Some Feedback About Feedback

New research digs into the fallacies about ‘open feedback’

In The Feedback Fallacy, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall wonder (paywall) how should we give and receive feedback, and they question the inherent goodness of feedback, and the unexamined premises that underlie our obsession with it.

To be clear, instruction — telling people what steps to follow or what factual knowledge they’re lacking — can be truly useful: That’s why we have checklists in airplane cockpits and, more recently, in operating rooms. There is indeed a right way for a nurse to give an injection safely, and if you as a novice nurse miss one of the steps, or if you’re unaware of critical facts about a patient’s condition, then someone should tell you. But the occasions when the actions or knowledge necessary to minimally perform a job can be objectively defined in advance are rare and becoming rarer. What we mean by “feedback” is very different. Feedback is about telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better — whether they’re giving an effective presentation, leading a team, or creating a strategy. And on that, the research is clear: Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.

They lay out the problems behind feedback. First:

Humans are unreliable raters of other humans. Over the past 40 years psychometricians have shown in study after study that people don’t have the objectivity to hold in their heads a stable definition of an abstract quality, such as business acumen or assertiveness, and then accurately evaluate someone else on it. Our evaluations are deeply colored by our own understanding of what we’re rating others on, our own sense of what good looks like for a particular competency, our harshness or leniency as raters, and our own inherent and unconscious biases. This phenomenon is called the idiosyncratic rater effect, and it’s large (more than half of your rating of someone else reflects your characteristics, not hers) and resilient (no training can lessen it). In other words, the research shows that feedback is more distortion than truth.

The only area where we can rely on a person as a source of truth is about their own feelings, not about others’ capabilities.

Second, feedback that focuses on what we are not doing fails profoundly:

Learning is less a function of adding something that isn’t there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already is.


Getting attention to our strengths from others catalyzes learning, whereas attention to our weaknesses smothers it.


Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.

The only area where we can rely on a person as a source of truth is about their own feelings, not about others’ capabilities.

So, a great deal of the mush about hypercritical ‘open feedback’ is just wrong, if the intent is to help people learn rather than castigate them:

Learning happens when we see how we might do something better by adding some new nuance or expansion to our own understanding. Learning rests on our grasp of what we’re doing well, not on what we’re doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else’s sense of what we’re doing poorly. And second, that we learn most when someone else pays attention to what’s working within us and asks us to cultivate it intelligently. We’re often told that the key to learning is to get out of our comfort zones, but these findings contradict that particular chestnut: Take us very far out of our comfort zones, and our brains stop paying attention to anything other than surviving the experience. It’s clear that we learn most in our comfort zones, because that’s where our neural pathways are most concentrated. It’s where we’re most open to possibility, most creative, insightful, and productive. That’s where feedback must meet us — in our moments of flow.

I love the anecdote about Tom Landry, the football coach, who turned around the struggling Dallas Cowboys:

While the other teams were reviewing missed tackles and dropped balls, Landry instead combed through footage of previous games and created for each player a highlight reel of when he had done something easily, naturally, and effectively. Landry reasoned that while the number of wrong ways to do something was infinite, the number of right ways, for any particular player, was not. It was knowable, and the best way to discover it was to look at plays where that person had done it excellently. From now on, he told each team member, “we only replay your winning plays.”

Look for those plays, and replay them. For yourself, and those you work with.


reposted from Some Feedback About Feedback, August 2019.