5 Feedback Myths: Debunking with an Evidence-Based Approach

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Hi there, fellow feedbackers. Cameron Conaway here.

Today, let’s address five fairly common feedback myths that I’ve seen either directly exhibited or more subtly pervading work environments.

Myth number one – positive feedback isn’t helpful. If I had to pick one myth to dismantle, it would likely be this one because positive feedback positively impacts so many lives and entire work cultures could immediately and dramatically improve if folks dismantle this one. Okay, so this myth has kind of a single root with several branches coming off it. The root is some ignorance around positive feedback’s ability to highlight a gap, right. One branch, as mentioned in this Harvard Business Review article, is that people believe positive feedback is optional.

As the authors put it, quote – we can only conclude that managers feel that it’s their job to tell their direct reports bad news and correct them when they make a mistake, but that taking time to provide positive feedback is optional – end quote. They continue on to say – we think this is a mistake. Our research suggests that colleagues place a great deal of emphasis on receiving positive feedback and that it colors their relationship with one another even more than does negative feedback, end quote. In my own article at HBR I wrote about how I’d spent years really as an undergraduate writing student getting my papers filled with negative feedback in red pen. The feedback taught me plenty about my weaknesses – it highlighted those gaps – but I rarely received specific feedback that showed me my strengths.

And if you think about it, not knowing your strengths is also a vital gap to address, in many cases it’s actually far more important than shoring up your weaknesses. So when one professor gave me specific positive feedback by showing me an example of something I did exceptionally well – and then he actually compared it to what authors that I admire had done – it not only highlighted a gap, I mean really I truly had no idea I was doing anything particularly well, it also improved my confidence to the point that I pursued writing as a career. And although, you know, it was challenging and didn’t bring a sort of uh financial stability – the career led to mind opening kind of global explorations that expanded my perspective on just about everything and allowed me to spend time with and learn from amazing people around the world. And how amazing that all of this arose, essentially, because a single piece of positive feedback um kind of opened the door to my confidence in such a way that I was able to make a career choice.

The academic research on positive feedback spans decades, team, and to the point where the profound power of positive feedback runs kind of through all of it. This 2020 piece here in Frontiers in Psychology opens with a description about how quote – Positive feedback has been found not only to enhance performance, and here they cite the classic 1996 work from Kluger and DeNisi, but also to be an efficient intervention to manipulate self-efficacy. So, team, what that last part essentially means is that when someone receives positive feedback it has longer term downstream impact such as protecting that person from stress and also improving their self-confidence. The paper then goes on to highlight its own study with a sample of 102 participants in which the results suggest something I find completely fascinating, right. So positive feedback may even increase flow state – that ability of people to be fully focused on a single activity. This could be because as positive feedback can both improve confidence and alleviate stress it allows the receiver of it to generally feel good about their work and to less frequently be pulled out of flow state – kind of due to their inner critic or other self-doubting mechanisms – so when we pair these types of positive feedback specific findings with the more generalized feedback studies and lit reviews that are out there, like this one from David Nadler in 1979 which, citing the 1956 research of Ammons, states, quote, The research on feedback and individual performance generally indicates that feedback enhances rates of learning, that it affects motivation in a generally positive manner, that the more specific it is the greater the impact, the greater the delay between performance and feedback the less the effect, and that when feedback is decreased performance sometimes decreases, end quote. Put all that together and the case to give feedback, particularly specific positive feedback, becomes quite strong. It really can do everything from helping improve employee satisfaction and development to promoting a culture of appreciation, which many employees, arguably most, are looking for.

Speaking of showing appreciation, I’d like to pause there for a moment because this is kind of another branch off the root. So you may have seen this – a person puts their tough card on the table. And by that I mean they’ve equated positive feedback, even appreciation, with weakness and they want you to know that they can take whatever harsh feedback you can serve up.

So coupled with this – that person often also usually holds kind of an erroneous notion that positive feedback is nothing but empty fluff, you may have even heard them say that. Again, our root here is the ignorance around just how impactful positive feedback can be, and maybe even what it is. Yes it can be meaningless and insincere fluff if it’s simply a comment like good job, right. But truly effective positive feedback is specific; it’s something like this: Hey I appreciated the way you steered our team discussion out of the weeds and back to gaining a better understanding of our customers primary pain point – without that we may have come up with a solution to a problem that wasn’t even the problem. So, you know, when you said hey team can we pause here for a moment and come back to our purpose, that allowed everybody time to regroup and get back to our primary intentions. So well done and thank you so much.

Myth number two – receiving negative feedback is a bad thing. Okay, so let’s be real here. Losing your job is a bad thing. Being expected to fulfill the expectations of your role plus that of a colleague who left the company, yes, likely a bad thing. Being ridiculed in front of your peers – definitely a bad thing. But receiving feedback as we are defining it here, quote: a response to a person’s activity with the purpose of helping them adjust to become more effective. Feedback comes in various forms, including evaluative (how you did and where you are), appreciative (how you are valued and recognized), and coaching (how you can improve) – probably is not a bad thing. And hey those three forms of feedback come from this book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. I found those groupings to be incredibly helpful. So all that said, feedback may be a poorly delivered thing and it may be a hard thing.

Now before we dive in, I want to validate how you may have felt about feedback in the past – including how your body may have experienced it – sinking feeling in the stomach, tight jaw, sweaty palms, and more. Indeed if in the moment you received feedback you thought you were losing your job or that you were a failure, then it all likely felt like a very bad thing. But that feeling, while very important, doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad thing, right. Many variables come into play when we receive feedback. We often think it is purely about the words coming from the feedback giver, which can be complex in and of itself, but the human condition often adds other layers of complexity. We know from the work of Professor Carol Dweck that those of us with a fixed mindset, that is those who are inclined to believe that their intelligence and abilities are fixed, tend to experience receiving feedback as if they failed a critical test.

