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What Managers Get Wrong About Feedback
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What Managers Get Wrong About Feedback

Marcus Buckingham, head of people and performance research at the ADP Research Institute, and Ashley Goodall, senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco Systems, say that managers and organizations are overestimating the importance of critical feedback. They argue that, in focusing our efforts on correcting weaknesses and rounding people out, we lose the ability to get exceptional performance from them. Instead, we should focus on strengths and push everyone to shine in their own areas. To do that, companies need to rethink the way they review, pay, and promote their employees. Buckingham and Goodall are the authors of the book Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World and the HBR article “The Feedback Fallacy.”

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ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

Feedback. It’s something good leaders both provide to their employees and solicit from others so everyone can improve. It’s supposed to help us develop into better, more well-rounded workers and managers. And our performance review systems are structured around it to make sure we’re always paying and promoting the best people.

Our guests today say we’re doing this all wrong. They say the feedback that’s typically delivered in today’s corporate world isn’t doing us all that much good. They think that constructive criticism actually prevents people from reaching their full potential. And they’d like us to reimagine employee development accordingly.

Marcus Buckingham is a head of research at the ADP Research Institute, and Ashley Goodall is the head of Cisco leadership and team intelligence. Together, they’re the authors of the book Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World and the HBR article “The Feedback Fallacy.” Marcus and Ashley, thanks so much for coming in.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Our pleasure.

ASHLEY GOODALL: Thanks for having us.

ALISON BEARD: So, as someone who thrives on positive feedback myself, I really loved your premise, but I am struggling a bit with the practicality of it. You know, don’t bosses sometimes need to point out when their people aren’t performing well and push them to do better?

ASHLEY GOODALL: So, I think the first thing to say is yes, and then you have to understand what you get from that. So, if you help people fix their mistakes, you get fewer mistakes. Mistake-free isn’t the same as great, and it’s not the same as excellent.

So, the first thing to say is yes, we are not stepping out into the world and going everybody should start ignoring poor performance. But we’re saying two things. If you want to help people with poor performance, you need to focus on what step did they miss or what facts did they overlook.

And then the other thing that we’re saying is if you want to help create excellent performance, focus on what’s going well and how to turn that up. Which is to say that I think we tend to use, in the world of feedback, we tend to use our mistake fixing tools to be our excellence building tools, and then we’re sort of surprised when it turns out they don’t work that way.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: The thing that great leaders do is they absolutely pay attention to performance. They don’t ignore their people. One of the challenges in the world of work, of course, is that we don’t actually give people very much attention, we do the once a year performance review, and constant always on sort of feedback movement we’re in the middle of now is trying to fix that by giving people more ongoing attention.

The problem has become we then moved from constant ongoing attention, which is clearly a good thing, into a fetish with feedback on, as Ashley says, stuff that you need remediating on.

ALISON BEARD: I completely get that you need to focus on strengths and build strengths, but when you see a weakness – not necessarily mistakes, but someone’s a terrible communicator, or even a poor communicator, they could get a little bit better at it – isn’t it your job to work with them to build that weakness into a strength?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: No, no, that’s a waste of time. The best leaders seem to understand that each human is unique, and that the way in which they grow isn’t to turn weaknesses into strengths. That’s not what you see when you see performance in the world.

ALISON BEARD: What about making weaknesses not liabilities?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: If you want to go from -10 to 0, and you think that paying attention to what’s not working does that, go for gold. But there’s a whole different journey involved from going from 0 to excellent. The journey to excellence is going to be built out of what is currently really working with you.

It’s actually pretty easy to go stop that, or don’t do that. So much more challenging to take someone who you’ve seen something that works in them, whether you go that a strength by the way, whether you call that like something that’s working, that’s the only way you get to excellent performance.

ASHLEY GOODALL: And then there are a couple of things even with that -10 to 0 bit that I think are important. So, your example was communication skills, right? If we turn around and say we’ll do it like this, which is what a lot of that sort of feedback looks like, if I were you I would do it like this, or you need to be like this or – what you’re asking somebody to do is to be more like you.

And that’s a very hard thing for a brain to do. It’s annoying to all of us, because it would be easier if the world were all like us, if we wandered around in a forest of little clones of ourselves the whole time, because we wouldn’t have so much work to do to understand the other people. But the truth is that we’re all different.

