Feedback Isn’t Enough to Help Your Employees Grow

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Of all forms of communication, feedback is perhaps the hardest to give and receive. The giver has to criticize, which might hurt someone’s feelings, so they avoid having the conversation in the first place. And if the conversation does occur, the recipient is likely to feel shame, hearing some version of “you’re not good enough and you need to change.” So if feedback doesn’t help people up their game, then what does? The authors offer four steps to shift from a culture of feedback to a culture of coaching.

Our client, the 2,000-person IT division of an investment bank, had a problem: Employees were leaving at alarming rates. The line we heard over and over again from the people we interviewed: “It’s easier to talk to a headhunter about my career than my own manager.”

So the division went on a feedback campaign. They spent more than $1 million with a consulting firm to develop rigorous, customized competency models. They trained managers to evaluate employee performance (based on dozens of relevant competencies), and give employees feedback about their developmental gaps and opportunities.

None of it helped. Two years later, 50% of managers were still not completing performance reviews, the reviews that were done had little impact on performance, and turnover remained undesirably high. Which was all entirely predictable. Because feedback rarely, if ever, achieves its desired objectives.

What’s the Point of Feedback?

Over the past 30 years, companies have been so focused on creating cultures of feedback, that we’ve forgotten why we’re doing it in the first place.

The objective of feedback is to help people improve performance. We want people to up their game. To live up to their potential. To contribute powerfully to their teams. To interact effectively with colleagues. We want our organizations to become places where people can skillfully and candidly communicate with one another in the service of their growth and improved performance. Those are all worthy goals.

But here’s the thing: Telling people they are missing the mark is not the same as helping them hit the mark.

In fact, it often has the opposite effect. Richard Boyatzis and his team have found that negative feedback (“Here’s what you’re doing wrong”) reduces engagement in 360 feedback conversations and suppresses exploration of future goals and desires.

And calling it “constructive” feedback doesn’t fool anyone. In their 2019 HBR article “The Feedback Fallacy,” Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall marshal overwhelming evidence that focusing on shortcomings and weaknesses doesn’t help the recipient of the feedback get better.

Which makes complete sense when you think about it. Of all forms of communication, feedback is perhaps the hardest to give and receive. The giver has to criticize, which might hurt someone’s feelings — so they avoid having the conversation in the first place. And if the conversation does occur, the recipient is likely to feel shame, hearing some version of “You’re not good enough, and you need to change.”

And people will do just about anything to avoid feeling shame, including denying the problem (no problem=no shame) or blaming it on someone else (not my fault=no shame). Even when someone appears to respond positively and “maturely” to feedback, they’re often inwardly in fight-or-flight mode.

But what about positive feedback, which highlights what they did well? It’s a form of criticism; if I can approve of your behavior here, I can also disapprove of your behavior there. Plus, focusing on positives won’t necessarily address weaknesses that are getting in the way of performance.

So if feedback doesn’t help people up their game, then what does? In our book, You Can Change Other People, we share a four-step process.

How to Build a Culture of High Performance

Step 1: Shift from critic to ally.

No one wants to talk to a critic. Everyone wants to talk to an ally. When you’re someone’s ally, you display caring for them, confidence in them, and commitment to them. In your presence, they drop shame and defensiveness, and instead focus on becoming better.

So how can you clearly communicate that you’re an ally and not a critic? Here’s a three-step formula:

  1. Empathize. If they’re struggling, acknowledge how hard or frustrating or annoying or painful that must be.
  2. Express confidence. Let them know you believe in their ability to handle the challenge they’re facing.
  3. Ask permission. Ask them if they would be willing to think with you about the situation.

Imagine a colleague is struggling as a team leader and engaging poorly with a disruptive team member. Initiating an “ally” conversation can be as simple as: “That sounds really frustrating. And I know you can handle it. Would you like to think it through together?”

Step 2: Identify an energizing outcome.

Once they’ve said “yes,” it’s tempting to go back into the problem — the frustrating past. (“Let’s talk about that disruptive team member.”) But don’t go there. Not yet.

Instead, focus on the energizing future they want to create. One that is bigger than their problem. Ask them: “What is the outcome you’re going for?” Allow them to articulate what they’re trying to achieve, for themselves and for the organization. (“I’d love to create a high-performing team, one in which we communicate, collaborate, and even conflict, productively.”) Help them get to an outcome that is positive, clear, and meaningful.

Step 3: Discover a hidden opportunity.

When you’re both clear about the outcome they want, then you can revisit the problem. But this time, instead of trying to “solve” it, you’re asking, “How can this problem help us achieve the energizing outcome?” How might it be a good thing? A chance to practice a new behavior in service of an important value or goal? An opportunity to address a larger issue that underlies this one?

In the case of our struggling team leader, after some brainstorming, you may discover that the person characterized as “disruptive” is actually the only one on the team willing to engage in conflict to raise important issues. Without them, elephants in the room remain unaddressed. In other words, with a little coaching on style, the disruptive person can be the key to the team’s high performance.

Step 4: Create a level-10 plan.

In this step, you guide them to brainstorm ways of capitalizing on that opportunity, and choosing and committing to a plan of action to achieve it. The term “level-10” plan means that when we ask, “On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that you will execute this plan?,” the answer is a resounding 10.

Our struggling leader’s level-10 plan could be scheduling a conversation with the disruptive team member, as an ally, in order to help them contribute positively to the team.

What’s important isn’t that the plan succeeds, but that they follow through on taking a new action, assessing the results, and continually moving forward.

Our client, the investment bank, proved the efficacy of this process. Unwanted turnover went down to 3%, which was their target. As managers changed the tone and focus of their conversations, performance review completion went from 50% to 95%. And those results were sustained for 15 years (when we stopped keeping track). That’s because the culture shifted, as employees and managers engaged in positive, productive, performance-enhancing conversations.

Feedback, skillfully delivered, can be a tool to help people identify their blind spots and opportunities for growth. But only when it’s embedded in a true process of growth and development.

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