Nutshell: The excellence business: the fallacy of feedback and what to do about it

Written by
Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Published
04 May 2020

04 May 2020 • by Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Feedback may be here to stay, but to make the most of its potential, we also need to be aware of its pitfalls.

Here’s a question for us all to ponder: how many times in the last week have we been asked to rate an experience or a purchase or for just a few minutes of our time to improve that service? Those rows of stars have become a fact and a feature of modern life. Our responses and opinions - our feedback - have become an integral part of modern life, part of a culture where everything is be reviewed and rated in a seemingly constant drive to approve and improve. 

And it’s not just a matter of liking that latest cat video. Our obsession with feedback has also spilled over into our working lives, with a greater emphasis than ever on the perennially tricky matter of how best to encourage positive performance and behaviours – or tackle the opposite. Just like those products and services, it seems that we’re feted to be rated, exhorted or nudged along in a carefully calibrated effort to improve personal and performance excellence. 

The case for feedback – and some reservations

It’s true that, at work, almost all of us want to improve, learn and be better at what we do. To do that, we need to make adjustments and corrections as we progress, but it’s not always easy to see or make the right changes ourselves. Even the most self-aware of us has our blind spots [link to Johari window content]. That’s when we need an external perspective to guide us. In Tasha Eurich’s two-factor model of self-awareness, for example, leaders must “actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and getting feedback to understand how others see them”. Feedback, it seems, is an important element in developing our own, and others’, self-awareness and growth. 

There’s plenty of evidence, too, that people at work understand this. Why else would we expend so much time and effort delivering and receiving feedback to each other? And why wouldn’t we value workplace cultures where positive feedback environments help us to understand the contribution we’re making and support personal and professional development? There’s a strong sense that management thinker, Ken Blanchard, was right when he famously told us that “Feedback is the breakfast of champions”.

It’s not, of course, that simple. In basic models of communication, feedback provides the means of knowing a message has been received. Crucially, though, this feedback can only get through if the medium or channel used is appropriate and effective, and is not disrupted by a whole host of communication barriers along the way . And that, perhaps, explains why such an extensive industry and literature has grown up to help us navigate these choppy waters. We are not, after all, five-star seeking products and services; we’re human, with all the strengths, weaknesses, imperfections and biases that implies. 

That may also help to account for why so many processes and models for delivering and receiving feedback at work – both traditional and more radical - are increasingly under fire. Think annual performance reviews and employee surveys criticised as too process-driven, used too infrequently and often in isolation; 360° feedback that can all too easily become an exercise in acrimony and revenge; tech-based real-time solutions like radical transparency that threaten to tip from feedback into abuse or surveillance. The case for feedback is not, perhaps, as clear-cut as we might imagine. 

Buckingham and Goodall’s feedback fallacy

It’s an argument taken up by authors and consultants, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. In our seemingly never-ending search for better ways to give and receive feedback, they claim, we’re assuming that feedback is always useful. In fact, by focussing on the how, what and where, we’re in danger of missing the point: that the only reason we’re looking for feedback nirvana is that we want to help people do better. And when we ask how we can “help people to thrive and excel”, we might find that feedback is not really the answer at all – rather that it’s something of a red herring, a fallacy.

Buckingham and Goodall admit that feedback is essential when it comes to delivering clear instructions or fixing basis mistakes. But those mistake-fixing tools should not be confused with what we routinely ask feedback to do: telling people what we think of their performance and how they might do things better. They identify and challenge three commonly accepted business truths that underpin “the current conviction that feedback is an unalloyed good”. 

The Source of Truth: idiosyncratic rater effect 

Picture the scene. It’s time for those annual appraisals we all know and love. We’ve marshalled everything we need to explore and quantify how our people are doing. We have those KPIs, following the organisation’s rating system. But hang on. Is this person really a ‘5’ as a communicator? How does that compare with the rest of the team? Can I be really be sure about the criteria? What’s the difference between, say, a 3 and a 4? Will I be seen as a hard-ass if I apply the criteria strictly? Or can I cut my team a little slack?

