Why feedback rarely does what it should (2023)

idea soon

The challenge

Today's managers are bombarded with constant, direct, and critical feedback calls. But it turns out that telling people what we think of their performance and how they can do better is not the best way, and may even hinder their development.


Research shows that, first, we are not the reliable evaluators of others' performance that we think we are; second, criticism inhibits the brain's ability to learn; and third, excellence is idiosyncratic, cannot be defined in advance, and is not the opposite of failure. Managers cannot "correct" a person's path to excellence.

The solution

Managers need to help their team members see what's working and answer them with a "Yes!" That!" and share your experiences of what the person did well.

read in Spanish
read in portuguese

Editor's Note (2022): On the occasion of our centenary, we highlight12 of our absolute favorite items. Subscribers can access all 12 at any time, and for non-subscribers, we'll be rolling out one a month this year. For December, we're sharing a 2019 article by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall that explains why certain forms of management feedback fail and offers better ways to help people move forward.

The feedback debate in the workplace is not a new one. Since at least the middle of the last century, the question of how to get employees to improve has generated much opinion and research. But recently the discussion has taken on a new intensity. The ongoing experiment in "radical transparency" at Bridgewater Associates and the Netflix culture thatWall Street Journalrecently described as "encouraging harsh feedback" and exposing employees to "intense and uncomfortable" real-time 360-degree walkthroughs are just two examples of the prevailing belief that the path to performance improvement in organizations is through through strict, frequent, open, ubiquitous, and Frequent Focus leads to critical feedback.

how should weGive and receive feedback? We are wondering. How much and how often and with what new application? And given the fanfare surrounding the Bridgewater and Netflix approaches, how tough and bold should we be? Behind these questions, however, there is another question that we are missing and that is of vital importance. Finding ways to give and receive better feedback means that feedback is always useful. But the only reason we pursue it is to help people do better. And if we investigatethe- ask,How can we help everyone excel and excel?– we find that the answers take us in a different direction.

To be clear, instructions, telling people what steps to take or what factual knowledge they're missing, can be really helpful: that's why we have checklists in airplane cabins and, more recently, in operating rooms. . In fact, there is a correct way for a nurse to administer an injection safely, and if you, as an inexperienced nurse, miss any of the steps, or if you don't know important facts about a patient's condition, someone should let you know. about. But the cases in which the actions or knowledge necessary for the minimum performance of a job can be objectively defined in advance are rare and increasingly rare. What we mean by "feedback" is something else entirely. Feedback is all about telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do better, whether it's giving an effective presentation, leading a team, or developing a strategy. And the research is clear on this: telling people what we think about their performance doesn't help them succeed and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve.with special needsLearn.

Three theories that are commonly accepted as true in the business world support the current belief that feedback is a pure good. The first is that other people are more aware of your weaknesses than you are, and the best way to help you is by showing you what you yourself cannot see. We can call that ourTheory of the source of truth.You don't realize that your suit is shabby, your presentation is boring, or your voice is shrill, so it's up to your colleagues to tell you "where you are" as clearly as possible. If they didn't, you'd never know, and that would be bad.

The second belief is that the learning process is like filling an empty vessel: you are missing certain skills that you need to acquire, so your peers should teach you. We can call that ourlearning theory.If you're in sales, how can you close deals if you don't learn the skill of “mirroring and matching” the prospect? If you are a teacher, how can you improve if you do not learn and practice the steps of the latest team teaching technique or "flipped classroom" format? The idea is that you can't, and you need feedback to develop the skills you lack.

And the third belief is that great achievements are universal, analyzable and describable, and that once defined, they can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of who each individual is. Therefore, feedback on what excellence looks like allows you to understand where you fall short of that ideal, and then work to correct your shortcomings. We can call that ourexcellence theory.If you are a manager, your boss can model the behavior of the company's supervisors, challenge you, and tell you what to do to follow him more closely. If you aspire to a leadership role, your company can use a 360-degree feedback tool to measure you against its predefined leadership competencies, and then suggest different courses or experiences that will allow you to acquire the competencies you need based on your results. . they are lost.

