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About to give feedback? Read this first…

Feedback has become a touchstone of management practice. We are encouraged to give feedback, and to receive it. We ask for it, and we dole it out. We believe this will help us all improve our performance by understanding our strengths and weaknesses—through the views of those who work or interact with us.

Wherever you look, companies are implementing 360-degree feedback, constructive feedback, radical candour, and other ways of being a transparent organization where people can tell others how they should improve themselves. What could be wrong with this picture?

One performance expert thinks feedback, as currently used by most organizations, is about as useful as giving a fish a bicycle.

Marcus Buckingham is my favourite type of management thinker—the heretical kind! He often slays many, many sacred traditions in management practice—and all strength to him, as he makes us rethink the norms we take for granted.

Mr Buckingham was featured in The Irish Times recently, and was forthright about the practice of giving and receiving feedback. Let’s be clear: in some situations, feedback is essential. If a worker has got something very specific in an agreed process or sequence wrong, it is important for feedback to be given to correct the matter. An urgent customer communication is not sent; bad behaviour is exhibited with a subordinate; a vital document is misplaced instead of being recorded—these are all missteps that can be corrected by a boss or expert pointing out the failing.

The problem with feedback occurs with more general, more loosely defined situations. A manager has a strong personality that is rubbing people up the wrong way. A team member has checked out and is not participating in deliberations. A branch of the company is underperforming. In all of these situations, we have to be more circumspect about the nature of feedback.

The issue is this: feedback tells us more about the person giving the feedback, than the one receiving it. Marcus Buckingham is right: most of the time, we give feedback based on how we perceive situations, and how we would have addressed the issue ourselves. We are really saying to someone: you should be more like me.

In his words: “Learning does not happen with me pouring information or techniques into you. Learning, growth and development come from within.” Research shows that there is an “idiosyncratic rater effect”: we humans are very unreliable raters of other humans. We don’t rate others objectively; we do it based on our own idiosyncrasies. Introvert me, for example, might wish everyone was a bit quieter and more reflective; but if I start rating other people according to that personal attribute, I will do them a disservice. And if I start doling out advice (no matter how well-intentioned) that suggests the recipient should do things more like the way I do them, then I am failing as a leader.

What’s the way out of this? There’s a useful distinction to be made between feedback and reaction. Marcus calls reaction a “humbler gift”: it doesn’t say “do more of this and less of that;” instead, it says: “this is how you made me feel.” A reaction is honest, and has no agenda. You felt what you felt, and the person causing your feeling should process that and try to understand it. If you are an ambitious and thoughtful person, and you see a pattern of many folks reacting in unforeseen ways to your actions—then hey, pay attention. And get better.

It comes down to humility. Who are we to tell others exactly how, where, and when a problem should be fixed? All we end up doing is saying: I would do it like this if I were you, and you have to listen to me because I am older/better/more accomplished than you. Taking the arrogance out of it changes the feedback game. I can genuinely tell you how I feel and what I perceive in a given situation—my reaction. My advice, though, should be more nuanced; to help you to understand how to improve yourself, in your way, not mine. 

It also comes down to human psychology. When feedback is framed as unpleasant “truths” we have to hear about ourselves, we are naturally defensive and even dismissive. When feedback is primarily about what we do well—our strengths—we are far more willing to listen to what we could be doing better.

So the next time you are about to give a subordinate or a service provider some feedback, pause to ask yourself: am I doing this genuinely to help this person improve? Or am I just brandishing my authority over them, and massaging my own ego? Is it more appropriate to try to make them more like me, or to help them uncover their own path to being better?

(Sunday Nation, 4 September 2022)

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