Falling Into Feedback Traps

How feedback is delivered (and received) is as important as the message itself.

Posted Nov 11, 2020

 CoWomen/Unsplash
Source: CoWomen/Unsplash

We all know that feedback is important. We know that getting an objective and honest assessment of our strengths and dreaded “growth opportunities” is how we improve performance, grow, and learn. And sure, it might hurt a little to hear it, but in the end, it’s worth it. Right?

Maybe.

Recently, I searched on Google for “does feedback improve performance?” The first two results, respectively, were 4 Ways Feedback Improves Performance in the Workplace from Indeed, and, Why Giving Feedback at Work Doesn’t Improve Performance from Forbes. And that pretty much sums it up. Sometimes feedback makes people better at their jobs. Sometimes it doesn’t.

According to the Indeed article, “The process of giving feedback creates an open working relationship among the team leader and member, allowing each to understand their progress toward a pre-set goal.” Effective feedback provides direction, is a motivator, improves performance, and builds individual and team engagement. According to the Forbes piece, this view of the feedback process misses a critical factor: people aren’t necessarily rational actors and there are a lot of emotions tied up in these conversations. And those emotions can get in the way of how people receive the feedback they are given.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Feedback is an important part of the improvement process, and can help provide direction and support motivation and engagement. But the ways in which that feedback is delivered is key. If you ignore the emotional part, the human part, it can derail motivation and engagement, leading to poor execution and results.

One of the worst versions of feedback that we have is the annual performance review. In fact, research by Gallup has found that this annual feedback process, used to justify promotions or performance improvement plans, not only cost a fortune in terms of time and actual money, they don’t even have the desired impact: only 14% of employees strongly agree their performance reviews inspire them to improve. If the goal is motivation and engagement, these feedback processes are falling far short. In fact, the process itself may even make performance worse.

At a certain level, I think we all know this, because at some point in our careers we have all suffered through it. I have yet to meet the person who says, “Man, I sure do love annual review time!” And yet, we keep doing it. We spend countless hours composing self-reports and evaluating employees and then having painful conversations about work output and productivity, complaining about it the whole time, only to stick it in a file and forget about it until the following year. Why? It’s what’s expected. We have bought into the mindset that if it’s not measured, it doesn’t matter. If it’s not assessed and evaluated, what was the point of doing it at all?

In its purest form, feedback operates as part of a system. Whether that’s an organizational system, or a system in nature, there is some sort of output that is fed back into the system as an input to affect change. An organization gathers customer reviews (feedback) and uses those reviews to change a process or a product. Or, think of a thermostat in your home. You set the desired temperature to 72 degrees, and whether it’s turned to AC or heat, the system turns on or off according to the rise or fall (feedback) in the air temperature.

But all systems have traps, deviant behaviors that wreak havoc on the expected structure or functioning of the system. They’re traps not because something massive breaks, calling our attention to a fault in the system, but because of the ways they can lull people into thinking something else is happening than what is, or provide false information that leads to faulty decisions.

It’s the old story of how to boil a frog (sorry, frogs). If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But if you put the frog into warm water and slowly increase the temperature over time, it won’t notice the impending danger. (Or so people say. I don’t have any direct-experience knowledge to confirm this, thank goodness.)

Another such trap happens in our educational system, which rewards high-performing schools with additional resources. But of course, the schools that are best-positioned to perform at a high level are those with the resources, which furthers the divide between the haves and the have-nots, the high-performers and the low, over time, as wealth accumulates.

As individuals, we also have potential traps when it comes to feedback, and much of it goes back to the Forbes article at the top of this post. Humans aren’t necessarily rational actors. Unless you are managing widgets coming off the factory line, then the people you are managing are, in fact, people, not widgets. They come to work with a full set of experiences, histories, and emotions that must be honored and acknowledged as part of the performance feedback process.

So what are some feedback traps, and how can we avoid them? Here are just a few to look out for:

  • Only giving or hearing positive information. Telling someone how they can improve can be a challenging and difficult conversation. Why? Because people are emotional, and as much as you might try to keep feedback in an objective place, it’s always subjective. But you don’t do anyone any good when all they hear are statements like, “You’re doing great work!” It might feel good, but it’s not helpful. Even if it’s accurate, in what specific ways is the person doing great work so that they might continue to do so? You may have heard the term “a feedback sandwich” (typically preceded by another word), where a piece of negative or critical feedback is “sandwiched” between two positive pieces. Why do people do this? To make themselves feel better, as the person delivering the hard news. If you can’t tell someone, constructively, how they need to improve, then you shouldn’t be the one delivering the feedback. At the same time, we all have areas of improvement. None of us are perfect humans. Much like the frog in the gradually-heated water, you fall into a giant trap when you only allow yourself to hear the positive feedback, and not the constructive pieces that will allow you to grow and to learn. Feedback is a gift. Be open to hearing it as such.
  • Only giving or hearing critical information. On the other hand, sometimes we can fall into a trap of only seeing the negative. As the feedback giver, you might see this as “coaching,” constantly pointing out opportunities for growth and learning. But everyone needs some positive reinforcement now and again. It’s very easy for this sort of negative messaging to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: If all I ever hear is how I don’t meet your expectations, then pretty soon I’m not going to see much value in bothering to try. At the same time, as the person receiving the feedback, you shouldn’t need someone else to bolster your ego and your sense of self-worth all the time. Don’t be a glass-half-full sort of person, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. One of the hallmarks of a strong sense of emotional intelligence (EQ), which is so critical to professional success, is the ability to self-assess, to identify one’s own strengths and growth opportunities.
  • Assuming that just because someone said it, that must make it true. Especially when feedback is coming from a manager, and especially when it’s part of an annual performance review, the feedback can carry unnecessary weight. Suddenly, you need to develop your interpersonal skills, or your communication skills, or your leadership acumen, or a host of other things. Whether it’s positive or critical, remember, at the end of the day, feedback is an opinion. It's one data point. The evolved person, the one with well-developed EQ, is able to identify what’s true and what’s not, what’s worth working on and what’s not, what may or may not be either hindering progress or leading to opportunities, and then do something about it. The power of feedback should never reside solely with one person. Create a team of people to seek out on a regular basis and ask for their observations, as well.
  • Making it more about “performance” than “person.” It’s easy as a manager to fall into the trap of making feedback about performance. After all, metrics are important. Identifying and then achieving some measure of success is important. But, again, don’t forget that ultimately you are managing people. Your people are fully-formed, experienced adults, with challenges and histories and whole lives. The best way to deliver feedback, the most effective way, is to always keep your people in front of you. And that means getting to know them, as people. What are their goals, their motivations, their strengths and interests? How does the work connect to those things? How is the feedback you are delivering helping them to grow as people? Do that work, and the performance you’re looking for will follow.