And when you say to another human being essentially, do it my way, they can’t, it’s not that they don’t want to, or they don’t like being told that, they don’t know what your way is. They don’t know what it feels like, they don’t know what connections you make, they don’t know what triggers a particular move or a particular pivot that you might make.

The only thing you can ever say to a human being, outside as we said earlier, you missed a fact or you missed a step, is do it your way, but here’s where your way was working. In the example of communication skills, you can always say: here’s where I lost you. You can’t say: speak like this, even if it’s removing a liability. I mean that’s your assessment of how critical this thing is to the person. But it, it’s your assessment, it’s nothing more than that.

ALISON BEARD: Right.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: We had an experience of this in reading the audiobook for Nine Lies about Work. I’ve done, this is my ninth book, so I’ve read all my books. And therefore, I know an awful lot about reading an audiobook, I think to myself.

And I think, I want to help my colleague, Ashley, who has not read an audiobook before. So, I jump into the studio and I come out of my first day, and I say, listen, the thing you got to do is you’ve got to think about the fact that you’re reading a very sort of intimate experience, reading a book, and it’s an intimate experience on the receiving end. So, imagine you’re talking to the person who’s the producer like over coffee. And I’m loving my advice, I’m feeling I’m super helpful.

ASHLEY GOODALL: You were very happy. I even remember.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: So, it was like I’ve got it. This is what you should do, talk to her like you’re having coffee. So, he goes in, and he crushes it. And I’m like oh, did you take my advice? And he goes, no, not at all. Ashley is a pianist and he said the only time, I started off, it was a little odd, and then I suddenly realized I was sight reading. And what you do when you’re sight reading music is you’re always slightly out ahead, and when of course you’re reading a book, you’re slightly out ahead.

And the moment I realized this is really just sight reading, then it turned into a beautiful experience for me. Well, of the 1,002 things I could have told him beyond the whole talking to her through the glass as though you’re having coffee, 1,002 things, none of them would have been imagine you’re sight reading.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, so it sounds like you’re saying that managers can point out weaknesses or potential areas for growth, but only in sharing their own perceptions, and then leaving it open to the person about how to get from A to B?

ASHLEY GOODALL: Well, first thing, and it’s not that we’re saying, that what the data show is that everybody’s brain grows differently, point one. And point two, that you grow most in your areas where you’ve already got the most adapted connections. So, that’s what we know. Everybody’s brain is unique, but it also becomes more unique and more intensely unique over time.

So, from that perspective, we know too that a team leader is not a source of truth about what your weaknesses are or are not whether you have lots of strategic thinking or not. What a team leader owes a team member is their reaction only. And we know that the best sort of reaction is one that allows me to share with you my reaction about something that really worked. That’s what we know. Areas of growth aren’t weaknesses. Areas of growth are strengths.

ALISON BEARD: You all have a different definition of strengths than most people would, right? Could you share that with our listeners?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: A strength is an activity that strengthens you, and a weakness is an activity that weakens you. We normally think of a strength as what you’re good at and a weakness as what you’re bad at. Most of us in the real world have some things that we’re really quite good at that we hate. It’s like a gift that you’re cursed with.

So, you might be very, very good at selling but hate confrontation. But for whatever daft reason, you can sell, you just hate it. I was reading an article about Bill Hader, the SNL alum who now got that show on HBO called Barry, but he hated, hated live performance. Well, he’s on SNL, Saturday Night, the “L” stands for Live.

But Lorne Michaels said he, every day he’d pass him in the hall and he would be dripping with, he hated it, and he’s good at it. So, what do you call that? What do you call something that you’re really, really good at that you hate? Well, it’s weird to call it a strength because it depletes the living daylights out of you.

Instead the proper definition would be that anything that depletes you, drains you, even if you’re good at it, that’s a weakness. Anything that invigorates you, you lean into, where there’s a strong appetite for whatever reason, is a strength, a strength is what strengthens you.

You know what you lean into, you know what drains you, you know what invigorates you, you know what depletes you, you do. And once you know what those things are and have thought about them deeply, then you can start turning that into contribution.

ALISON BEARD: But I think the worry whether I’m talking about myself as an individual, or I’m a boss thinking about my team, the worry is that means you’re going to push someone in one direction and then they’ll become one-dimensional or get pigeonholed into that particular strength, and never have the opportunity to explore other areas where they might also be excellent.

ASHLEY GOODALL: Yeah, there’s a word for one-dimensional. Another word is excellent.