What these three theories have in common is egocentrism: they take our own experience and we are sure that the lack of experience of our colleagues is taken for granted; they assume that my way is necessarily yours. But it turns out that we go too far when we extrapolate what constitutes our own performance to what might evoke the performance of others.

Research shows that neither of these theories is true. The more we depend on them and the more technology we build on top of them, the moreany lessLearning and productivity that we receive from others. To understand why and find your way to a more effective way to increase performance, let's take a closer look at each theory.

the source of truth

The first problem with feedback is that people are not trustworthy evaluators of other people. in the last 40 yearsPsychometricians have shownStudy after study that people do not have the objectivity to have a stable definition of an abstract quality in their minds, such asbusiness senseoassertiveness,and then judge another person accurately. Our evaluations are heavily influenced by our own understanding of how we evaluate others, our own sense of how good a particular competency looks, our harshness or tolerance as an evaluator, and our own inherent and unconscious biases. This phenomenon is calledidiosyncratic rater effect,and it's big (more than half of your rating from someone else reflects your traits, not hers) and resilient (no amount of training can diminish it). In other words, research shows that feedback is more distortion than truth.

(Video) Why is feedback so rarely seen?

Therefore, despite all the training available on the subjectto receiveFeedback is very hard work: recipients have to fight their way through this forest of distortion in search of something they recognize as themselves.

And because your feedback to others is always more about you than them, it introduces biases that are compounded when reviews are viewed as a whole. There are only two types of measurement errors in the whole world:casuallyerror, which you can reduce by averaging many readings; YsystematicMistakes you can't make. Unfortunately, we all seem to have dropped out of math class and remember the former and not the latter. We've designed all of our leadership and performance feedback tools as if rating errors are random, and they're not. They are systematic.

Think about color blindness. If we ask a colorblind person to rate the red color of a particular rose, we don't trust his feedback; we know that he is incapable of seeing red, let alone 'grading'. His mistake is not accidental; it is predictable and explainable and results from an error in its measurement system; therefore, it is systematic. If we then decide to ask seven more color-blind people to rate the redness of our rose, their errors will be just as systematic, and averaging their scores will get us no closer to determining the actual redness of the rose. In fact, it's even worse. Adding up all imprecise redness scores ("grey", "fairly grey", "whitish grey", "muddy brown", etc.) and averaging them leads tofurther awayboth learning something reliable about individuals' personal experiences with the rose, and learning the real truth about how red our rose really is.

Research has shown that we are all color blind when it comes to abstract attributes like color.strategic thinking, potential,ypolitically smart.Our inability to judge others for it is predictable and explainable: it is systematic. We can't remove the error by adding more data inputs and averaging, and that actually increases the error.

Worse still, although science has long proven that we are color blind, in business we assume that we are clairvoyant. Deep down, we think we don't make many mistakes at all. We believe that we are reliable evaluators of others. We believe that we are a fountain of truth. We are not. We are a source of error.

If a feedback tool asks eight colleagues about their business acumen, your score of 3.79 is a much larger bias than if you had only asked one person about yourself: the 3.79 isaNoise, no signal. Since (a) we're starting to see more of this kind of data-driven feedback, (b) your company is likely to keep this data about you for a long time, and (c) it's used to pay you, promote you, train you and deploy or fired, you have to worry about how fundamentally flawed it really is.

The only area where humans are an unassailable source of truth is in their own feelings and experiences. Doctors have known this for a long time. When they examine you after surgery, they ask, "On a scale of one to 10, where 10 is high, how would you rate your pain?" And if you say "five," the doctor can prescribe any treatment, but what he probably won't do is challenge you on your "five." There's no point telling you that your five is wrong and your pain this morning is actually a three, no matter how many surgeries you've had. There's no point in trying to parse what you mean by "five" and whether cultural differences might indicate that your "five" isn't actually a real "five." There's no point in holding calibration sessions with other doctors to make sure your "five" matches the other "five" in the rooms down the hall. Instead, you can trust that you are the best judge of your pain and that you can only be sure that you will feel better if you rate your pain lower. Your review is yours, not hers.

