The March/April issue of Harvard Business Review featured an article titled “The Feedback Fallacy” on its cover. In it, the co-authors contend that feedback in the workplace is essentially useless, even potentially damaging, because it’s based on flawed assumptions, hidden biases, and unrecognized ignorance.
As a learning & development professional and the creator and teacher of an online course called “Feedback is Fuel,” I have a very, very different perspective on the value of feedback in the workplace—indeed, I believe it is both valuable and necessary. I agree with the HBR authors that feedback focused solely on shortcomings isn’t effective. But feedback itself isn’t the problem; it’s the way the feedback is framed and delivered. So, while it makes for a provocative headline to say that feedback is toxic, it’s also a bit irresponsible to suggest that people should close themselves off to a rich resource for self-improvement.
In his beloved last lecture, the late Dr. Randy Pausch spoke directly to this need for us to hear honest feedback. Two of my favorite quotes from his talk are: “When you’re screwing up, and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you,” and, “You may not want to hear it, but your critics are often the ones telling you they still love you and care about you, and want to make you better.”
What’s missing from the HBR article, which Dr. Pausch alludes to, is the vital role of positive intent. Telling people what we think of their performance does help them thrive and excel but only if we genuinely want to help them and take time to understand the context. The intent shouldn’t be to “fix” someone; it’s about bringing out their full potential. So, the givers of feedback must have true empathy for the receivers or, yes, it may be more defeating than motivating.
The good news is that many companies are already evolving their approach to feedback, and I think a lot of this is being driven by millennials. We know millennials want feedback as well as career development, and they’re asking for both. And this is great! Companies should prize employees who embrace personal growth, pursue big professional goals, and want to understand their career options.
Now, it’s on employers to cultivate an environment where it’s safe to talk openly about mistakes and where feedback works for both giver and receiver. That’s exactly why I created my course—because people can and should learn how to do it right.
In their article, the authors suggest, for example, rephrasing a comment like, “You need to be more responsive,” to “When I don’t hear from you, I’m worried we’re not on the same page.” First of all, these are both forms of feedback, contrary to the authors’ assertion that feedback is a fallacy. In their examples of revised feedback, the information doesn’t come off like a personal criticism. Instead, it’s framed to help the recipient understand the impact, where they can improve their communications, and why that’s important for achieving their goals.That’s good feedback, and that’s the real difference.
On the other side of the equation, training can also help feedback receivers learn not to react defensively or feel attacked. This comes with developing the right mindset and understanding that personal growth usually isn’t comfortable. I went through this process myself when I transitioned from being a high-school teacher to leading corporate trainings. In the classroom, no one was observing and critiquing my daily work, but a survey went out after every one of my company training sessions and I was inundated with feedback on virtually every word I’d said! That was painful at first, but I got used to it and came around to see that well-intentioned feedback was the absolute best way to make my future trainings even better.
I feel strongly (as do the HBR authors, it seems) that we can’t just set people loose to judge their coworkers, especially if they don’t have positive intent or full context when doing so. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss feedback as a “fetish” or fallacy.
We all need to be exposed to lots of feedback and learn to get comfortable giving and receiving it. This is just one of the countless “soft skills” in high demand today, things like critical thinking, conflict management, and relationship building. And we can all get better at these skills, regardless of where we are in our lives and careers. But guess what: you need feedback to fuel the journey of self-improvement. That’s not a fallacy.
Originally published at Fast Company on April 27, 2019.