Framing and delivering performance feedback is an aspect of the relationship boards seem to have particular difficulty with. Many feel they lack the know-how and experience—and the confidence—to do this effectively. Ironically, however, many boards whose members do have the experience and do feel confident about delivering performance feedback probably approach the task in a way that is destined to fail.
The reasons for this are very well explained in an HBR article by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall entitled The Feedback Fallacy. We summarise the main points below, but readers interested in this topic would do well to read the original article.
The source of truth
The authors start by observing that there is a widespread assumption that feedback is always useful. However, research tells us otherwise. Telling people what we think of their performance does not help them and telling them how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.
The assumption that feedback is an unalloyed good is supported by three theories Buckingham and Goodall say the business world commonly accepts as truths.
- The theory of the source of truth. Other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses and therefore the best way to help you is for them to show you what you cannot see for yourself.
- The theory of learning. The process of learning is like filling up an empty vessel. You lack certain abilities you need to acquire, so your colleagues should teach them to you.
- The theory of excellence. Great performance is universal, analysable and describable, and—once defined—can be transferred from one person to another. Therefore, with feedback about what excellence looks like, you will understand where you fall short of the ideal and will strive to remedy your shortcomings.
But these theories are self-centred, and the authors contend that none of them is true. They take our own expertise and extrapolate from what creates our own performance to what might create performance in others.
A further problem is that we are idiosyncratic and unreliable when rating others. We find it difficult to hang onto a stable and consistently applicable definition of an abstract quality (e.g., business acumen) that we can then use to accurately evaluate people. We can only really be confident about our own feelings.
The authors offer as an example the usual doctor’s question about how much pain you are experiencing. On a scale of 1 to 10 you might say ‘6’. However, your ‘6’ may be different from the same assessment by a patient in the next room. The doctor cannot assume you are both suffering the same amount of pain. All she can feel confident about is that each of you will be feeling better when you rate your pain lower on the scale. What this means is that when the chief executive asks you where he stands on a desirable performance attribute, you can only tell him where he stands with you.
How we learn
We assume that the feedback we offer contains information useful to the recipient and will magically accelerate their learning. On this point, as well, the research points in the opposite direction. Learning is not about adding something that is missing. It is about recognising, reinforcing, and refining what is already there. There are two reasons for this:
- Your brain has the greatest capacity for growth in areas where it is already strongest. Effective learning results from building, little by little, on the unique patterns already within you. The starting point is your patterns, not those of the person giving you feedback.
- You will learn more when your strengths get attention from others. Attention to your weaknesses has the opposite effect. Critical feedback is interpreted by your brain as a threat. It inhibits your brain’s access to existing neural circuits and impairs your cognitive, emotional and perceptual responses.
Buckingham and Goodall emphasise that our learning rests on our grasp of what we are doing well, not on what we are doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else’s sense of what we are doing poorly. We learn most when someone else pays attention to what is working within us and asks us to cultivate it intelligently.
Excellence is idiosyncratic and the authors illustrate this with the wildly differing styles of leading comedians. Excellence is an expression of each person’s individuality; it can be cultivated, but it is unforced and has its own pattern. So, we can never help another person succeed by comparing their performance to a generic model of excellence and highlighting any gaps they need to plug.
How can we help people to excel?
Given the flaws in past thinking, Buckingham and Goodall suggest a number of better ways to facilitate learning:
- Look for outcomes. Excellence is an outcome, so acknowledge and reinforce excellent outcomes. The authors refer to the football coach who realised there was an infinite number of ways his players could make errors. Instead, he provided his players with personal highlight reels showing occasions when they got something completely right. This helped provide insight into how they succeeded and focused on a pattern that was already within them.
- Interrupt and share your instinctive reactions. Simple praise of your chief executive is not a bad thing, but you are by no means the authority on what is objectively good performance. Instead, describe what you experienced when they caught your attention with a moment of excellence. Your reaction is not a judgement or a rating. Encourage the chief executive to probe your reaction to understand exactly what s/he did that seemed to work so well.
- Explore the present, past and future.
- The present: if there is a problem, get the chief executive to think about the things that are going well right now. This alters the brain chemistry so that s/he can be open to new solutions and new ways of thinking or acting.
- The past: ask “when you had a problem like this in the past, what did you do that worked?” S/he will almost certainly have found some way forward. Get them thinking about what they actually felt and did and what happened next.
- The future: ask “what do you already know you need to do? What do you already know works in this situation?” Operate under the assumption that s/he already knows the solution—you are just helping them recognise it.
4. Steer clear of the fuzzy world of conjecture and concepts. Instead of ‘why’ type-questions, focus on the ‘what’. For example: “What do you actually want to happen?” “What are a couple of actions you could take right now?” These questions yield concrete answers.
The authors conclude that “… This fetish with feedback is good only for correcting mistakes – in the rare cases where the right steps are known and can be evaluated objectively. […] We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works.”
As members of boards, we have a vested interest in ensuring that our chief executives are successful. It is clear from this review that the traditional approach to providing performance feedback is likely to have the opposite effect to that which we intend.