Just as your doctor doesn't know the truth about your pain, we don't know the truth about our colleagues, at least not objectively. You can read that today's workers, especially millennials, want to know where they stand. From time to time, team members will ask you to objectively tell them where you stand. You may feel that it is your duty to answer these questions. But you can't, none of us can, all we can do, and that's nothing, is share our own feelings and experiences, our own reactions. This is how we can tell someone if their voice is roughfor us;if it is convincingfor us; if your presentationIt's boringfor us.We may not be able to tell you where it is, but we can tell you where it is.with us.These are our truths, not yours. This is a more modest claim, but at least it is accurate.

how we learn

Another of our collective theories is that feedback contains useful information, and that information is the magic ingredient that speeds up a person's learning. Once again, the research points in the opposite direction. Learning is less a function of adding to what is not there and more of recognizing, extending, and refining what is already there. There are two reasons.

The first is that neurologically we grow more in our areas of greatest capacity (our strengths are our areas of development). The brain continues to develop throughout life, but in a different way for each person. Due to her genetic heritage and the oddities of her early childhood environment, her brain's wiring is utterly unique. Some parts have a dense tangle of synaptic connections, while others are much less dense, and these patterns vary from person to person. According to brain research, people develop many more neurons and synaptic connections where they already have the most neurons and synaptic connections. In other words, each brain grows stronger where it is already strongest. As Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience at New York University memorably put it: "The additional connections are therefore more like new shoots on a branch than new branches." that are already in you. Which in turn means that learning must begin with finding and understanding those patterns: your patterns, not someone else's.

Focusing people on their flaws does not allow learning; it affects it.

Second, calling attention to our strengths catalyzes learning, while calling attention to our weaknesses stifles it. Neurological science also shows what happens to us when other people focus on what works in us instead of fixing what doesn't. In one experiment, scientists divided students into two groups. They provided positive guidance to a group by asking students about their dreams and what they would do to achieve them. The scientists asked the other group about the task and what they thought the students were doing wrong and what they needed to correct. While these conversations were taking place, the scientists hooked each student up to an fMRI machine to see which parts of the brain activated the most in response to these different types of attention.

The sympathetic nervous system lit up in the brains of students who were asked what they needed to correct. This is the "fight or flight" system that shuts down the other parts of the brain, allowing us to focus only on the information most necessary to survive. Your brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and limits its activity. The strong negative emotion evoked by criticism "impedes access to existing neural circuitry and induces cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairments," professor of psychology and economics Richard Boyatzis summarizes the researchers' findings.

Focusing people on their deficiencies or shortcomings does not allow learning. It affects him.

The students who focused on their dreams and how to achieve them did not have the sympathetic nervous system activated. Instead, what lit up was the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the "resting and digestive system." To quote Boyatzis again, "The parasympathetic nervous system... stimulates adult neurogenesis (i.e., the growth of new neurons)... a sense of well-being, improved immune system function, and cognitive, emotional, and perceptual openness." ".

(Video) Never mix up Feedback, Judgement and Praise

Read more about

Is your company a learning organization?

Findings like these show us, first of all, that learning occurs when we see how we can do something better by adding some new nuance or extension to our own understanding. Learning is based on our understanding of what we are doing right, not what we are doing wrong, let alone someone else's sense of what we are doing wrong. And second, that we learn more when someone else pays attention to what's working in us and challenges us to cultivate it intelligently. We are often told that the key to learning is to get out of our comfort zone, but these ideas contradict that particular chestnut: they take us very far out of our comfort zone and our brain stops concentrating on anything other than surviving. the experience. It is clear that we learn more in our comfort zones, because that is where our neural pathways are most concentrated. This is where we are most open to opportunity, most creative, insightful, and productive. This is where we need feedback, in our flow moments.


