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Can I Give You Some Feedback?

Feedback. It sounds so basic. So obvious. It’s easy to get distracted by the latest HR tech, the robots, Uber’s garbage fire. But feedback deserves our attention. Mostly because we’re terrible at it, and that is at the root of so many problems and missed opportunities in our organizations. We think we get it, but I have my doubts. You can tell because so many people talk about feedback like it’s a chore.

“If you have millennials working for you, don’t wait until the annual performance review to unload all your praise and criticism on them. Instead, make an effort to engage in meaningful and productive conversations with your employees on a weekly basis” Business Insider; What Millenials Want

Can you imagine??! People are demanding that we tell them how they’re doing more than once a year, and have productive conversations EVERY WEEK! What is this, a marriage???

The interwebs are jammed with articles like this one, bemoaning the fact that “Millennials want constant feedback”. Constant! If we look past the hyperbole, the underlying message is clear. Feedback is a pain in the ass, distracting us from our real work.

Somehow feedback has been isolated as an activity unto itself. It’s as though we’ve forgotten that getting feedback from our environment, from mistakes and successes, from peers, and from our manager, all serve to support learning and improve performance. What organization or manager doesn’t want people to learn and improve? Well, we can’t have nice things if we aren’t willing to question the way we’ve come to see feedback.

So, how can we reclaim the true meaning of feedback, and embrace it as a tool to improve ourselves and others? We need to challenge our feedback beliefs:

Belief 1: Millennials are special snowflakes that need constant praise to survive

There appears to be no evidence to support this. More likely is that this uncharitable characterization grew out of the varying feedback needs of novices versus experts.

As Eric Barker notes in Barking Up The Wrong Tree:

“…[a] study, titled “Tell Me What I Did Wrong,” showed that a shift takes place when people are on the path to expertise. Novices seek and need positive feedback because it keeps them working at something they’re not very good at. But there’s a tipping point. As someone becomes an expert they deliberately seek out negative feedback so they know how to keep improving now that their mistakes are fewer and subtler.”

That’s right – it’s our location on the continuum of experience and mastery of a skill that informs the kind of feedback we benefit from and prefer, not our age or generation. People approaching mastery want to know what they’re doing wrong so that they can continue to perfect their performance. Those starting out find that kind of feedback discouraging and lack the context necessary to make use of it. Instead, recognition and coaching has the biggest impact on their performance.

As Johnathan Nightingale writes about managing junior vs senior people”

“Junior people we evaluate on effort

Senior people we evaluate on outcomes”

Belief 2: Giving people feedback is scary and will hurt them

This belief is a big part of why everyone hates performance reviews. We avoid giving direct feedback, sometimes engaging in elaborate avoidance tactics to side step an uncomfortable conversation. Then performance review time comes and…Bam!

This happens often enough that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time pondering what underlying beliefs drive this behavior. My theory is that many managers believe, correctly or not, that people don’t like to work and have no interest in getting better for the sake of it. So, providing someone with negative feedback is at best pointless, and at worst a relationship-ending productivity killer.

A while back, someone came up with an ingenious way to cushion the blow: the “compliment sandwich”! This is similar to my approach for giving my cat medication. I cut the pill up into smaller pieces and tuck them inside specially constructed treats called pill pockets that hide the objectionable taste and smell of the medication. Hobbes is 18 as wily as hell, so this often descends into a battle of wills, but he always gets greedy and eventually ingests a pill.

Similarly, managers who have lost sight of the actual point of feedback, and are instead intent on just getting that stubborn creature to take their medicine find the compliment sandwich confuses their employee enough that they leave the meeting without incident. Tick that checkbox, and pat yourself on the back!
Another way this belief shows up is through vague feedback. Discomfort with giving specific feedback seems to stem from the view that it’s personal, or will be received that way, so it’s made sort of…fuzzy. The recipient should be able to read between the lines and figure it out, right? No, and research shows that this is particularly common when the recipient of feedback (negative or positive) is a woman. Not cool.

Belief 3: Mistakes are a problem to be avoided

Mistakes are guaranteed, but how organizations and managers handle them can make them either valuable opportunities for feedback and learning, or fodder to build a case against someone’s competence. I love this post from Farhan Thawar about removing friction from the feedback process. In it, he highlights the importance of fostering a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes:

“If it’s okay for everyone to fail, it’s okay for them to iterate and learn from their feedback.

When I play golf, learn languages, or try any manner of things with which I have no experience, I fail shamelessly forward until I get it right. I encourage my teams to do the same”

I suspect we’d all agree that some of the toughest, but most thoroughly learned lessons we’ve accrued in our careers come from mistakes. As I mentioned in my post last week, we must accept that sucking at something, at least for a little while, is the cost of doing hard things. Mistakes are themselves feedback, and learning how we went wrong increases our understanding of the underlying logic of a skill.

Belief 4: Focusing on strengths is better anyway

I’ve worked in organizations that deliberately chose to take a strengths-based approach to performance, and I personally found it quite uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s just me, but it always felt like there was an elephant in the room. I found it infantilizing, like my manager thought that I couldn’t handle hearing criticism. Managers I supported seemed desperately invested in the fiction that everyone was great…until they weren’t, at which point they wanted to unceremoniously fire them.

