A more effective approach to feedback?

By Elisabeth Goodman, 4th March 2019

How to give ‘negative’ feedback is one of the most frequent questions posed by delegates on RiverRhee’s management courses.  It’s a topic we get into during our course on Performance Management and Development too.  And it’s a question that arises when we explore the difference between coaching and mentoring.

Word Cloud (https://worditout.com/word-cloud/create) generated from this blog on Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall’s article “The Feedback Fallacy” in the March-April 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review (pages 92-101) 

Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall’s article “The Feedback Fallacy” in the March-April 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review (pages 92-101) is a gold-mine of information on this subject.  And by the way, it also reminds us about why ‘positive’ feedback is so important, with fabulous guidance on how to do that well too.

Dispelling three feedback fallacies

Traditional approaches to feedback rely on three fallacies which Buckingham and Goodall masterfully dispel through the use of analogies and neuroscience research results.

1. The source of truth

Our new managers are often uncomfortable about giving feedback. Although their reasons for feeling so may vary, the HBR authors assert that we are not necessarily the best judge of what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘the right’ performance.

They point out that we will each have a different perspective of this – they call this the “idiosyncratic rater effect”.  The analogy they use is how different people will rate the redness of a rose – asking more people will only create more diversity in the interpretation of the truth of that redness!

Instead, the authors suggest that people are better at assessing their own performance (as they would assess their own level of post-operative pain).

In this situation, as Buckingham and Goodall say: “all we can do – and it’s not nothing – is share our own feelings and experiences”.

In our courses we suggest that managers emphasize what they have observed when they give feedback. This would still seem like a good starting point.  They could then add to that, “When you did this, I felt that”; or “Here is what I would have done in that situation.”

2. The theory of learning

The authors confirm something that we know from the field of Appreciative Enquiry: that people will learn (most) effectively if they build on strengths and what’s working well, rather than on weaknesses and what isn’t working well!

As they say: ” Learning is less a function of adding something that isn’t there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already is.”

Buckingham and Goodall cite insights from neuroscience as evidence of this:

  • Our brains build far more neurons and synaptic connections where we already have more of them i.e. in our areas of strength, than in our areas of weakness.
  • When we focus on areas that we need to correct, our sympathetic “fight or flight” survival system kicks in and actually impairs learning.
  • When we focus on  dreams and how to achieve them, our parasympathetic or “rest and digest” system is stimulated and fosters openness to learning.

This reinforces the need for managers to draw individuals’ attention to their strengths and explore with them how they might develop these strengths further.

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3. The theory of excellence

This is perhaps the most exciting of the authors’ three theories.  They point out, again with analogies, from comedians, and sports, that each person’s example of excellence is unique: no two people will excel in the same way.

The trick then is to help individuals recognise their moments of excellence, and how they can top up their learning to make these repeatable.  The authors call this a “highest priority interrupt”.

We can do this by giving feedback at the moment that we spot some great performance – what it was that we observed and how we felt about it – and asking for instance: “What was going through your mind when you did that?”.  (Hence reinforcing the “rest and digest” performance of the parasympathetic system.)

And by the way, the authors explain how studying failure and how to avoid it will help to plug gaps in performance and fix flaws, but is unlikely to lead to excellence!

Coaching vs. mentoring

The observations in this article reinforce our approach to coaching: that it’s about creating the conditions and asking the open questions that will help the individual build on their strengths, further their learning, and excel.

Buckingham and Goodall give an excellent framework for helping people think through what they might need to do going forward:

  • Start with the present, and encourage them to think about what is working for them right now.  (This stimulates oxytocin – the “love or creativity drug”.)
  • Then get them thinking about the past: what example can they think about of when they tackled something similar that worked well – what they did or felt.
  • Then focus on the future – what do they already know that they could do; “What would you like to have happen” (an example of clean questioning).

There is still a need to give instruction and feedback on aspects of work where there is a need to do things in a certain way – for health and safety or otherwise critical steps.  This is more like mentoring.

And we can also share how we would do something, but this will only be a starting point for an individual’s reflection.


About the author. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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