We spend most of our working lives striving for excellence, believing that while it's easy to define, the really hard part is figuring out how we and everyone else on our team are going to get there. We've reversed it: Excellence in any endeavor is almost impossible to define, but relatively easy for any of us to get there.

Excellence is idiosyncratic. Let's take comedy as an example: the ability to make others laugh. If you watch the early clips of Steve Martin, you might get the idea that excellence means playing a banjo, shaking your knees, and whining, "I'm a wild, crazy guy!" But look, look at Jerry Seinfeld, and you might conclude that it means talking about nothing in a slightly annoyed, annoyed tone. And if you look at Sarah Silverman, you might think, no, he's caustic, blunt, and rude in an inappropriately unaffectionate way. At this point, you can begin to perceive the truth that "funny" is inherent in the person.

If you're watching an NBA game, you might think, "Yeah, most of them are tall and athletic, but boy, not only does every player have a different role on the team, but even the players seem to have the same role." . on the same team." to do it differently." Examine something as specific and limited as free throws after fouls, and you'll discover that not only do the two best free-throw shooters in history have vastly different styles, but so does one. of them, Rick Barry—the greatest of all time the day he retired (look him up)—didn't even throw in his hand.

Excellence seems indissoluble and beautifully linked to who demonstrates it. Each version has a unique shape and an expression of that person's individuality. This means that excellence is easy for each of us, as it is a natural, fluid and intelligent expression of our best extremes. It can be cultivated, but it is informal.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

weekly hot list

A roundup of the most popular insights and advice from the Harvard Business Review.


(Video) Without Feedback You Will Never Become Your Best Self

Thanks for subscribing,!

you can see oursother newslettersor unsubscribe at any time managing yoursemail settings.

Excellence is not the opposite of failure either. But in virtually every aspect of human endeavour, people assume this to be the case, and that when they examine what leads to pathological functioning and do the opposite, or replace what is missing, they are creating optimal functioning. This assumption is incorrect. If you study disease, you will learn a lot about disease and very little about health. Eradicating depression does not bring you closer to joy. Divorce is mute on the topic of happy marriage. Exit interviews with employees who are leaving say nothing about why others are staying. If you study failure, you will learn a lot about failure but nothing about how to excel. Excellence has its own standard.

And it's even more problematic than that, excellence and failure often have a lot in common. So if you study ineffective leaders and find that they have big egos and then argue that good leaders shouldn't have big egos, you will fool people. Why? Because when you do a personality analysis on highly effective leaders, you find that they also have very strong egos. Telling someone that to be a good leader they have to lose their ego is wrong advice. If you study bad salespeople, find that they take rejection personally, and then tell a potential salesperson not to do the same, your advice will be wrong. Why? Because rigorous studies of top salespeople show that they also take rejection very personally.

You'll find that successful leaders put their egos at the service of others, not themselves, and that successful salespeople take rejection personally because they're personally involved in the sale, but the point is, you'll never figure these things out to study.ineffectivePerformance.

Because excellence is idiosyncratic and cannot be learned by studying failure, we can never help someone else succeed by comparing their performance to a ready-made model of excellence, giving them feedback where the model falls short, and telling them to fill in the gaps. This approach will only get them to perform properly. Point out grammatical errors in an essay, ask the author to correct the errors, and while you may get an essay with good grammar, you won't get writing that engages the reader. Show a new teacher when their students have lost interest and tell them what to do to fix it, and while you may now have a teacher whose students won't fall asleep in class, you won't. whose students need to learn more.

How to help people stand out

If we continue to spend our time identifying bugs as we see them and giving people feedback on how to avoid them, we'll languish in the customization business. To get into the business of excellence, we need some new techniques:

Search results.

Excellence is a result, so pay attention when a prospect jumps in on a sales call, a project is going well, or a disgruntled customer suddenly calms down. Then go to the team member who created the result and say, "That! Yeah, that!" This way, you pause the workflow for a moment and bring your colleague's attention back to something he just did that actually worked.

