Feedback - Gift or Gaffe?
Organisations invest a lot in training people how to give feedback and in working with teams on creating a feedback culture, but is there any evidence that it actually works? Logic suggests that we should be feeding back to each other, enhancing our performance and releasing potential, but in reality, the results are mixed and if done unskilfully it can be damaging to confidence and relationships. There are examples of where misuse of feedback leads to a highly toxic environment. In my own experience of consulting with many organisations on this, despite training on simple tools to give feedback, a lot of managers intuitively know the complexities and simply avoid doing it because it is just too difficult.
So what is wrong with our current models?
Some organisations advocate the “feedback sandwich,” where a piece of criticism is softened by sandwiching it between two positive messages. The sandwich method may have been an industry secret in the past, but nowadays people understand how it works and they know the ultimate point is to deliver criticism, so they disregard the compliment as insincere or just part of the process. Other models include “BOCA” – labelling the behaviour of the individual under question and explaining the outcome and consequences of that behaviour, then identifying more effective alternatives. Worse still, is the performance review which starts off with a polite inquiry into how the family is, followed by a download of a whole load of reasons why the person will not be getting a bonus or pay rise!
There are some proven fundamental problems with negative feedback, regardless of whether we politely dress it up as “constructive”.
Director of the Neuro-leadership Institute, David Rock, found that much of our motivation that drives social behaviour is governed by the need to minimise threat and maximise reward. Social needs in the brain are treated the same way as survival needs. Research from neuroscience has found that saying “let me give you some feedback,” creates a threat response in the brain which, according to David Rock’s research, is experienced in the same way as a threat to our survival.
There is also the issue that a lot of our feedback models arise from an outdated paradigm. It’s about one person being “right” and the other person being “wrong”. A case and story is built that makes the perspective of the person giving the feedback “true,” and the other person’s perspective “faulty”.
The devil is clearly in the detail, so if our old methods of giving feedback don’t work – where does this leave us?
There are a myriad of things wrapped up under the definition of “feedback” and it has actually become quite a polluted term. It actually may not be a helpful term to use when attempting to discuss behaviour and dynamics because it ignores the fact that these things are always relational and contextual and not all about the attributes of the individual. We need more ways to open conversations around what is not working in a particular context. We can address difficult issues when a relationship has been established and there is mutual trust and respect. We need to stay open minded about the conversation and approach it from a joint problem solving perspective, rather than a mission to “fix” the individual. We then don’t even need to call what we are doing “feedback,” as it becomes part of a quality two way conversation where mutual learning arises.