ALISON BEARD: But don’t managers have to be more than one-dimensional?

ASHLEY GOODALL: You know, we talk a lot about leadership, and we talk about the lists of things that leaders have to have. And we want leaders to be well-rounded, and we like them to be strategic and tactical and inspirational and vulnerable, we like all the things on the list. We want them in many ways to be the most well-rounded of the well-rounded people.

And they are perfectly sort of spherical I suppose, leaders, because we just rounded off all the little, all the little knobs and now they’re like super beings. Look at leaders in the real world and what you see is that leaders aren’t well-rounded at all. And that the characteristic that links them is not that they’re well-rounded but that they have followers.

We keep looking at leaders and going oh, let’s solve the riddle of leadership while ignoring actual leaders in the real world, because they all seem to be exceptions to the rule. You pivot and you look at the followers and you say well, why would you follow somebody?

You’d follow somebody because you see what they stand for, you can see where they are narrow, you can see where they are focused. And what’s attractive about that is it makes them predictable. That’s the way that leadership seems to operate in the world.

And then the last thing is you’re sitting at a particular juncture in an org chart, in an organization, you have a team, there are two jobs and then a third little bit, if you like. The two jobs are, make everybody on the team feel seen for who they are – for their unique strengths, appetites, desires, the things they run towards.

Job number two is, make sure the whole team understands where we’re all going together, and feels lifted and drawn by that. And number three is, there’s some administrative stuff that has get done, outcomes that need to be delivered. We’ve got to run things on budget, we’ve got to be, you know, we’ve got to execute staff meetings, we’ve got to have a plan to do a particular project. Those things need to be done, most people can figure out how to do them. We seem to have all our energy on the last bucket of stuff, which is the bucket without humans in it.

ALISON BEARD: So, individuals can certainly buy your book and decide that they’re going to be better leaders. But so much of our organizational structures are set up around feedback systems, 360-degree performance reviews, goals that are cascaded down through companies, ratings that people need to get in order to get pay and promotions. So how do we begin to change all of that?

ASHLEY GOODALL: We’re very often asked, I’m certainly often asked: look, I’m in the middle of an organization, I want to make this sort of change, what should I do? How should I persuade senior leaders to start thinking differently about all of these things?

My answer is always the same – have them meet the people who are using the tools and ask those people what they think. Have them meet the people who are having goals cascaded down to them. Have them meet people who are being put into one box of a nine box and told that they lack potential in some way. Have them meet people who have been given a performance rating and been told you are a two on a scale of one through five.

And ask them whether those people are excited about the work that they’re about to do next. What we’re talking about in the book is that in some places the top of the house has lost total contact with the bottom of the house. That we do not see the experiences of work every day, and we, we are sort of reaching out and pushing things down an organization – of course well intendedly to try and create performance, but we don’t step to the other end and go: what does this feel like to be on the receiving end of, and does it help me do my best work?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: A part of that is, and you can say this at any level you’re at in the company, how good’s this data? I’m being promoted or fired or developed based upon this rating, or this 360, or this nine-box grid, can we trust the data. Three years ago, we didn’t care because we put the 360 results in a drawer, we never looked at them again.

But now, you know, a bunch of companies they keep this data on you, this feedback data, this 360, this rating data, forever. And so, a legitimate question that any professional today should be asking their boss or their company is can I trust that this data is actually measuring what it says it’s measuring?

And if you push on potential data, ratings data, 360 feedback data, competency measurement data, all the data that we put into our talent management tools, you push on it even a little bit and you find that it doesn’t hold up, it doesn’t measure what it’s saying it’s measuring. The ratings of performance don’t measure performance. The ratings of competency don’t measure the competency. The 360s are actually putting more systemic error into the system than if you had just one person pulling it out and not the 360.

ALISON BEARD: Because they’re all based on people’s subjective opinions, and then the data puts the fernier of objectivity on it.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah, it’s actually very frightening. We – so much of your work at life, I mean, your life at work rather, is mediated through that data – how much you’re paid, whether you get a bonus, whether you get fired. And you push on that data and you realize that we’ve, we’ve built it as though human beings can be reliable raters of other human beings.

ALISON BEARD: And they can’t.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: And they can’t. And there is 40 years and growing of research saying unequivocally, I cannot hold an abstract concept in my head like, like executive presence let’s say, or strategic thinking, hold it in my head, reach into your psyche – by the way, I bump into you four times a month if that – and then reach into your psyche and rate you on it, hold that concept constant, move over to Ashley, who I bump into six times, reach into his head and rate him on that.

