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When feedback works –
the conditions for success

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Published by
Jan Hills
November 21, 2016

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We believe that manager initiated feedback is an over rated management tool. We see very few companies and even fewer managers who are good at giving feedback which results in improved performance. Here is a review of why and what can be done.

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Those of you who read our regular newsletter will know we have views of the role of feedback that have, some would say been quite controversial. We believe that manager initiated feedback is an over rated management tool. We see very few companies and even fewer managers who are good at giving feedback which results in improved performance, which after all is surely the reasons for it.  In our view it is amazing to us that feedback became such a key tool in business and even harder to understand why we persist in trying to get it to work. This is especially true in most organisations today where, we would argue the conditions are stacked against success. These doubts are backed up by a lot of research which calls into question the usefulness of feedback in organisations. For example, we have previously referred to the work of Denisi and Kluger (which dates back to the nineties) which suggests feedback either does nothing or makes things worse more often than it improves performance. My belief is feedback is useless and even damaging in the way most organisations are encouraging managers to use it. And at some level managers know this and that’s why they resist all the attempts I made in the past and others have made to give more of it.

In this article I don’t want to repeat our review of the science you can do that by looking at our article on The Feedback Debate and Brain-savvy Performance Management.

Here I want to review our assumptions about feedback and the conditions when it works and when it definitely won’t, viewed through our understanding of how the brain works.

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Part of a manager’s, or colleague’s motivation in giving feedback is a belief that they want to help the person perform

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Common reasons why feedback doesn’t work

  • When feedback is un-solicited it creates a threat response and that in itself leaves the person receiving the un-solicited feedback in a state that makes it hard to hear and understand it and even harder to do anything constructive as a result.
  • When giving feedback most managers focus on what is wrong. Implicitly we believe poor performance comes from not understanding the right way to do the work or from ‘getting it wrong’ and that if people only knew better they would be able to perform. This I think is an outdated notion. In today’s complex organisations managers can’t know the details of every team members’ work in sufficient detail. Feedback becomes more from their opinion of what should be done rather than based on knowledge of what will work. The premise that managers should give more feedback is based on a simpler world than that in which most people now work.
  • Part of a manager’s, or colleague’s motivation in giving feedback is a belief that they want to help the person perform. We, feedback givers believe we can help the other person, and in the brain that feels good. People get a reward response when they give advice. This of course encourages more advice giving and less focus on whether its helping.

Our other implicit assumption is that people want our help and will change behaviour when they are given it. Actually the research suggests that in anything other than small task oriented activities, like which button to press, people don’t change behaviour because they are told what to do. People make changes to their behaviour when they have the insight for themselves. But creating insight in others is less rewarding for the manager and takes more effort, we have also probably not trained managers to ask the types of questions that generate insight.

  • The other factor is we are bias to notice what isn’t working or what is different from what we expect. Feedback tends to be critical as our brain filters for what isn’t working, it takes more notice of the things which do not match its predictions or assumptions about the world. Poor performance or carrying out the role in a way which is different to how the manager would do so triggers this bias. Hence in most organisations (our research says) employees get little or no positive feedback.
  • One type of feedback which can be useful is advice on what is working and what to specifically do more of. However, this is hard to do. Again our bias to notice what isn’t working rather than what is makes it hard to say what would help.

Bias occurs in another related way and that is we all see the world and particular situations differently. Coaching clients have talked to me about their confusion about the contradictory feedback they receive. It’s not quite one person’s good performance is another person’s poor performance but specific aspects of performance and others reaction to that performance will depend on the beliefs of the feedback giver and their interpretation of the situation. ‘Was the client bored in the pitch meeting or reflecting on an important point you had made?’

  • When someone says ‘can I give you feedback?’ we feel uncomfortable. Mainly because it occurs when the giver if off-loading, or the manager is upset about something, often unrelated to the feedback or at the very least exerting power over the employee. In the CORE model the receiver is having their reputation threatened and their options reduced.
  • And finally, most organisations have a culture which leans towards a fixed mind-set, with this view of the world what is the point in feedback because people either have the ability or they don’t and no amount of information or advice will change them much.

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In our experience feedback works when people seek it for themselves. That is, it is asked for

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So can feedback be useful?