There's a story about how legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry turned his team into trouble. While the other teams reviewed the missed tackles and dropped balls, Landry reviewed footage from previous games and created a highlight video for each player when they did something easily, naturally and effectively. Landry argued that while the number of wrong ways to do something is infinite, the number of right ways for any given player is not. He was recognizable, and the best way to find out was to look at the plays this person had excelled at. From now on, he would tell every member of the team, "We'll just play your winning games again."

Now he did this on a level to make his team members feel better because he knew the power of praise. But as the story goes, Landry wasn't as interested in praise as he was in learning. His instincts told him that anyone would improve his performance more if he could see what his personal version of excellence looks like in slow motion.

You can do the same. Every time you see one of your coworkers doing something that worked for you, that rocked your world a bit, stop for a minute and highlight it. By helping your team members see what excellence looks like for them, by saying, “That! If that!" – You offer him the opportunity to obtain information; They highlight a pattern that is already within her so that she can recognize it, anchor it, recreate it, and refine it. this is learning

Repeat your instinctive reactions.

Unlike Landry, you won't be able to videotape your people. Instead, he learns how to give them his own personal reactions. The key is not to tell someone how well he played or how good he is. While simple praise isn't a bad thing, you're by no means the authority on what is objectively good work, and she instinctively knows this. Instead, she describes what you experienced when her moment of excellence caught your eye. There is nothing more credible and authoritative than sharing what you saw of her and how she made you feel. Use phrases like "That's how she seemed to me" or "That made me think" or just "Did you see what you were doing there?" Those are your reactions, they are your truth, and if you see them, they are in detail that you do not transmit, condemn or evaluate or correct; They just reflect back to her the unique "dent" she's just made in the world as seen through your eyes. And precisely because it is not a judgment or an assessment, it is both humbler and more powerful.

(Video) 5 Bullworker Exercises You Should Never Do

The right way to help colleagues with Excel

If you're looking to get into the business of excellence, here are some voice samples you can try.

Instead of Attempt

Instead of

Can I give you some comments?


Here is my reaction.

Instead of

Well done!


Here are three things that have really worked for me. What was going through your mind when you made them?

Instead of

This is what you should do.


This is what I would do.

Instead of

This is where you have to improve.


This is what worked best for me, and here's why.

Instead of

That really didn't work.


when did youX,I feltjor I did not understand

Instead of

You need to improve your communication skills.


This is where you started to lose me.

Instead of

You have to be more receptive.


If I don't hear from you, I'm worried we're not on the same page.

Instead of

You lack strategic thinking.


I'm having trouble understanding your plan.

Instead of

you should doX[in response to a request for consultation].


What do you think you are struggling with and what have you done in the past that has worked in a similar situation?

On the other hand, if you are the team member, every time you are doing something right, ask your team leader to stop and describe their reaction to you. When she says, “Well done!” ask her, “What piece? What did you see that seemed to work well?” Again, it's not about heaping accolades. It's about exploring the nature of excellence, and this is certainly a better topic for all the energy currently focused on "radical transparency" and the like. We are so close to our own performance that it is difficult to gain perspective on it and see its patterns and components. Ask your leader for help in making the unconscious conscious, so you can understand it, improve it, and most importantly, do it again.

Never lose sight of your highest priority interruption.

In computing, a high-priority interrupt occurs when something requires the immediate attention of a computer processor, and the machine stops normal operation and the urgent problem jumps to the top of the processing queue. Like computer processors, team leaders have a few things that require their attention and compel them to act. Many of these are problems. When you see something go wrong—a mishandled call, a missed meeting, a project gone wrong—the instinct to stop everything to tell someone what you did wrong and what you did wrong will kick in to fix the problem. This instinct is not deceptive: if a member of your team gets something wrong, you have to fix it. But remember that in this case you are only correcting, and that correcting not only inhibits learning, but also does not get you closer to excellent performance. As we've seen, summoning excellence from your teammates requires a different approach on your part. When you see someone doing something that actually works, it's not just a high-priority interrupt, it's yours to stop and discuss with them.higher- Interrupt priority. Acting out every little moment of excellence for your team members puts them in the "rest and digest" state of mind. Her understanding of what excellence looks and feels like in her will come to life, her brain will become more receptive to new information and make connections with other inputs found in other regions of her brain, and she will learn, grow, and improve.