In an ideal world, we’d all like to think that we are pretty reliable narrators of other’s performance at work: how good a decision maker they are; how much attention they pay to detail; whether they have good leadership potential. After all, isn't it enough for us to observe how someone shows up regularly for us to be able to rate them accurately?  And what would we do if we didn’t rate our people? How else would we differentiate between employees? Decide who gets the big promotion, or who needs a blunt conversation in a small room, with a bunch of tissues at hand? Ratings give us the framework and the confidence to make decisions between our people; they’re the glue that holds together most organisational performance management systems, appraisals and 360° reviews, those competency frameworks. 

When it comes to plotting performance, however, there’s an elephant in the room that can be rather awkward to acknowledge. For many years now, a range of research has revealed that relying on our ability to rate others – whatever the format or context - is not just unreliable, but, according Marcus Buckingham, “ludicrous”.

In an earlier article for Harvard Business Review, Buckingham challenges the received wisdom that “with enough training and time, people can become reliable raters of other people”. Instead, he gives us the results of three psychological studies that shine a light on the phenomenon of idiosyncratic rater effect. 

The bottom line is that we’re disturbingly unreliable as raters of other people’s performance, and no amount of training with help us to get better. In fact, the studies showed that more than half of the variation in a manager’s ratings could be explained by the “unique rating patterns of the individual doing the rating”. That means that, on average, 61% - by far the larger part - of our ratings of colleagues say more about ourselves than the person we’re rating. 

With all of this in mind, those apparently harmless inner monologues we all have about rating our colleagues might seem a bit less harmless, especially if those ratings are used for a whole raft of crucial decisions from the allocation of training budgets to salary increases or promotions. It’s sobering to think that, when we are asked to rate a colleague on their ‘leadership’ or ‘communication’ skills, the largest influence on our verdict will come from our own idiosyncrasies and biases, what we consider good leadership or clear communication to look like; how experienced or competent we are in these areas. 

And if the effects of our biases can count for so much on a one-to-one basis, imagine the combined effect of the data collected by the average 360° feedback exercise. Looked at through the lens of idiosyncratic rater effect, we’re effectively asking a group of equally unreliable raters from a non-randomised sample of people we happen to work with to pass judgement on someone’s performance and behaviours. Unsurprisingly, the results are often unhelpful and demoralising in equal measure. Adding more bad data to bad data does not give accurate, objective feedback. Rather, inaccuracies tend to be multiplied, leading, in Buckingham’s unequivocal conclusion to nothing more that “gossip, quantified”. 

Whatever the feedback format, idiosyncratic rater effect also explains that, no matter how much training we get, feedback can still be still such hard work all round:  “Recipients have to struggle through this forest of distortion in search of something that they recognize as themselves,” says Buckingham, “And because your feedback to others is always more you than them, it leads to systematic error, which is magnified when ratings are considered in aggregate.” We may think we’re the source of truth, but we’re not: we’re a source of error – and a serious one at that. The ‘truth’ will always be nothing more than our truth, seen through our own experiences and biases. 

How We Learn 

Buckingham and Goodall’s views on strengths underpin their second fallacy: that feedback “contains useful information, and that this information is the magic ingredient that will accelerate someone’s learning.” Instead, they believe that we learn best not when someone tries to fill a gap in our knowledge and skills, or offer a course correction – the basis of so much feedback – but when we – and others - recognise and reinforce individual strengths that already exist. 

Neuroscience, according to Buckingham and Goodall, supports this hypothesis in two key ways. First, as our brains have developed in unique ways, we all have different areas of ability – and any new connections we make tend to be stronger if we build on what’s already there. This means that, to learn effectively, we need to understand our own patterns and not someone else’s. Even the most well-meaning feedback from someone else might not hit the mark. And it certainly won’t if it calls attention to our weaknesses, which tends to “smother” learning, whereas a focus on existing strengths can “catalyse” it. 

