As someone with more than 20 years’ experience teaching leaders how to have effective conversations, I strongly believe that feedback is extremely important to individual and organizational success…and absolutely NOT a fallacy.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, The Feedback Fallacy, Marcus Buckingham and his co-author, Ashley Goodall, take feedback to task. They argue that the act of feedback is “about telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better…and on that, the research is clear: Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.”
This definition, from a training perspective, puts me in an unfortunate bind.
For the most part, their points are solid:
- NOT EFFECTIVE: identifying failure and giving people feedback about how to avoid it.
- EFFECTIVE: praise that interrupts and pulls a colleague’s attention toward something that really worked.
- NOT EFFECTIVE: when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where to stand, how good we “really” are, and what we must do to fix ourselves.
- EFFECTIVE: when people who know and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works.
One gets the feeling when reading these things, that all we experience is what’s NOT effective — that because we’re rarely-if-ever experience what is effective, that it’s all a fallacy.
This is where I take issue with Buckingham’s argument.
It’s a difficult pill to swallow — disagreeing with Marcus Buckingham, a person who I admire. But alas, as someone who lives in the Learning and Development world and has seen it’s magic when successful, I must.
I must disagree because I truly believe “The Feedback Fallacy” completely misses the point of what successful, healthy feedback truly is — which, in itself is what Buckingham actually alludes to in his article, whether he knows it or not.
Because we haven’t learned how to give, receive, and ask for feedback effectively it APPEARS to be a fallacy.
Enter Fierce Feedback.
IN DEFENSE OF EFFECTIVE FEEDBACK
At Fierce we believe that what we talk about, how we talk about it, and most importantly, the degree of authenticity we bring to the conversations we are having makes all the difference. This, by necessity, includes Fierce Feedback - one of the most highly requested programs we offer.
In the past year alone, I have trained Fierce in numerous companies with countless participants discussing feedback’s importance, its value, and its how-to. Again and again, I hear nearly the same thing: “there’s a measurable and painful gap between what we know we should be saying and what we’re actually saying (or not saying)!” There has never been a time in which I’ve heard anyone say that feedback is a “fallacy.”
The clients we work with - and their leaders - know it’s needed, critical even. They know its absence is costly. And they know they’ve got to get better at it.
They’re hardly alone.
All of us know how we should be engaging with others – whether in our organization as a whole, our workgroups, and teams and especially in our personal relationships.
We know that when we’re providing constructive feedback, even recognition, and praise, it needs to be specific. And, to Buckingham’s point, we can acknowledge that we only give feedback from our own limited perspective.
We also know, even if we sometimes forget, that we MUST allow the other person to share their perspective so that feedback doesn’t become a one-way diatribe. It’s a conversation after all!
WHAT PEOPLE REALLY THINK OF FEEDBACK
The knowing isn’t the problem. It’s the doing (or lack thereof) that is. Here’s a sample of what I continue to hear:
- “I know feedback would help my colleague move closer to her goals; that it would serve and support her along the way. But I don’t want to say anything that might upset her or be taken the wrong way.”
- “I know people need and deserve more praise, but I don’t want them to get used to it. Shouldn’t they just know that if they don’t hear anything, everything’s OK?”
- “I want to give feedback, but I’m afraid the other person can’t handle it; worse, they’ll think I’m mean. And besides, it’s their job! Shouldn’t they just know what they’re supposed to be doing and how? Why do I have to tell them?”
- “Yes, I could mitigate a potential disaster by stepping into a conversation with a colleague or direct report, but I don’t want to come off as a know-it-all or seen as too demanding. Besides, I’m busy. They’ll figure it out eventually.”
Bringing this back to my disagreement with Buckingham and Goodall, the issue is not that feedback is a fallacy. It’s that very few organizations have the practical, relevant, and applicable tools in place that enable people to give and receive feedback effectively.
No wonder it’s viewed so negatively! We are not equipped with the necessary skills to do (and say) what we know matters most.
Which, come to think of it, is exactly what the authors are saying – just from a different slant:
“There’s nothing more believable and more authoritative than sharing what you saw…and how it made you feel. Use phrases such as ‘This is how that came across for me,’ or ‘This is what that made me think,’ or even just ‘Did you see what you did there?’ Those are your reactions — they are your truth…as seen through your eyes.”
Exactly! This IS what Fierce Feedback teaches.
“The emphasis here should not be on why – ‘Why didn’t that work?’ ‘Why do you think you should do that?’ …Instead, focus on what – ‘What do you actually want to have happened?’ ‘What are a couple of actions you could take right now?’”
Yes. Yes. Yes! This is, again, exactly what Fierce Feedback offers and teaches; it’s why we so strongly believe in all forms of feedback.
It’s all about having “people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel…”
Perfect! (Have you been hanging out, incognito, in the back of my classes?)
WHY FEEDBACK IS IMPORTANT
A leader in one of our client-organizations told me a story that makes all of this that much more poignant and powerful: She had been working at the same company for 10 years when she received a significant promotion to a high-profile project. The stakes were significant and success was non-negotiable.
During that first year, she felt a great deal of anxiety and stress, not to mention frustration. She rarely received any feedback at all from her new manager and little clarity on expectations.
When the day came for her first annual review in the new position, she began organizing the files in her office and collecting her personal effects because she was sure she was about to be let go, at the very least, demoted. She even called her husband, who happened to work across the street, and asked him to be on the ready, since she was certain she’d need a shoulder to cry on.
Imagine her surprise when she met with her manager and received nothing but glowing recommendations and “exceeds expectations” across the board!
Six months later she left the company.
Giving feedback, “sharing our truth,” naming what we see and how it makes us feel, even (and maybe especially) where praise and recognition are concerned, makes all the difference. Had she received it all along, she may not have left at all.
Yes, too many organizations get it wrong – including the extremes of Bridgewater Associates and Netflix, as Buckingham suggests in his article — which is why we at Fierce remain committed to feedback itself and Fierce Feedback, specifically.
The limitless business and relational results that feedback drives when done well – with skill, grace, humility, and courage — are wonderful to witness and certainly make the case that no one should ever give up on feedback.
Were Marcus Buckingham given the opportunity to reframe his argument with an understanding of Fierce Feedback, I’ve no doubt he would agree that it’s no fallacy at all; rather, more needed than ever!
Interested in finding out more about how you can become more effective at feedback? In this blog, we share the three ways anyone can unlock the true value of feedback.