We falsely think that we are doing our jobs as managers by giving performance feedback—constructive or otherwise—to employees. Not so, according to Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in their article, “The Feedback Fallacy,” which appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review.
Neurons Don’t Lie
Feedback focuses employees on their shortcomings. Developmental areas, however, aren’t our shortcomings but rather our strengths. One study hooked up brain scans to two groups of students: One group was asked about their dreams, hopes, and ambitions and how they would go about achieving them, while the other group was asked about homework, what the students were doing wrong, and how they could fix mistakes.
Guess what? In the second group, a fight-or-fight response was triggered in their brains, their focus narrowed to survival mode, and they didn’t progress. By contrast, the other group actually grew new neurons as a result of neural plasticity. The authors tell us that true learning happens when you add some nuance to an existing thought pattern or an expansion on a person’s current understanding.
Excellence Is Unique to the Person
Too often we seek to find “best practices,” considering them to be a shortcut to effective feedback. But that is incorrect. The article points out that the great basketball player, Rick Barry, was one of the best free throw shooters after being fouled. His technique? Eschewing the best practice of throwing overhand and embracing the often-ridiculed practice of throwing underhand. (You can watch his techniques in his YouTube videos.)
The article’s take: “Excellence seems to be inextricably and wonderfully intertwined with whoever demonstrates it. Each person’s version of it is uniquely shaped and is an expression of that person’s individuality. Which means that, for each of us, excellence is easy, in that it is a natural, fluid, and intelligent expression of our best extremes. It can be cultivated, but it is unforced.”
The Tom Landry Approach to Feedback
Building on this insight into excellence, the authors suggest using the method developed by football coach Tom Landry. When Landry watched game tapes with a player, he didn’t focus on what the player did wrong. He understood there were an infinite number of ways to do something incorrectly.
Instead, he focused on what he saw the player do right, which is a small universe controlled by the player. He asked the player what he was thinking at the time he acted that way and quizzed him on how they could work together to repeat the performance. “We only replay your winning plays,” was Landry’s mantra.
The article suggests several phrases to use in effectuating the Landry approach. Instead of using the generic “good job,” say: “Here are things you did that worked for me. What was going through your mind when you did them?” Or, instead of relying upon the useless, “Here’s where you need to improve,” try: “Here is what worked best for me and here is why.” Instead of inserting a pointless, “You need to improve your communication skills,” consider, “Here’s exactly where you started to lose me.” All these phrases are meaningful, focused, and actionable.
I highly recommend the article, and you can get a reprint from the Harvard Business Review. I also am a big fan of Buckingham’s book Now, Discover Your Strengths, in which he persuasively argues we waste time on fixing our weaknesses and should put that time toward getting even better at what we excel at. In short, there are different and more effective ways to think about feedback. Give them a try!
Michael P. Maslanka is a professor at the UNT-Dallas College of Law. You can reach him at email@example.com.