Perspective: What feedback is – and what it is not

Written by
Subramanian Venkat, Associate Dean for Research, Nazarbayev University

28 Sep 2020

28 Sep 2020 • by Subramanian Venkat, Associate Dean for Research, Nazarbayev University

Feedback is something happens in all types of organisations, from small to big, private to public, profit to non-profit. But what is it?

It’s not about teaching something to someone. For example, if you’re a doctor and you are teaching a student intern, you teach the intern about the medical procedures they need to master. This is not feedback. It’s not about giving advice either – advice is usually offered to someone who may not be your colleague; perhaps a friend or family member, and this may not be related to the person’s performance at all.

Feedback should ultimately improve the performance of the receiver. However, there are differing views as to whether feedback achieves this objective. 

The feedback fallacy

Harvard Business Review article entitled ‘The Feedback Fallacy’ by Buckingham and Goodall (2019) makes the presumption that the purpose of feedback is to identify areas of improvement in a colleague’s work. That presumption is questionable; not all feedback is to identify areas of weakness in an employee by their supervisor.

Feedback may also take the form of the appreciation of someone’s work, and not just involve picking out areas where the employee might have underperformed or perceived to have underperformed due to, as the article says, ‘weaknesses’ or ‘gaps in competencies.’ The premise of ‘feedback’, at least from the perspective of this article, is slightly negative in nature.

The HBR article centers on three rationales for arguing that feedback is ineffective, if not counter-productive at times.

The first one assumes that the person who is providing feedback is the ‘source of truth’. While it is quite possible that, in some cases, you may have unqualified supervisors dishing out poor feedback, in other cases, feedback can come from someone with great experience and insight. This feedback can be helpful to the receiver in helping to improve aspects of their work, and something that should not be discounted.

The second argument is that feedback is used to identify gaps in the skill sets of employees and leads to teaching, where one’s colleagues are supposed to teach the ‘missing’ skill to the underperforming employee. However, feedback is more about providing thoughts on areas of improvement; it is not about teaching. In many cases, it is important for the employee to understand which areas they should focus on to improve and how to do it.

The third argument of the article is a variation of the second one – that employees have to strive for excellence and may have some competency gaps that inhibit their development. However, the concept of ‘excellence’ is not universal – it varies across cultures and contexts. The concept of excellence will be coming from the perspective of the specific person who is providing feedback, and it is not clear that their version of excellence should necessarily be incorrect. 

The good and the bad

In general, feedback is useful when it is not used as a control mechanism, but as an honest and open discussion between the giver and the receiver. The context for feedback starts at the beginning of the process – when performance expectations are set, such as KPIs, sales growth, cost reductions, etc. But setting goals and expectations is as much an art as it is a science; they need to be realistic but also stretch the employee’s skill sets. Not all ‘underperformance’ is the fault of the employee concerned.

The employer also bears some responsibility of providing the infrastructure, support and a suitable environment for the employee to achieve the KPIs. The context of feedback ends with what happens subsequently – whether there is constructive follow up and a supportive culture that helps the employee to make their work more rewarding for themselves and their organizations. In conclusion, feedback should be just as much about the good things the employee has done, and is doing, and should motivate your employee.

Subramanian Venkat is the Associate Dean for Research at Nazarbayev University’s Graduate School of Business. His areas of research involve business strategy, business models, and emerging markets.


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