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Everything you know about giving feedback at work could be wrong

What should managers really look for with employees? (Clue: It’s not whether workers fit neatly into all seven “competencies” or “attributes” in the typical performance review.) (iStock)

Management guru Marcus Buckingham has a bone to pick with one of the prevailing trends in management wisdom — that companies need to get a lot better at giving tough, candid feedback, and need to do it a lot more often. As indicative of the trend, he points to recent popular books like Bridgewater Associates CEO Ray Dalio’s “Principles” and Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor,” the proliferation of employee survey tools and feedback apps like 15Five and news reports about tough internal cultures like the ones at Amazon or Netflix.

But in a new article in the Harvard Business Review called “The Feedback Fallacy,” which offers a preview of his book to be published in April, Buckingham and his co-author, Cisco executive Ashley Goodall, argue managers are getting it all wrong. Managers who focus so much on candid feedback are ignoring research that shows how hard it is for people to rate the performance of others, and how difficult it is to standardize and homogenize what “excellence” looks like in different people.

“The big fear of companies is misalignment and lack of control, which is understandable,” Buckingham says. “The problem, of course, is that the value of a human being is the uniqueness of a human being. That’s the value. That’s the feature. Not something to be solved. Or try to fix.”

Managers obviously do have to coach their employees toward better performance — and let people know somehow when they’ve messed up. So how should they talk to employees instead? We spoke with Buckingham about what he thinks most companies get wrong, what millennials really want when it comes to feedback (his teenage daughter is an Instagram influencer) and what managers should look for. (Clue: It’s not whether workers fit neatly into all seven “competencies” or “attributes” in the typical performance review.) The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve written about why companies should focus on employee strengths, not weaknesses, and the problems with traditional performance reviews. What’s new here?

What you see now is a horde of people running down a path at great speed, combined with technology, trying to create a world in which, number one, everybody is more continuously giving feedback because we think the problem is we don’t have enough. Number two, we think millennials in the workplace crave feedback. This article’s going ‘wait a minute, what does the science tell us? What does the research tell us about how humans excel?’

Every company says their culture is too nice, too polite. Then there’s an associated problem that we only used to give feedback once a year in the annual performance review, which of course is stupid. To fix those, we think the thing we should be doing is continuously giving each other feedback. But there’s no research at all that says that leads to greater performance.

I’ll do 50 speeches a year, and every single company has made a God of feedback.

This big change was supposed to make performance reviews better. Could it be making them worse?

You say it’s wrong to think millennials want more feedback at work.

What a misdiagnosis that is.

They love attention. That’s totally different. For instance, Instagram is about building an audience. What you’re looking for is each little heart is a positive affirmation of an audience. They’re not looking for constructive, candid or radically candid feedback. My daughter has 1.4 million Instagram followers, and what Lilia wants is an audience. She’s not looking for feedback. She’s looking for interaction.

So what you’re suggesting is people want reactions from their boss, not advice?

Words are really important here. If you’re missing facts, you want someone smart to tell you the facts, but that’s not “feedback,” that’s instruction. If there are steps you should follow and you miss one, then you want an expert to say you missed one. But facts and steps are disembodied from you. Don’t tell me what I should be doing differently. You don’t know. Don’t tell me what my attributes or qualities are. You don’t know. Instead, what you do know is what your reaction is to what I’m doing. Your feedback is a distortion, just as it is in music.

Give me an example of conventional corporate wisdom you think is wrong.

Our theory of excellence is wrong. We think excellence is describable in isolation. That there’s a standard definition of what excellence is. Here are the seven attributions or competencies or qualities that we’re supposed to have — it doesn’t matter who you are. You’re supposed to have all of these.

The thing that undermines that is the real world. You look at anyone who excels, and you see idiosyncrasy. They’re not always doing it the same way. Excellence is not homogenous. We like to think it is, but you actually look at excellent sales people, excellent nurses, excellent doctors, excellent leaders, and the first thing that strikes you is they all look and behave differently.

Are you suggesting managers shouldn’t give negative “feedback” or advice that’s not based on a fact or missing step?

Exactly. Don’t ever do it.


There’s only three sources of input that are valuable to a team member: facts, steps, reaction. Facts — that’s obvious. If a person doesn’t know them, tell them. Steps — obvious, too — if a job is defined by a few set steps and they miss one, tell them. For nurses, there is a step to doing an injection safely, and if you miss it, then it’s entirely appropriate for me to go “don’t ever miss that step again.”

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But how do you not give negative feedback?

That goes to the third. The third input that’s useful — we’re going to label it reactions. If a salesperson doesn’t convince me, I can say I wasn’t convinced. A manager can absolutely say to a person, “Look, my reaction to what you just did is I didn’t follow it, I didn’t understand it.” Any reaction like that is totally legit. I’m not telling you you’re not “strategic” enough. I’m saying I didn’t understand what you did. This seems like a small point, but it’s everything. We cross over a bridge with feedback when we start telling you who you are and what you should do differently. The moment we do that, we’ve screwed it up.

Am I capable of reliably rating someone else’s qualities or attributes or competencies? Forty years of research says no. I’m incapable of holding an abstract concept like “business acumen” in my head stably enough and rating someone else on it and then turning my attention to another teammate and rating him on it. The research on this is unequivocal.

What should managers say?

What they should stop saying is “can I give you some feedback?” And they should start saying “here’s my reaction.” Second, the best and most powerful thing you can do is give your reaction to what works. When someone does something that makes you lean in or think “that really flowed,” what they want to have you do is go “yes, that. That.” If you’re going to be a great performance coach, stop us in the course of our day and go “that. Yes, that.” Think about it as strengths replay. The best sports coaches record the winning plays in each game and say “this is what excellence looks like for you.”

This sounds all rosy and great and all, but it’s not how most people talk at work. What kind of reactions do you get from managers or companies when you advise this?

It’s not rosy actually. It’s actually bloody hard. People think that uncovering or investigating what works is easier than the tough business of giving you feedback about what’s broken and yet that’s actually 180 degrees wrong.

The best managers seem to know what the best neuroscientists know: We’ve got to get out of the advice business. It makes us feel helpful, it makes us feel confident and we feel useful. What we’ve got to remember is if you want to help someone grow, you’ve got to start with where they are and who they are. It’s what every great teacher or great coach, or frankly, great parent knows. You never give your kids advice. You just don’t. You try to figure out who the kid is or the team member is and say here’s my reaction to what you did, make sense of it how you will. Let them have the insights. It’s frankly the only way learning will happen.

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