Feedback – Consequences of a Misinterpreted Concept

In the Digital era much of how we work has changed. Much attention is brought to the concept of feedback nowadays. We work in a network of teams and in different roles. Also, we need to learn and acquire new skills quickly. For that you need continuous feedback.

More and more people realize the importance of building and maintaining an open feedback culture is key in a Digital world. It’s an environment where people bounce thoughts, ideas, and constructive criticism off each other, without getting offended or taking it personally, but understanding it as a guideline towards improving and achieving excellence.

But how should that feedback loop look? How should we provide and receive feedback, and how often and how much? How hard-edged should we be? We’re looking for ways to find the best way for this because we want to help people better themselves.

What We Mean by Feedback

Many people firmly believe that telling others what knowledge they’re lacking or what steps to follow can be useful, but in most cases – we can’t objectively define the experience and actions required to perform a job. We think feedback is about telling people what we think of their performance and tell them how they can improve. However, this hinders learning and doesn’t help them excel.

In their article, The Feedback Fallacy, published in the March-April 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall explained the three common misbeliefs that people in the business world widely accept as truths.

  1. The theory of the source of truth – the belief that others are more aware than you are of your flaws and weaknesses, so the best way to help you is for them to point out what you can’t see for yourself.

In the business world, we all assume that we’re clear-eyed, don’t think that we make so many errors and that we can reliably rate others. We think of ourselves as a source of truth, but we are a source of error. The effect of this theory leads to inherently biased reviews.

  1. The theory of learning – the process of learning is thought of as acquiring specific abilities that you lack because knowledge is like filling up an empty container. In reality, learning is much more different and complex than that, and the effect of this theory is causing impediments in education.
  1. The theory of excellence. High performance is describable, analyzable, and universal, and once we define it, we can transfer it from one person to another. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all excellence model, while this belief leads employees in falsely believing there is.

How Do People Learn?

Thinking that feedback contains information that will accelerate our knowledge is faulty. Learning is more about recognizing, refining, and reinforcing what already is, and not about adding things that aren’t there.

We grow more in the areas where we are the strongest. Each person grows and develops differently, due to early childhood occurrences and genetic inheritance. Getting attention from others concerning our strengths catalyzes learning. We realize that we might do something better and expand or add a new nuance to our previous understanding.

The base of learning is not in our grasp of what we’re doing poorly but what we’re doing well. But more importantly, it surely doesn’t lie in other’s sense of how we are performing. Also, when someone asks us to cultivate what’s working within us and pays attention to it, that’s when we learn the most.

How Can We Define Excellence?

We cannot define excellence. And yet many people are pursuing it, trying to describe it and codify how we should get there. But it’s almost impossible to determine excellence while getting there can be easy. It also means that we got it all backward. Excellence always is intertwined with the person demonstrating it. Each version of excellence is an expression of their individuality. It means it is easy for each of us to reach excellence because it’s an intelligent, fluid, and natural expression of our best extremes.

However, people assume that excellence is the opposite of failure and they are obsessively trying to isolate and identify its drivers. Companies often use these drives to evaluate their employee performance.

It ultimately leads to a regression because they are assessing workers against the same framework. Over time, employees grow similar instead of celebrating differences. Eventually, this approach will get them only adequate performance.

How to Help Employees Excel

  • Look for positive outcomes.
    Whenever an employee creates a result that worked, take a moment to pull their attention back to it and highlight it, so they recognize that excellence. It’s a pattern that’s already within them, and they’ll realize it, recreate, and refine it. In other words, they will learn.
  • Explore the present, the past, and the future.
    When employees come to ask for feedback, start with the problem they’re dealing with now. Ask them to tell you what things are working for them at this moment. Next, ask them about what things worked in the past because they had found a way forward. Then, ask them what they already know they have to do. Help them clarify their experience and assume that they already know the solution, and you’re just helping them recognize it. These questions require concrete answers and will help them find a pattern to their excellence.
  • Replay instinctive reactions.
    If an employee didn’t recognize a moment of his or her excellence, they achieved in instinctively, give them personal praise and tell them how that moment made you feel. You are reflecting on their unique abilities and excellence without fixing, rating, or judging them by rendering the unconscious conscious.

When done right, having a feedback loop in place is an invaluable operational process. However, due to these fallacies, a feedback process can do more harm than good.

When a leader, whose intentions are not clear, tells us how good we are, where we stand, and how to fix ourselves – we tend not to do very well. We excel when those who care about us and know us, tell us what they feel and experience, especially when they see that thing within us that works.

Today’s workers want to know how they are doing and where they stand, and all you can do is share experiences, feelings, and reactions. We can tell them where they stand with us, and that’s the most accurate claim we can make. Persona.fit is an app built on a reinvented and improved 360 feedback model that helps both your employees and you to focus on your personal growth and make the path towards excellence clearer.

Jan Kwint

Jan Kwint

Jan Kwint is founder of Persona.fit and CEO of LTP. Through his work as an Executive and Consultant he has developed a strong interest in how a feedback culture can help develop individuals and teams. This is also part of a book he recently published on Psychology and Agility: ‘Ik ben Erica!’ (I am Erica!).