As this article points out, focusing exclusively on strengths can shortchange strong performers as well as problematic ones:

“Research shows that leaders are generally unaware of what their toxic behaviors are and that there is no shortage of competent leaders — individuals with clear strengths — who derail because of their inability to mitigate their toxic tendencies.”

Managers who are (or appear) afraid or unwilling to give bad news or tough feedback risk losing the trust of their team. As a participant in a course I took recently said:

“In order to accept positive feedback, I need people to also tell me critical feedback. Otherwise, I believe they don’t see me the way I really am, are projecting something, or aren’t being honest with me.”

Belief 5: Feedback is the means to a specific end

Even when organizations, managers, and team members buy into the value of feedback as a critical component of learning and performance improvement, they can still get tripped up by viewing it solely as tool to achieve their aims. This isn’t really feedback as much as it’s a thinly veiled command.

Rather than:

“Let me share what I noticed about your presentation on Tuesday”

This kind of “feedback” sounds more like:

“Here’s what I need you to do next time.”

Giving feedback can’t only be about what we want to get out of the discussion. It has to also be about the person we’re giving feedback to. To be really heard when giving feedback, we need to take their goals and aspirations into consideration, and provide feedback of use in achieving those goals, not just in achieving our own.

Given this way, feedback becomes an offer, not a command. That’s fair, since our feedback says as much, if not more, about us as it does about the person we’re giving it to. All feedback is subjective to some degree, and we should recognize that. I might think you spoke too fast in your presentation, but it’s almost guaranteed that someone else will think the opposite. Though I may present my feedback as hard fact, it’s just as likely to say something about me (perhaps that I need to try harder to follow along on meetings) as it does about your presentation style.

As such, I should own my feedback “I noticed…” not “You are…” and recognize that the recipient is under no obligation to accept it.

It’s all too easy to gloss over fundamental skills like feedback and assume we’re doing them well, because we know what we should be doing. But like so many aspects of leading, managing, or motivating people, it’s the doing that’s hard.

Read This Week:

The CEO’s Guide to Competing Through HR – McKinsey Quarterly – Bafaro, Ellsworth and Gandhi

This McKinsey article is worth a read for the pre-eminent consulting firm’s take on how HR can provide organizations with a competitive edge. Their recommendations aren’t particularly surprising, but I really appreciate the way they describe the need for assessing organizational data-readiness as a first step to build people analytics capability. So often, any discussion of people analytics focuses solely on HR’s perceived lack of capability in this area (I don’t dispute that is generally true), ignoring the facts that 1.) people analytics are meaningless if isolated from other business metrics, so there needs to be an overall improvement in capability and communication internally, and 2.) that a huge barrier is the availability, quality, and consistency of available data to be analyzed. It’s not like HR departments everywhere are sitting on gold mines of clean, meaningful data, refusing to provide strategic insights because they’d rather organize an employee picnic instead of look at those ‘scary numbers’. Even relatively sophisticated organizations struggle with poor quality data in this area.

Sadly, I didn’t get through this article without grinding my teeth over yet another term and acronym for HR: Apparently the best HRBPs should be trained to become “strategic talent value leaders (TVLs)” Ugghhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Let’s Stop Talking About Resistance to Change Already – Koen Smets and Paul Thoreson

You absolutely MUST read this excellently written, insight packed post about rethinking our traditional understanding of “resistance to change”. I’ll refrain from further comment and just quote instead:

“If we look at people as resistors, stubbornly wanting to preserve “the” status quo, we make two mistakes:

  • (a) we assume there is just one status quo, instead of many individual status quos, composed out of people’s current choices which they would rather stick to than adopt the change, and
  • (b) we fail to pay attention to these current apparent preferences, which means we have no idea what is necessary to change them

That perspective, recognizing that people are decision-making individuals facing multiple options, is a lot more helpful than seeing them as one-dimensional change resistors.”

“When people don’t immediately turn into enthusiastic champions for a proposed change, that is not because they are ‘resistors’. It is because they would make different trade-offs.”

Why We Need More Useless Knowledge: Beth Comstock

I love this post from Beth Comstock of GE describing innovation coming from “the unexpected collision of ideas”, and making the case for learning stuff because we’re interested in it, rather than solely as a means to a clear end.

“And we do it personally, when we stop learning for fun because we’re afraid it won’t help us get ahead. We tell ourselves to put down that book about history, skip the art museum trip, turn off that cool documentary about astronomy, and get busy learning coding, or management, or accounting. “Make yourself useful!” we’re told from a very young age. We only have so much time before somebody more disciplined gets the upper hand, right?”

“We all have things we do just for fun or the love of learning, and they almost always end up helping us out in our careers when we least expect it.

Until next week…

Image credit: Maarten Ven Den Heuvel via

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Miriam Watson #

    Great post Jane!!!

    Sent from Miriam’s iPad


    July 31, 2017

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