and whether we want to learn and get ahead. 

Interestingly, a new paper, The Relative Value of Positive and Negative Feedback, shows that higher levels of workforce engagement are related to higher levels of both favorable and unfavorable feedback. According to this research, higher unfavorable feedback is better for employee engagement than no feedback. This contradicts the popular thinking and movement that we should help people excel by maximizing their strengths and overlooking their weaknesses.  

While much of the attention to effective feedback focuses on getting the information right, we know that "being right" is only a small part of a helpful improvement-oriented dialogue. Accurate observations from someone who doesn’t care about you often comes across as hurtful aggression, which is more likely to cause damage than help. A trusting relationship ensures that factual performance observations will be constructively received. 

Trust isn’t a one-way street either. Positive intentions are pivotal both for both the feedback giver and receiver. For feedback givers, the intention needs to support the receiver’s learning interests. That’s why givers need to first find out what receivers are interested in, and then to try to support them in realizing their goals, not just our own. On the flipside, feedback receivers need to identify and share their aspirations, and ask for input and guidance in how to achieve them. 

In summary, an underlying relationship built on trust is what makes feedback effective.  Beyond being honest, we need to demonstrate sensitivity so that people feel safe and supported.  Even with our best efforts we may stir others as we ask them to reflect. But we should remember that feedback is essential to performance improvement and when delivered right, we will see the results and build enduring relationships.   

The Authors: 

Chris Morgan is Founding Principal of Morgan Alexander and co-founder of Listentool.