By Andy Low
I came across an interesting article ( https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-feedback-fallacy ) in the March-April edition 2019 of Harvard Business Review, HBR. The article is written by Marcus Buckingham of ADP and Ashley Goodall from Cisco Systems. This article is a prelude to their forthcoming book “Nine Lies About Work.”
The article challenges the ways we manage performance by providing “praise” & “constructive criticism” to employees’ actions, a practice that has been in place for many years, the article argues that there is a better way to help employees to “thrive” and “excel”.
First, the article defines the source of the problem which is feedback is always assumed to be helpful to employees. The authors then support this assumption by quoting three theories that underpinned the conviction and accepted as “business truth”. They are the theory of the source of truth, the ‘theory of learning’ and ‘theory of excellence’.
The theory of the source of truth theorize that other people are more aware than you of your weakness; hence the best way to help you is to show you what you cannot see of yourself. With the theory of learning, conventional wisdom dictates that it is like filling up the empty vessel.
When one lacks specific abilities, one should acquire them, and so your colleagues should teach them to you. Finally, in the theory of excellence that high performance is universal, analyzable and describable. When that has been defined, it can be transferred from one to another person.
The article went on to explain why each of these theories is misconstrued, for example, human being are unreliable to rate other human beings. Researches have shown that humans do not have the objectivity to hold a stable definition of an abstract ability like leadership and as a result how are people able to rate others over this quality? The end result supported by research, therefore, shows that feedback is a distortion rather than truth.
The article went on to dispute the other two theories with research to support the argument. I should not take the fun away by letting the cat out of the bag for you. I urge you to pick up a copy of HBR to read this article.
Given, in my opinion, the authors’ successful demolition of the widely held assumptions and theories how then do we manage and help employees thrive and excel?
The authors further suggest the solution to managers to help their team excel. They propose the following new techniques:
- Look for outcomes
- Replay your instinctive reactions
- Never lose sight of your highest-priority interrupt
- Explore the present, past and future
In “look for outcomes“, the authors observed that excellence is an outcome. For example, when a prospect leans into a particular sales pitch or how an employee delivers impeccable service to a table of guests in a restaurant. Turn to the employee who has created the outcome and say “Yes!” In this way, you stop the workflow and put the attention on what the employee did that really work.
I will leave it to readers to explore the rest of the techniques by cozying up on a couch over a lazy weekend afternoon. I am sure you will enjoy the read as much as I do.
The article is well constructed on the assumption of feedback and goes into great details on the three theories that support the current conviction on feedback. It then offers new techniques that will replace the current feedback framework. As an HR and performance practitioner, I question the effort and resolve that companies will need to implement such a system. Many companies already have well-established processes to manage talents, provides feedback and appraise employees. The new techniques though technically sound and well researched may prove to be tough to implement.
To overhaul the system would suggest the current framework is broken and need fixes. I am not sure how many companies will do that?
I think the authors fail to provide a comprehensive framework for the solution. By merely suggesting to readers to “look for outcomes” will not cut it for companies. Perhaps this article is meant to be a teaser of what to come in their forthcoming book, and I am looking forward to it. Nevertheless, I think this article provides a refreshing outlook on how we appraise employees and motivate them towards excellence.