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Feedback Is Not Coaching

Coaching with compassion invites learning and change.

People get caught in expectation traps. Most of the time, when we are trying to help someone learn something new or change, we can see a better way for them to think, feel, or act. So we tell them. We do it to help. But it doesn’t.

In the late 1970s, when goal setting and performance feedback was rising in popularity, a shocking event occurred at an automotive plant in Ohio. The production workers went on strike; it was a wildcat strike not endorsed by their union. Their complaint was that they were tired of the minute-to-minute performance goals being flashed on screens all around them and the constant feedback as to how they were doing toward those goals. They did not want that much feedback. It was not motivating and was in fact demoralizing.

Did you ever have that conversation with one of your children about them not living up to their potential? You give them numbers to support how smart and capable they are, and then review how their grades are slipping. Did that conversation spark a new enthusiasm and conversion experience? Chances are it did not. Why? Your data was accurate. Your desire to help motivate them was well-intentioned. What happened? Or take the morning conversation with a partner or spouse before you are leaving for work. “Are you wearing that today?” Does this feedback about your sartorial choices inspire you to run back into your bedroom and change?

What happened is that you became a data bully. This episode is reenacted every day in organizations. Some executive thinks there is a motivation crisis and wants to increase productivity or innovation. So they create and add a metric, a goal, to the current dashboard that people face every day. They are trying to help. Does it work? Not often if ever.

In these situations, people are confusing feedback with coaching or helping. Of course, feedback has a place in the process of helping. But that place is not early in the process and certainly is not motivating.

The explanation as to why it does not work, or work well, is that when you give people feedback, it often makes them feel defensive. Your intent does not matter. They feel like you are giving them bad news and expecting them to do something with it. This feels like an imposition or merely guilt-inducing. Either way, it activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, your stress response. There are even neuroimaging studies showing that feedback, especially critical or evaluative feedback, activates a neural network (i.e., the analytic or task-positive network) which enables you to analyze and defend against a negative critique.

Again, further and faster sending the intended receiver into a defensive mode. When in this state, people are not open to new ideas or other people and definitely not able to fully absorb feedback from the person. So the process of providing the feedback actually invites a psychological and physiological state which defends against it and begins to close down.

This is what we call coaching for compliance, based on 39 longitudinal studies of behavior change, three fMRI studies and two hormonal studies. The intended receiver feels pushed around or imposed upon. Maybe that is why the old adage says, “It is better to give than to receive.” Seriously, there are times when a person truly asks for feedback. In those moments, feedback can be transformational or at least helpful. But those moments do not occur at the beginning of a learning or change process. They occur much further along once the person is working on something that they really want to do.

Think back to the last few years. What were the moments in which you asked for and found feedback, from another person, helpful and useful? When were some of the moments when someone provided feedback and you wanted to cover your ears?

Feedback can set you free when you ask for it. But coaching with compassion can help you move closer to your dreams.


See the book, Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth (published by Harvard Business Review Press)

More from Richard Boyatzis, Ph.D., Melvin Smith, Ph.D., and Ellen Van Oosten Ph.D.
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