In the last decade, leaders have been encouraged to provide feedback in the workplace. Some of them have done so in the form of fierce criticism or “radical transparency,” a practice that has been adopted by many companies, including Netflix. The streaming giant developed the “Netflix Way,” which “encourages harsh feedback”, and subjects its employees to “intense and awkward” real-time ‘360’ feedback, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The 360-Review is designed to solicit comments and feedback from basically anyone an employee works with – from peers, from subordinates, and from their leaders – all of which is done anonymously.
Many managers have been encouraged to criticize and pass along comments on almost everything their employees do. At times, it seems the 360-Review takes these practices to the next level – some say this format and amount of feedback isn’t conducive to developing employees to truly thrive.
Meg Halverson, a management consultant, shared in an article for The New York Times that she has seen cruel and unhelpful comments during 360-Reviews, such as “stop using your looks and personality to get things done” or “I never really liked you.”
This scenario begs some questions: how often should we give and receive feedback? How candid, critical and transparent should it be? And even – should we be giving feedback at all?
The Efficacy of Feedback in the Workplace
At its core, feedback is perceived as a useful tool to help people thrive and get better at what they do. But, as we'll explore in more depth, feedback may be helpful to a certain extent but sometimes not helpful at all. To back up the theory that feedback might do more harm than good, let’s unpack three theories presented by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, authors of HBR’s article “The Feedback Fallacy”:
Theory of the Source of Truth
This theory is based on the premise that other people are more aware than you of your flaws and weaknesses – so it’s for them to show you what you can’t see for yourself. This brings in questions around self-awareness.
Theory of Learning
Based on the concept of “mirroring and matching,” this belief is focused on those who lack the necessary skills to complete their job, therefore their colleagues are required to teach them how to do it correctly. Buckingham and Goodall suggest this is like “filling an empty vessel.” The main thought here is that you can’t excel in your area of work unless you are given proper feedback to develop the competencies you’re missing.
Theory of Excellence
The third theory is based on the thought that excellence is rooted in universal, analyzable, and describable performance. Thus, an employee should base themselves on this unique and one-size-fits-all idea of success – if you fall short, you should work on how to remedy your shortcomings.
These three theories pair a unique definition of success and
intersect in one particular similarity – self-centeredness.
The Extrovert Ideal
According to the right definition of success, a leader or an employee must be talkative and commanding – not quiet or reserved, but extroverted and confident.
Carl Jung noted that “our Western attitude is extrovert; value is put on being outgoing which we consider being well adjusted.” The extrovert ideal is considered the ‘right’ one, especially in the workplace, which means that introverts, reflective and reserved people are seen as weak, unfit, and sometimes even rude.
So, society rewards those who fit the extroverted persona, simply for doing what comes naturally to them, rather than for their skills, intelligence, and competence.
In Susan Cain’s words from her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, “We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.”
Since the idea of excellence and success is built upon the Extrovert Ideal, many introverts struggle and feel they need to conform or even change their lifestyle and personality. Something quite common in modern workplace culture is an oppressive lifestyle for those “who don’t fit in”. In other words, if you’re wired in a certain way that is not in line with the “ideal,” chances are, you’re more likely to fail.
The belief that we should all follow and fit within one single list of “desirable skills” to thrive and excel in our career doesn’t take into account the many peculiarities or our unique attributes. The three theories presented by Buckingham and Goodall don’t consider basic psychological and emotional human characteristics, and thus we are all likely biased when giving feedback to another person.
The Source Of Truth
Bias occurs naturally in our brain as a way to categorize things into labels and seek shortcuts to better understanding our world. When it comes to feedback, we’re heavily influenced by our biases and visions of the world – and that reflects also in how we rate others.
This phenomenon is called the idiosyncratic rater effect. Research has shown that feedback is highly distorted rather than based upon actual reality. As the HBR authors say, “the only realm in which humans are an impeachable source of truth is that of their own feelings and experiences”.
The truth is, we cannot tell how a person should be or should behave, because if we do, what or who are we basing this upon? How does our unconscious, biased mind affect this evaluation? And, which societal stereotypes and definitions of success are we unconsciously following?
Feedback is always subjective, and our own biases come into play. This means that, when it comes to providing real and effective feedback, what we can do is to tell people how we feel about their performance, skills, and so on. By doing so, we demonstrate what is true for us. It doesn’t define who they are, it defines how we feel about them.
Critical Feedback Impairs Learning
A study conducted by neuroscientists shows that critical feedback activates the “fight or flight” function in the nervous system. Thus, we perceive it as a threat, and criticism produces a strong emotional response.
In other words, focusing on people’s weaknesses impairs learning. People understand and acknowledge their gaps not when we point out their shortcomings, but when we focus on what’s working well.
These findings contradict the assumption that we learn more when out of our comfort zone. Deep and clear learning truly occurs when we feel safe, because that’s when our neural pathways are most concentrated and open to creativity, productivity and clarity. Thus, feedback is best given when we’re in balance and in the flow.
Success, Like Most Things in Life, is Personal
What is excellence to you? How can we define success in our society, personal relationships, and in the workplace? Even if we seem to accept the idea that success is universally measured (eg. when someone achieves a high financial or career status), does this mean that the Average Joe, low-wage, blue-collar worker should be seen as a failure in some people’s eyes?
This myth is out of date. Maybe Average Joe is excellent at what he does and pretty fulfilled with his job, whereas a so-called successful executive with a 6-figure salary might be lonely and depressed.
Success and excellence are simple and natural expressions of human endeavors. Failure has nothing to do with “why people don’t succeed.” They aren’t antonyms. Learning about failure won’t teach us about what we shouldn’t be doing or fix our gaps in order to succeed.
The best way to study patterns of success is to learn about excellence, not about failure. Excellence is subjective and cannot be taught because we’re all different and unique. Feedback, thus, should be approached in a much simpler and more humanistic way. Look for positive outcomes and highlight them. Remember that our brains learn more when we’re shown what we’ve done well, instead of judging or criticizing how it should be.
Another tip is to ask questions. If a colleague or a subordinate comes up with a problem that needs to be solved, ask them to express themselves, even in the midst of turmoil. What’s working for them, right now? Then look at the past and question them about how they’ve tackled similar situations or if this is something new to them... what would they do if they were the leader? Finally, question them about what they think they need to do to resolve such a problem or what is their desired outcome.
These types of questions yield concrete answers in which your peers can find themselves actually doing practical things in the near future.
The biggest outcome here is to bust the myth that feedback is the only good option for correcting mistakes – which in fact, rarely happens. Exposing people’s flaws and telling them what to do to fix themselves has very little to do with helping them excel.
What is it that allows individuals to be themselves, contributing with their own unique perspective and talents? Buckingham and Goodall close the article with a very powerful statement, “We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works.”
Camila Santiago is a content writer and strategist specializing in health and corporate wellness, including extensive experience writing SEO-friendly content. She writes, edits and proof-reads content on wellness topics spanning physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and does so for organizations aiming to improve overall employee wellbeing and professional excellence.