Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 22, 2019
Let me give you some feedback. (Just curious, who asked you?)
In the realm of helping employees improve, there has been an increasing movement toward “radical transparency,” “harsh feedback” and “intense and awkward 360s.” This sounds like my mother who would say “I am only doing this for your own good,” followed by, “this hurts me more than it hurts you.”
Well, Mom, it turns out you were wrong. For insight, I turned to an article in the Harvard Business Review, “The Feedback Fallacy,” written by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Now, to be clear, they confirm that there is something called instruction and factual knowledge, e.g. how to draw blood, the checklist ritual in the airplane cockpit, the operating room protocol (always count the sponges), but in the subjective area of human performance, the idea of “telling someone what you think of their performance doesn’t really help them and telling people how you think they should improve actually hinders learning.”
The argument for “radical candor” as a good thing in companies today is based on three theories that are accepted as truth in the business world. The first theory is “the source of truth,” which says that since you can’t see that your suit is shabby and that your presentation was terrible, it falls to me to tell you the truth. I need to give you feedback.
The second belief is “the theory of learning,” which holds that the process of learning is “like filling up an empty vessel.” You lack certain skills, and I need to show them to you. I will teach you how to close sales or how to create a compelling pitch.
And the third belief is the “theory of excellence” that holds that “great performance is universal, analyzable and describable, and that once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another.”
After conducting extensive research, the authors conclude that none of those theories are worth the paper they were written on at one time. The reason is that all of the “truths” being shared are those perceived by only one person, and they are offered from my self-centered view of what you, my colleague/subordinate need to do in order to improve. So, please sir, may I have some more feedback? And as you think about yourself here for a moment or your managers, you can assume that most of this thing that we call feedback is negative. The authors are extensive in their analysis of what is wrong with the three theories, but let’s jump to the core solution they do support, namely that “excellence” in every venue is first and foremost perceived as an outcome. It is the result of a particular and unique effort and their mantra for improving that excellence is “That! Yes, that!”
Wow. I love these guys. Imagine, instead of thinking of feedback as focusing on a lack of something, imagine feedback as an encouragement moment. A “yes, that is terrific, do it again” moment. The authors give many examples of positive outcomes that arise from this way of thinking, but one I like is the story of Tom Landry, legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys. At the time (mid-1970s), the team was struggling mightily. Landry decided to change the usual film reviews of the previous week. Instead of showing all the missed tackles and dropped passes, he created a highlight reel for each player — showing their best efforts over a couple of seasons.
Landry reasoned “that while the number of wrong ways to do something was infinite, the number of right ways was not.” He figured that the best way to teach excellence was to show each player those moments when he had excelled. He proclaimed that going forward, “we only replay your winning plays.” They appeared in Super Bowl 1975, and won it in 1977.
Now, at some level, it seems obvious that praise is more effective than criticism, but the nuance of words and phrases and how to say them is not intuitive. The authors offer an example, instead of saying “you need to improve your communication skills” try “here’s exactly where you started to lose me.”
How to create successful outcomes is a topic that fascinates me, and I can hardly wait for your feedback.
Rule No. 606
“You can’t handle the truth” — Jack Nicholson