Rethinking feedback (1/4) : Why most personal feedback is useless

Every age has had a collection of flawed beliefs that have driven behavior that made little sense in retrospect. In the early 1900s, thanks to the psychologists of the day, kids in England were separated from parents and sent to boarding schools at an early age. And, until a decade ago, we had a couple of decades where the press and flawed research would have us believe that boosting self esteem was more important than anything else.

An item on the current list of head-fakes, in my opinion, is giving and receiving feedback. Managers are asked to take it seriously, leadership coaches are studying it and business schools are talking about it.

Before I explain why, I’d like to highlight a quick terminology quirk. I refer to professional feedback as feedback around hard skills – e.g. creating better PowerPoint, doing better analysis, giving better presentations, etc. And, personal feedback refers to everything else. This deals with all the hard, personal stuff – “you come across as too mellow” or “you’re going to have to learn to tone it down.” The lines between these can often be blurred. But, it is important we start with these definitions and work our way through the problem.

There are 3 reasons for most feedback being useless –

1. Most feedback just attacks the flip side of a strength. Telling a warm person they are often too warm or telling an analytical data geek that they need to be less analytical isn’t very helpful. Yet, this is pretty much the default state of most feedback conversations. This happens simply because these “issues” are easiest to observe. Learning to work with (and not over do) our strengths is a skill we all develop through our lifetimes. Presenting just the flip side of these regularly does more harm than good.

2. Most feedback tells more about the giver than the receiver. If I am a loud and talkative person (I am :-)), the chances that I’ll give you feedback for being the same are near zero. In any case, it would take a huge lack of self awareness for me to do so. However, if someone I find annoying exhibits a trait similar to one you exhibit, you will definitely hear about it.

3. Context matters a lot. Our behaviors often change with context. And, as a giver of feedback, it is hard to really understand if we’ve gotten context right. Is this how the person always behaves? Would it change with different circumstances? As any person who works with data knows, it is dangerous to read too much into small sample sizes.

And, if all this wasn’t bad enough, just take a moment to consider the impact. As we know from experience, people remember one negative comment over twenty positive ones. So, even if you did have something incredibly insightful thing to say but, somehow, phrased it wrong – you can be sure that it is all the other person would remember.

Feedback done well assumes a very high level of wisdom, self awareness, tact and perspective on the part of both the giver and receiver.

I’m not sure I would put money on those odds.

So, what do we do about it? Coming up in parts 2, 3, 4. The key words are self-awareness, experimentation, and trust.