I can’t do that. In fact, we know just how bad I am at that because my rating pattern, which should change as I look at different humans, doesn’t change, it moves with me. It’s called the idiosyncratic rater effect, and it basically says more than 60 percent of the variance in my rating of you or Ashley is a function of me.

And you add more ratings points, data points, because it’s systematic error, you get more error, not less. Whether it’s human capital management systems that are deployed throughout the company and then kept forever, or whether it’s machine learning where the algorithms are basically taking existing assumptions and turning them into math, we are right at that moment where all of this data on us, all of it’s about to get multiplied like crazy, kept forever, and accelerated through algorithmic machine learning. Boy, if there was a time to make sure that the fundamental assumptions at the core of this were accurate and right, now is a bloody good time to do that.

ALISON BEARD: So, we throw out ratings, performance review systems as they currently exist, and what do we put in its place?

ASHLEY GOODALL: For performance systems, you want systems which aspire to a simpler thing. They don’t aspire to divine the truth of a human being at work, because frankly none of us can do that, and if we think we can, we’re both deluded as data scientists and also arrogant. We should divine the truth of what each team leader thinks or reacts or feels or experiences in response to each person on that team, and then we should figure out how to aggregate that.

The, the lie if you like that Marcus was just talking about is that human being are reliable raters of others. The corresponding truth is that we are reliable raters of our own experiences and judgements. So, we need to vector our measurement tools, flip our measurement tools, if you like, so that for example, if you were on my team, instead of answering the question are you a top performer? Which asks me to rate you, I would answer the question: do I always go to you for excellent work? And so, I’m now reporting on me, my activities. Okay, you get good data that way. So, we can upgrade the data, or turn the data from not data into actual data. We can fix the data.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So, if I’m a manager working in an organization that isn’t going to flip the switch immediately and change how they do everything, what can I do tomorrow to make my team happier, more engaged, more productive?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, I would say there’s two obvious things. One is you could give people a blank pad of paper, draw a line down the middle of it, put loved it on the top of one column and loathed it on the top of the other column and say hey, before we have a wee chat about staff, why don’t you just take it around with you for a week, use the raw material of a regular week at work. Any time you find yourself leaning into something, any time you find yourself with time flying by, scribble it down in the loved it column. I don’t know what it is.

And then any time you find yourself procrastinated or trying to hand it off to the new person or whatever, time dragging on, scribble it down in the loathed. And there’s going to be a bunch of stuff you don’t scribble down just in the middle somewhere, but would that be a great conversation? I don’t even know. Which activities you leaned into and which ones you ugh. But that would be great. Do love it, loathe it. What we call in the book, we say spend a week in love with your job.

And the second thing would be, and we found this for sure, just talk to your people every week about near term work. 10, 15 minutes every week.

ASHLEY GOODALL: Because threes are good, let me add one. The third thing is to stop thinking of good job as the end of the conversation and start thinking of it as the beginning of a conversation. So, again in our sort of remedial world where our job is to fix people, we think that good job means we don’t have anything to do around here because you’ve already fixed yourself.

But if you, if you understand that excellence is narrow and obsessive and single minded and very diverse from person to person to person, then you come to see that good job is not the end of the conversation, good job is the moment where you go: now then, what was in your head, to our conversation earlier, were you reading to the, were you reading the book the producer or were you playing the piano.

What did that feel like? It worked really well for me, how can you build on that? Other places you could do it. Could you use it more frequently, could you use it more broadly. Good job is the beginning of a performance conversation. We think the beginning of a performance conversation, by the way, are the awful words we need to have a serious conversation, that that’s how performance conversations at work begin.

ALISON BEARD: Or can I give you some feedback?

ASHLEY GOODALL: Or can I give you some feedback. Or maybe even this is going to hurt, please brace yourself. The beginning of a performance conversation is two words: good job. The beauty is what comes after that.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, well, that’s a very positive note to end on. Thank you all so much for coming in. It’s been a terrific conversation.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Cheers, Alison.

ASHLEY GOODALL: Thanks very much.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, authors of theauthors of the book Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real WorldThey also wrote theHBR article “The Feedback Fallacy.” You can find it on HBR.org.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt, Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.

Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.

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