Explore the present, the past and the future.

When people approach you for feedback on their performance or what they might need to fix to get promoted, try the following:

start with thecurrently.When a team member comes to you with a problem, you take care of it.now.He feels weak or challenged, and you need to address that. But instead of tackling the problem head-on, ask his colleague to tell you three things that work for him.right now.These things can be related to the situation or completely separate. They can be significant or trivial. Just ask the question and you'll be primed with oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the "love drug" but better known here as the "creativity drug." Getting him to think about certain things that are going well will change his brain chemistry, allowing him to be open to new solutions and new ways of thinking or acting.

When you see someone doing something that really works, stop and analyze it.

Then go topast.Ask him, "When you had a problem like this in the past, what did you do that worked?" Much of our life happens in patterns, so there's a good chance you've run into this problem at least a few times. On one of those occasions, you will almost certainly have found a way forward, some action or insight or connection that got you out of the mess. Ask him to think about it and see it in his mind: what he really felt and did and what happened next.

Finally, contact them.Future.Ask your team member: “What do you already know to do? What do you already know that works in this situation?” Be sure to offer one or two of your own experiences to see if they can shed light on yours. However, suppose he already knows the solution: he's just helping you see it.

The emphasis here should not be on why - "Why didn't it work?" "Why do you think you should do that?" - because that leads them both into a confusing world of guesswork and concepts. Instead, focus on the what: "What is actually supposed to happen?" "What are some of the actions you could take now?" Such questions provide concrete answers in which your colleague can find the true self of him in the near future, the real one does things. .

. . .

How to give feedback to people is one of the hottest topics in the business world today. There is a hubris in the arguments for radical openness and penetrating, unvarnished transparency, almost as if to imply that only the best and bravest of us can face these truths with unflinching aplomb, than those of us who, before think about work, they were doomed to mediocrity in a climate of constant judgment and that our ability as leaders to look our colleagues square in the eye and point out their flaws without flinching is a measure of our integrity.

but maybe thatfetish with feedbackit's only good for fixing bugs, in the rare cases where the correct steps are known and can be objectively evaluated. And it's toxic at its worst, because what we want from our people, and from ourselves, is largely not proper adherence to a set procedure or, for that matter, the ability to spot the faults of others. . It's about people contributing their own unique and growing talents to a common good when that asset is constantly evolving, when we offset it over time for the right reasons. On the other hand, feedback has nothing to offer.

We humans do no good when someone with unclear intentions tells us where we are, how good we "really" are, and what we need to do to fix ourselves. we excelonlywhen people who know and care about us tell us what they are experiencing and feeling, and especially when they see something in us that really works.

A version of this article appeared onMarch-April 2019problem ofHarvard Business Review.


1. Never stop seeking and sharing feedback
2. Why You Should Never Think About Your Adult ESL Students' Feedback, Hal And Steve English Podcast
(Hal And Steve English)
3. Due to feedback, these improvements could or may never be made available in Microsoft Edge
4. Why Recruiters never give Feedback to Candidates | Tshidi Khunou
(TopOfTheMorning with Tshidi)
5. Feedback Strategy that never fails!
(Mani Jain)
6. Time to vent & audience feedback that you usually never hear.
(The Solo Gigging Life)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Duncan Muller

Last Updated: 04/07/2023

Views: 5917

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (59 voted)

Reviews: 90% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Duncan Muller

Birthday: 1997-01-13

Address: Apt. 505 914 Phillip Crossroad, O'Konborough, NV 62411

Phone: +8555305800947

Job: Construction Agent

Hobby: Shopping, Table tennis, Snowboarding, Rafting, Motor sports, Homebrewing, Taxidermy

Introduction: My name is Duncan Muller, I am a enchanting, good, gentle, modern, tasty, nice, elegant person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.