(by Buckingham, Goodall; "HBR's 10 Must Reads 2021")
The Challenge: Managers today are bombarded with calls to give feedback--constantly, directly, and critically. But it turns out that telling people what we think of their performance and how they can do better is not the best way to help them excel and, in fact, can hinder development.
Underpinning the current conviction that feedback is an unalloyed good are three theories that we commonly accept as truths:
The theory of the source of truth: That other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses, and that the best way to help you, therefore, is for them to show you what you cannot see for yourself.
The theory of learning: 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.
The theory of excellence: That great performance is universal, analyzable, and describably, and that once 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.
What these three theories have in common is self-centeredness: They take our own expertise and what we are sure is our colleagues' inexpertise as givens; they assume that my way is necessarily your way. But as it turns out, in extrapolating from what creates our own performance to what might create performance in others, we overreach. Research reveals that none of these theories is true.
The Reality: Research shows that, first, we aren't the reliable raters of other people's performance that we think we are; second, criticism inhibits the brain's ability to learn; and third, excellence is idiosyncratic, can't be defined in advance, and isn't the opposite of failure. Manager's can't "correct" a person's way to excellence.
Unreliable judges: People don't have the objectivity to hold in their heads a stable definition of an abstract quality and then accurate evaluate someone else on it. Our evaluations are deeply colored by our own understanding of what we're rating others on, our own sense of what good looks like for a particular competency, our harshness or leniency as raters, and our own inherent and unconscious biases. This is called the idiosyncratic rater effect, and it's large (more than half of your rating of another reflects your characteristics, not theirs) and resilient (no amount of training can lessen it). This leads to systemic error, which is magnified when ratings are considered in aggregate. There are only two sorts of measurement error in the world: random error, which you can reduce by averaging many readings, and systemic error, which you can't. We've built all our performance and leadership feedback tools as though assessment errors are random, and they're not--they're systemic.
Brain inhibitions: Learning is less a function of adding something that isn't there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already is. This is because (a) we grow more in our areas of greater ability (people grow far more neurons and synaptic connections where they already have the most neurons and synaptic connections), which means learning has to start by finding and understanding those patterns, and (b) getting attention to our strengths catalyzes learning, whereas focusing attention to our shortcomings/gaps smothers it. Learning happens when we see how we might do something better by adding some new nuance or expansion to our own understanding; learning rests on our grasp of what we're doing well, not on what we're doing poorly, and certainly not on soemeone else's sense of what we're doing poorly. We learn most when someone else pays attention to what's working within us and asks us to cultivate it intelligently.
Idiosyncratic excellence: Excellence in any endeavor is almost impossible to define, and yet getting there, for each of us, is relatively easy. It seems to be inextricably and wonderfully intertwined with whoever demonstrates it. Excellence is also not the opposite of failure in the same sense that if you study disease and you will learn a lot about disease and precious little about health; eradicating depression will get you no closer to joy. Exit interviews with employees who leave tell you nothing about why others stay. If you study failure, you'll learn a lot about failure about nothing about how to achieve excellence. In fact, excellence and failure often have a lot in common. Since excellence is idiosyncratic and cannot be learned by studying failure, we can never help another person succeed by holding her performance up against a prefabricated model of excellence--that approach will only ever get her to adequate performance.
The Solution: Managers need to help their team members see what's working, stopping them with a "Yes! That!" and sharing their experience of what the person did well.
Look for outcomes: Excellence is an outcome, so take note of a positive outcome, and turn to the team member who created the outcome and say, "That! Yes, that!" You'll stop the flow of work for a moment and pull your colleague's attention back toward something she just did that really worked.
|Can I give you some feedback?||Here's my reaction.|
|Good job!||Here are three things that really worked for me. What was going through your mind when you did them?|
|Here's what you should do.||Here's what I would do.|
|Here's where you need to improve.||Here's what worked best for me, and here's why.|
|That didn't really work.||When you did x, I felt y or I didn't get that.|
|You need to improve your communication skills.||Here's exactly where you started to lose me.|
|You need to be more responsive.||When I don't hear from you, I worry that we're not on the same page.|
|You lack strategic thinking.||I'm struggling to understand your plan.|
|You should do x [in response to a request for advice].||What do you feel you're struggling with, and what have you done in the past that's worked in a similar situation?|
Replay your instinctive reactions: Learn how to replay to your people your own personal reactions. They key is not to tell someone how well she's performed or how good she is. While simple praise isn't a bad thing, you are by no means the authority what objectively good performance is, and instinctively she knows this. Instead, describe what you experienced when her moment of excellence caught your attention. There's nothing more believable and more authoritative than sharing what you saw from her and how it made you feel.
Never lsoe sight of your highest-priority interrupt: Remember that the interrupt is the most visible tool you have--when you point out what she did wrong, you're merely remediating--and that remediating not only inhibits learning but also gets you no closer to excellent performance. If you see somebody doing something that really works, stopping her and dissecting it with her isn't only a high-priority interrupt, it is your highest-priority interrupt.
Explore the past, present, and future. When people come to you asking for feedback on their performance or what they might need to fix to get promoted, try this:
Start with the present. If a team member approaches you with a problem, he's dealing with it now. He's feeling weak or challenged, and you have to address that. But rather than tackling the problem head-on, ask your colleague to tell you three things that are working for him right now. Can be anything. Just ask the question, and you're priming him with oxytocin. Getting him to think about specific things that are going well will alter his brain chemistry so that he can be open to new solutions and new ways of thinking or acting.
Next, go to the past. Ask him, "When you had a problem like this in the past, what did you do that worked?" Get him thinking about that and seeing it in his mind's eye: what he actually felt and did, and what happened next.
Finally, turn to the future. Ask your team member, "What do you alredya know you need to do? What do you already know works in this situation?" By all means offer up one or two of your own experiences to see if they might clarify his own. But operate under the assumption that he already knows the solution--you're just helping him recognize it.
The emphasis here should not be on "whys"--"Why didn't that work?" "Why do you think you should do that?"--beacuse those lead both of you into a fuzzy world of conjecture and concepts. Instead, focus on the "whats"--"What do you actually want to have happen?" "What are a couple of actions you could take right now?" These sorts of questions yield concrete answers, in which your colleague can find his actual self doing actual things in the near-term future.
Last modified 06 April 2022