In our experience feedback works when people seek it for themselves. That is, it is asked for. Which we think explains why some people find it so helpful. Our work in organisations suggests if we can restructure the manager’s role and remove the burden of collecting and giving feedback and instead train employees to understand the standards expected of them and to ask for feedback to help them meet these standards not only do you shift the balance of power, and hence the levels of threat, but you get happier managers and happier employees.

At the recent NeuroLeadership conference this was David Rocks ‘revolutionary big idea.’ I’m really pleased that David Rock has endorsed our idea and experience. NLI are advocating managers and organisations stop giving feedback and start asking for it. If you would like to read about some of our work with organisation to employ this approach take a look at our case studies.

So you can use this insight practically here are the conditions when feedback works.

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A feed forward system which allows the employee to work out how they will behave in the future

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When feedback works in the brain

  • When employees know the standards they are working to and are trained to seek feedback to help them meet those standards.
  • When feedback creates reward in the CORE elements, that is it gives greater certainty about how to succeed in the role, options for doing the role, an increased sense of reputation and is equitable.
  • When the receiver of the feedback can imagine how they will act differently and see themselves doing the role or task in the new way. Feedback works when the person can hold in mind how they behave now and how they would behave in the future. In effect this means people can feed forward and create a mental picture of the new behaviour. Scientist call this mental contrasting. The critical reason this is important is that the person can see all the elements in the new behaviour compared to the old. Scientists believe this mental contrasting helps generate both the insight that change would be beneficial, the motivation to undertake the change and the details of the different behaviour required. When people are undertaking mental contrasting scientist see they are thinking more complexly, it engages the prefrontal cortex as well as the temporal lobe which is essential for accessing the memory of the past (current behaviour) with a vision of the new behaviour in the future. The researchers also see activation in the visual areas of the brain.

This amount of processing is very energy draining for the brain. It requires a lot of mental resources so is hard when people are under threat, are very stressed or are focused on defending their reputation.

This research gives us some insight into why feed forward seems to work.  A feed forward system which allows the employee to work out how they will behave in the future is likely to also be activating mental contrasting, and creating insight rather than telling the employee what to do in the future. Introducing this kind of feedback approach requires a shift in the power structure between managers and employees and training for both.

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This type of approach to feedback sends a signal that work is somewhere the person can get better and if they get better the organisation gets better

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Benefits of asking for feedback

Encouraging employees to ask for feedback has a number of benefits:

  • It is likely to be more timely, the employee can ask when and where they want the feedback
  • It tends to be more focused on what is really useful to the employee, especially when people are trained to understand the job standards. This enables employees to ask for the level of detail that will be helpful to them. The traditional model of feedback assumes that people will do better when they have very specific information which would make it easier to put new behaviour into action. But more recent research has found that this doesn’t enable the involvement of the receiver, people are more likely to make change when they are engaged in the process of translating feedback into something they can actually do and see themselves doing. When employees are given too much data they discount it – egocentric discounting is the ‘technical’ term for this in psychology.
  • Bias is an element in feedback which we believe has had scant attention, we know we all see the world in very different ways. This means that employees can get a lot of contradictory feedback. Being in control of seeking the feedback they need means they can ask a range of people who have perspectives which are important to success allowing employees to refine their performance more specifically and to choose which feedback is most relevant at the time
  • This type of approach to feedback sends a signal that work is somewhere the person can get better and if they get better the organisation gets bette In effect it begins to grow a culture of growth mind-set rather than fixed mind-set. We know from Carol Dweck research that cultures with a growth mind-set perform better against measures of business success like productivity and are also more agile and able to change.
  • Organisations that succeed in creating employee centred feedback help employees to feel comfortable with stretching their abilities. Whether that’s using on line systems or a direct approach a balance of positive and developmental feedback initiated but the employee helps to draw out strengths, helps them to understand that to change. In order to change we first have to go through the uncomfortable feeling of the brain signalling we are doing something wrong- some pain must accompany creating new behaviours.  When jobs provide developmental stretch they have an intrinsic benefit in increasing the employees sense of reputation – ‘I am getting better’ and helping people be open to growth and change, and the initial discomfort which goes with it.

Traditional approaches to feedback aren’t working in the majority of organisations, making the system informal is unlikely to change that much. Shifting the power base and the premise that feedback comes from the manage to the employee is we find beginning to get better results. Employee initiated feedback and feed forward are the future.

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