Management by Coaching
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
FIVE UGLY TRUTHS ABOUT FEEDBACK
The way you give feedback may be stunting your employees’ growth
Feedback is everywhere in today’s world. You can’t even purchase a pillow at Pottery Barn without being asked to assess your sales associate’s performance. From customer surveys and employee recognition programs to 360 feedback assessments and annual performance reviews, we’re drowning in opinions about what we do right and where we need to improve. But is all this feedback helping us get better? Recent research published by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall suggests that the way we traditionally give feedback may not be the best route to excellence. Let’s look at five approaches that don’t work and alternatives that help employees improve and build confidence.
- Criticism isn’t constructive—Criticism implies judgment, and we cringe at the thought of being judged. We associate this concept with something we’ve done wrong or not as well as we should have done. It’s a past act, and talking about it won’t enable us to change what happened. That’s an uncomfortable feeling. If we fear we may have lost esteem in the eyes of another, that fear can be so potent that it feels like a threat to our survival.
When you offer constructive criticism, people’s defenses automatically go up and they can lose the ability to hear incoming information with an open mind. Reframe the conversation. Instead of providing feedback or constructive criticism, shift your thinking and terminology to “feed forward.” This lets you communicate the behavior you’d like to see more of rather than dwelling on past mistakes.
- Pointing out people’s shortcomings and gaps doesn’t help them get better—Research shows that learning is more a function of recognizing, reinforcing and refining what is already there than adding what isn’t. There are two reasons for this. First, each brain grows where it is already strongest. That’s because people grow far more neurons and synaptic connections where they already have the most neurons and synaptic connections.
Second, positive feedback on strengths stimulates learning; attention to weaknesses smothers it. Brain science research shows that when people are asked to think about what needs to be corrected, the sympathetic nervous system lights up. This “fight or flight” response overrides other parts of the brain and allows us to attend only to information that is vital to survival.
Giving feedback is an art. In the hands of an unskilled person, it can hurt performance, destroy motivation and jeopardize self-esteem.
On the flip side, when people are asked to concentrate on how they might achieve a goal, the sympathetic nervous system is not activated. What lights up instead is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system. This is the system that stimulates the growth of new neurons in adults.
We learn best within our comfort zone. It’s where we’re most creative, insightful, productive, and most open to possibilities. Get too far out of the comfort zone and the brain shuts down. When working with someone on professional development, it’s essential to meet them where they are. Pay attention to what they’re doing right and ask them to cultivate it. Comfortably stretch their comfort zone by coaching them to subtly shift or expand a current capability.
- People are unreliable when evaluating others—Research consistently reveals that humans lack the objectivity to retain in their heads a stable definition of an abstract quality such as leadership or assertiveness and then accurately evaluate someone else on it. Our assessment of others is distorted by the lens of our understanding of what we’re rating others on, our opinion of what defines good for a particular competency, our harshness or softness as a rater, and our unconscious biases. Put simply, our feedback is more about us than the person we’re evaluating.
When you give feedback, remember it’s just your perspective. Avoid positioning yourself as the definitive source of right and wrong. For example:
Instead of: “Your presentation is way too long; no one will ever sit through it.” Say: “You lost me when you got into all the detail on retrospective rating plans. How do you think your prospect will react?”
Instead of: “You need to stop taking everything so personally and be more resilient.” Say: “What can you learn from this situation? Knowing what you know now, what might you do differently next time?”
- Feedback has limited impact on performance—Feedback can be useful when right or wrong is not subjective and you’re providing direction on what steps need to be taken or providing additional factual information required to complete a task correctly. For example, there’s a right and wrong way to rate a businessowners policy. But when the right way to do something is subjective and can’t be clearly articulated up front, feedback takes on a different tone. We’re not sharing factual information; we’re telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better. The research is clear that this approach doesn’t help people learn and grow.
When sharing feedback in situations where how to do something can be subjective, remember it’s your perspective. Be clear and direct about your concerns but avoid coming off as the authority on someone else’s behavior and what they may need to do differently. Have a collaborative conversation, not a monologue. Approach it with a mindset of humble exploration. Humility is the recognition that we don’t know, even when we think we do. Be curious, not certain. The conversation is an opportunity for understanding and genuine learning for both parties. Agree on what needs to happen next.
- There is no formula for excellence—Excellence is idiosyncratic. Each person’s version is uniquely formed and is an expression of their traits and life experience. Everyone’s path to success is different. Feedback that relies on a standardized model of success and focuses on where someone may be missing the mark won’t lead to excellence.
Instead, look for excellent outcomes. Let’s say a sales professional identifies a problem and solution that helps her land a new account. Acknowledge and call her attention to the specific behaviors that really worked for her.
Tom Landry, long-time coach of the Dallas Cowboys, two-time Super Bowl champion and one of the winningest coaches in NFL history, illustrates the power of focusing on each player’s strengths. While competing teams were reviewing game footage of missed tackles and dropped balls, Landry studied his team’s winning plays. His instincts told him that each player would improve his performance most if he could see in slow motion how his personal version of excellence looked. He created a highlight reel for each player that showed when he had done something easily, naturally, and effectively. Landry reasoned that while the number of wrong ways to do something was limitless, the number of right ways for any given player was not. It was knowable, and the best way to discover it was to look at plays where that player had performed excellently.
When behavior needs to change
Focusing on strengths sounds good, but you’re probably questioning how practical that is. What happens when a manager needs to point out when people aren’t performing well and need to do better?
Growth requires an understanding of what we’re doing well and where we need to improve. When someone needs to improve, be specific and direct about what has to change and why. Be factual, not interpretive. Focus on the particular behavior you want the person to demonstrate rather than your interpretation of their behavior. Your analysis of the person’s behavior may not be right and will just make them more defensive. For example:
Instead of: “You need to be more confident.” Say: “You need to make more calls each week to meet your sales goal.”
Set a mutually agreeable and measurable process for achieving the desired behavior and check in regularly to talk about progress. Without a target and data measuring how near or far from the goal they are, most people will find it difficult to improve.
When you share feedback, provide context. While it is vital to be clear about what must change, it is equally important to let people know they are valued and that their contributions are generally positive. Without that broader and genuine affirmation of their value, people will feel little motivation to improve.
Giving feedback is an art. In the hands of an unskilled person, it can hurt performance, destroy motivation and jeopardize self-esteem. When delivered with expertise, respect, curiosity and the honest intention to support someone’s success, feedback can be a game-changer.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM. CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurers, agencies, and brokers. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds and www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson.