Why Feedback Doesn’t Work

When my daughter Nichole was in middle school she liked to play on her Nintendo DS when she should have been in bed. Surprisingly my yelling  – “Go to sleep! You have school tomorrow!” – didn’t make her go to sleep. She did get better at hiding it. Just like me at that age, except I was hiding a Heinlein  novel. The word “feedback” provokes a reaction in many people. We think of situations like “Step into my office and have a seat.”, or “We need to talk.” I would bet that just reading those words some felt their stomach drop or the hair on the back of their necks stand up.

Poorly Delivered Feedback Worsens Performance

Why does “feedback” provoke such a strong reaction? Because it’s usually done badly. What’s been inflicted on you, you don’t want to inflict on others. You like doing things the right way and you know that wasn’t it. Or you’ve given feedback and it hasn’t changed anything. Or you want your staff to like you and everybody to work together, and giving them an honest appraisal of their performance just makes you look like an a**hole. You may have experienced any or all these situations. . . . and you’d be right. Poorly delivered feedback w delivered in the wrong way and in the wrong context will just make things worse. Your staff will only learn to hide things better. Even insincere, unspecific but positive feedback will do more harm than good. Old-school managers will tell you to give two pats for every poke. The old “tell them something good, tell them what they need to fix, finish with something good.” In my uniformed days we called this a “sh*t sandwich”. Something unpleasant between two pieces of fluff. The good news will be long forgotten, and even resented, long after the sting of the negative lingers. But we also know that high performers need, crave, and demand feedback on their performance. Like high-performing athletes they need a coach. A third-party observer that can see things they can’t see to give them awareness they need. Somebody who has the skills to close the loop that allows them to excel.

How Do We Provide Good Feedback?

First, stop giving bad feedback. Bad feedback will usually have one or more of these characteristics:

  1. It’s insincere or unspecific – If you’re telling somebody that they’re doing a good job, but you can’t tell them why or give a specific example, then you’re just blowing smoke and they’ll know it. Stifle yourself.
  2. It’s a personal attack – if you are thinking the words “bad attitude”, or even worse say them, then you’re giving bad feedback. Even worse, being shouted at, growled at, or given feedback by somebody who’s clearly angry and upset won’t do anything except make things worse.
  3. There’s no plan for the future – if you give feedback that is sincere, specific, and based on reality, but you leave them without a clear idea of what they’re going to do about it, then you’re doing it wrong.
  4. It’s untimely – just like paper-training a puppy, the longer the gap between action and feedback, the less useful it is. Good feedback is as immediate as possible.
  5. It’s public – negative or corrective feedback is for consumption in private. Negative feedback given in public has only one effect: humiliation.

If the feedback you’re about to give meets any of these criteria, it’s bad feedback. Don’t do it. Stop doing it. Don’t do it again. You won’t go from tyrant to prince overnight, but you can at least stop being the tyrant.

Your Action

If you’re a manager who regularly gives feedback to her staff, then good for you. For one week, keep track of how often you give feedback, and whether it’s positive or negative. What’s your ratio after five days? Do you give more negative than positive feedback? Other Reading:

Bernie works with small, medium (and sometimes) large companies, start-ups, and volunteer organizations to help them set a vision that is executable, effective, and to surround themselves with people who will help them succeed. I believe the workplace is a place to thrive, not just survive. Call me if you want help transforming your business. 

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