Research by organisational theorist, Richard Boyatzis, has also shown also that negative or corrective feedback tends to stimulate our sympathetic nervous system, triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response which shuts down all but the most essential of the brain’s functions – hardly a fertile environment for learning. In contrast, positive feedback or coaching activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and digest’ system associated with a sense of wellbeing and cognitive openness. 

Buckingham and Goodall conclude that learning rests on “our grasp of what we’re doing well, not on what we’re doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else’s sense of what we’re doing poorly.” The old mantra that we need to go beyond our comfort zones to learn may be of limited value: “Take us very far out of our comfort zones, and our brains stop paying attention to anything other than surviving the experience”. If our neural pathways are most concentrated in those comfort zones, that’s where we’re most likely to be in our flow – and that’s where feedback needs to meet us. 

Excellence 

Many formal models of feedback work by plotting a person’s performance against a pre-determined set of criteria supposedly determined to support personal and organisational success. But, for Buckingham and Goodall, excellence simply won’t be marshalled in this way – and it’s counter-productive to try. 

Instead, excellence is idiosyncratic. It can be cultivated, but it can’t be forced, and there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all model. It’s also not the opposite of failure: “If you study failure, you’ll learn a lot about failure but nothing about how to achieve excellence”. It follows that we can’t help others succeed by measuring performance against an idealised model of excellence and then giving feedback that looks to plug the gaps. 

So what are we supposed to do about it? 

If our current models of feedback are so flawed, what’s the answer? Just how do we foster excellence in others, give them the positive attention they need to grow and thrive. Fortunately, Buckingham and Goodall offer some key tips and techniques for what they call “the excellence business”.

Focus on outcomes. 
When, as leaders, we see someone doing something really well – demonstrating excellence - we need to stop and tell them, reinforcing a pattern that’s already there and helping that person to “recognize it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it”. The fact that we are unreliable raters of others’ abilities is not to say that we can’t be reliable raters of our own experience of others. We can tell colleagues with a high degree of accuracy whether they inspired us when they gave the presentation or wowed us with their last report, capturing and communicating what we experienced when that moment of excellence caught our attention. The idea is to explore the nature of excellence together. Whether giving, receiving or asking for feedback, we need to help ourselves and others to understand it in such a way that we can improve at it – and do it again.

Explore the present, past, and future. 
Exploring excellence can become a feedback default by focussing on the present, past and future. First we need to look at the present situation. Things may be going brilliantly, or less well, but the point is to open the conversation and provide a safe space for our colleagues to consider new or reinforced ways of thinking or acting. 

Looking at the past helps to identify familiar patterns and often suggest a route forward for the future. 

As to the future, operate on the assumption that the person already knows the solution. Guide if necessary, but, mostly, we just need to help the person concerned to recognise that the desired outcome is within their gift and to focus on what needs to happen next to make it happen. 

It remains to be seen whether the Buckingham and Goodall excellence thesis will become a widespread substitute for more established methods of giving and receiving feedback. When it comes to self-awareness, feedback will undoubtedly remain an important tool to improve our understanding of how the world sees us and how we encourage others to develop their own self-awareness too. It might not be possible entirely to “correct” a person’s way to excellence, but we can – through trust, the right levels of candour and regular, well-structured feedback conversations – use more finessed course corrections to develop and grow. 

But their work certainly gives us pause for thought about how we give and receive feedback for anything other than the most basic mistake-fixing. If nothing else, it might make us humbler about what we can realistically give feedback on, especially in terms of using hard and fast ‘objective’ ratings in a way that can make performance management at work can be so demotivating for everyone involved. We might all think carefully about the observation from Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, that ‘when you label me, you negate me’. 

Feedback may be here to stay, but to make the most of its potential, we also need to be aware of its pitfalls – and where its inherent failings might actively inhibit rather than encourage greater self-awareness and performance. 

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