Feedback: The very word makes us uncomfortable, but upon reflection, that response is odd. After all, we’re introduced to feedback early in life. The tests and quizzes at school, corrected and graded by the teacher, was all feedback, and we were OK with it, because the feedback helped us improve.
A study at a leading U.K. university confirmed what we intuitively knew: Receiving feedback at school leads to better performance. The same should be true for the world of work, shouldn’t it?
We are keen to embrace feedback in other aspects of our life. Uber drivers and passengers rate each other, product ratings on Amazon influence what we buy, restaurants receive instant feedback from TripAdvisor or OpenTable, and hairdressers can improve their service by checking their rating on Yelp. So, what happens at work?
One of the reasons feedback goes wrong at work is that managers and, by extension, organizations, tend to believe things about feedback that are simply not true. In our review of the science of feedback, we found six common myths that managers believe about feedback. These myths cause them to disregard a practice that has been proven to help us learn and perform.
Myth 1: Feedback Happens Anyway
In a storybook, the fairy godmother appears exactly when she is needed most. Some leaders believe feedback is like the godmother: It will somehow, magically, turn up, and the employee will somehow know.
The idea that feedback just happens has been refuted, time and time again, in study after study. Managers typically do not give feedback. And magic rarely happens.
Myth 2: Employees Don’t Like Feedback
There is some evidence for this myth. Many people will dodge feedback opportunities, especially when there are performance issues. A study aptly titled “Are You Hiding from Your Boss?” discovered that in 24% of cases, following a poor performance incident, the employee tried to avoid his or her manager.
Here is the problem for organizations: Leaders confuse what people like with what they need. Consider your check-up with the dentist. You may not like the conclusion that you need a filling, but if you are satisfied that the diagnosis is thorough and accurate, it is important information, and you need to act it on. (And your dentist can deliver the message without making you feel bad for not having brushed properly!) You may not be happy, but you can be satisfied. As a result of feedback, you know what to do to take corrective action. Smile!
Myth 3: The Manager Is the Oracle of Performance
Managers can be a lot of pressure to get feedback “right” — to be the oracle of performance. After all, they are the boss, right? It’s too much pressure; what if they get it wrong?
Managers are important, but research confirms that source credibility, or trust in the person giving feedback, affects both the perceived accuracy of the feedback and the desire to respond. As a result, when trust and personal engagement with the manager are low, feedback won’t drive the desired outcomes.
If organizations believe that all feedback is down to the manager, managers may miss out on finding inputs from a range of reliable sources. Securing a rich set of inputs makes feedback more accurate and the messenger more credible. Organizations that believe it is all down to the manager risk the managers’ deciding that it’s safer to say nothing.
Myth 4: Feedback Is Good; Frequent Feedback Is Better
A study demonstrated that there is a tipping point where an increase in the frequency of feedback leads to a decrease in task effort and performance. This finding goes against the conventional wisdom that employees need a lot of feedback, especially as they are learning a new task or role. In fact, the same study found that too much feedback is particularly harmful at the early learning stage. Learning something new requires room for experimentation and learning from mistakes.
However, there is a lot of pressure on managers to give frequent feedback. Managers acting in good faith may see their best efforts lead to employees’ becoming frustrated and confused. As a result, they may decide to give up.
Myth 5: “Bad” Feedback Is Bad
There is nothing wrong with praise and recognition, but many organizations believe that negative feedback is bad. When this belief is widely held across the organization, leaders avoid giving feedback altogether to avoid saying something negative, or they sugar-coat the message to such a point that it has no practical value.
Giving feedback can be challenging, and research confirms that leaders are pretty bad at it. In fact, global data confirms that the skill of giving constructive feedback is at the bottom of the leadership competency list for managers and executives.
The truth is that it is not whether the feedback is positive or negative that effects performance. There is ample research to show that positive feedback may lead to a decrease in effort, just as negative feedback may boost a person’s desire to achieve more. The issue is contextual. When feedback is situational, its impact is positive. Robin Sharma, author of “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari,” once tweeted, “Negative feedback can make us bitter or better.” You choose!
While positivity and optimism may increase people’s persistence in completing a task, they have an insignificant impact on performance. Some scholars go as far to say that the only useful feedback is negative feedback. For organizations believing “bad feedback is bad,” the result is simply the missed opportunity to improve performance.
Myth 6: Feedback Is the Panacea
An influential meta-analytical study demonstrated that only half of feedback interventions result in improved performance. In one-third of cases, performance worsens after feedback.
For their feedback to be in the half that improves performance, managers have to take into account a variety of factors and synthesize them into a meaningful, high-quality message. They have to make the message relevant to performance, meaningful for their employees and supportive of their improvement effort. This approach includes providing feedback on progress. Organizations that believe feedback is the panacea quickly become disillusioned, and efforts falter.
Many managers, and organizations embrace these six common myths about feedback, and acting on these myths leads to suboptimal results. Knowing the science of feedback can improve how managers improve feedback, resulting in greater self-awareness, improved employee satisfaction and better performance.
For leaders, having a point of view on your role as feedback-giver that’s rooted in science will help ensure that your feedback achieves the desired impact and develops satisfied, more productive employees. For trainers, you have an opportunity. What keeps us from educating our leaders about the truths of feedback, so they can improve feedback in their teams? Nothing!