The Feedback Fallacy

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Feedback is about telling people what we think of their performance and how they could do better. On that, the research is clear: Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive & excel, while telling people how we think
They should improve actually hinders
learning.

But as Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall wrote in their cover story for the March-April 2019 Harvard Business Review, those findings totally contradict how most companies see it. Underpinning the current conviction that feedback is an unalloyed good are three theories that business managers commonly accept as truths.

  • The first is that other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses, and therefore, the best way to help you, is for them to show you what you cannot see for yourself. Let’s call this the theory of the source of truth.You do not realize that your suit is shabby, that your presentation is boring, or that your voice is grating, so it is up to your colleagues to tell you as plainly as possible “where you stand.”  If they didn’t, you would never know, and this would be bad.
  • 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. Let’s call this the theory of learning.If you’re in sales, how can you possibly close deals if you don’t learn the competency of “mirroring and matching” the prospect?  If you’re a teacher, how can you improve if you don’t learn and practice the steps in the latest team-teaching technique or “flipped classroom” format?  The assumption is that you can’t—and that you need feedback to develop the skills you’re missing.
  • And the third belief is that great performance is universal, analyzable, and describable; and once it’s 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. Let’s call this the theory of excellence.If you’re a manager, your boss might show you the company’s “supervisor-behaviors...

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