After all, right, if you believe your qualities are fixed you’ll likely work hard to portray them as perfect and feedback rattles this sense of perfection – often causing the feedback receiver to become defensive, even ignore great feedback, and generally feel pretty terrible. Those with a growth mindset, that is those who are inclined to see their intelligence and abilities as qualities that by their nature can be improved through effort, tend to experience receiving feedback as a valuable and even exciting opportunity to grow. Another variable has to do with the narratives we create. So, many years ago, I received feedback from my manager about how I needed to get more disciplined with how I was managing projects. It was, it was good and helpful feedback, but because my manager had missed our last few one-to-one meetings and during that time had promoted a colleague I considered my co-lead, I couldn’t see the feedback through the narrative fog I had created. I was convinced this was it – that this feedback about project management was me being put on notice, and so I operated for weeks in total terror, I mean pure anxiety and fear. And then one day my manager asked me if I had a second to chat. You can probably imagine that my heartbeat was in my throat when they told me I was a high performer being promoted, right. And that I’d soon be managing a larger team. So you can probably also imagine my shock there. I share this story, team, because the next time you’re on the receiving end of feedback – just try to take steady breaths to center yourself. It seems like a small action but it can really put you in a position to receive feedback for what it really is. So if you’ve received great negative feedback there’s a good chance you’ll be able to grow from it and it likely means someone cared enough about your development to thoughtfully give it to you even though they may have felt uncomfortable doing so.

Myth number three – you should wait until quarterly reviews to give feedback. This myth has proved remarkably resilient even with the pace of technological change, the increased adoption of agile methodologies, and seemingly real-time everything. But it still must be said – delaying feedback can negatively impact a person’s growth and future performance and it may, depending on how that person may have been able to improve if they had received it, even set them up for failure. Check out this video I worked on for Harvard where I share a real story about this. Still, many feedback givers, particularly managers, wait until the quarterly development discussion to provide detailed feedback. These type of managers take notes throughout the quarter and then kind of dump all of them out during the quarterly review in a way that, number one, can be overwhelming for the receiver and, number two, is usually so removed from the incident that the feedback receiver finds it hard to see the feedback as actionable. So why does this myth persist? First, because very few people receive comprehensive feedback training. For reasons I’ll explore in a future video, there’s a big assumption in the corporate world and beyond that people all have a shared understanding of what feedback is, know how to effectively give it and receive it, and therefore you know don’t need any training on it. The feedback delay, in my experience, also happens for a few other reasons.

First, and this especially seems to be the case for middle managers, they believe they are too busy to deliver timely, thoughtful feedback. And middle managers, indeed, are often loaded and busy as they are often expected to serve as high level contributors and great people managers. And so delaying, they believe, or maybe they just rationalize, and I’ve done this myself, delaying gives them time to prepare. Related to this, another cause for delay is that the giver has time to kind of build a case. In this sense, feedback is positioned like a prosecution with the receiver becoming kind of like an opponent of some sort. Depending on the situation, I can see why a giver may want to see a few examples before feeling something is important enough to bring up, but holding it all until a rather arbitrary date likely hurts all involved – it hurts the manager who has to allocate a portion of their mind space to retaining and remembering all of this information and who also doesn’t get the benefit of the potentially improved performance of their teammate; it hurts the receiver whose development is put on hold; and it hurts the business because again employee development is put on hold. Lastly, I believe it’s also delayed because giving negative feedback can be incredibly stressful and it temporarily feels far better to delay stress rather than step into it. I think as humans, we’ve all felt an inclination to move away from pain even if some part of us might know it’s important for healing, for example.

On this topic, I often think about my long ago days as an MMA fighter and one of the first lessons came from my boxing coach who taught me that to slip a punch and be in a great position to land a counter punch I had to actually move toward my opponent’s punch not away from it. I mean this took me so long to understand – and probably over a decade before I could do it decently – because it was my instinct to step back to move away from an incoming punch rather than step forward towards it at an angle, but in doing so I was simply moving away from punch, and that’s it. I wasn’t in a position to do anything offensively or use my opponent’s energy in any way – and as we see again from this survey at Harvard Business Review, quote: One of the most difficult parts of a manager’s job is giving feedback. In a survey of 7,631 people, we asked whether they believed that giving negative feedback was stressful or difficult, and 44 percent agreed.

When talking with managers about giving feedback, we often hear comments such as I did not sleep the night before, I just wanted to get it over quickly, my hands were sweating and I was nervous, and they don’t pay me enough to do this job. We find that because of this anxiety, some managers resist giving their direct reports any critical feedback at all. When we asked a different group of 7,808 people to conduct a self-assessment, 21 percent admitted that they avoid giving negative feedback, end quote. Delaying it until a quarterly development discussion allows managers to kick the can down the road a bit, to get out of the way of the stress rather than use it as an opportunity to grow themselves and their teammate, but if you’re like me – out of sight is not out of mind.

When I’ve delayed or postponed feedback, for fear that it may be a challenging conversation, I found myself still thinking about it – it was like an unused app burning energy in the background of my mind. So my advice: try to give feedback as close to the behavior or performance you will be commenting on as possible. Of course, you know, use your discretion because there are exceptions here. You’ll likely want to wait to give direct individual feedback until after you’ve left a group setting, right. And of course you don’t want to rush the stage after your colleague gave a fantastic presentation just to quickly give them some absurdly minor negative feedback.

Myth number four – the feedback giver has all the power. If you’ve ever spent time reading popular articles on how to effectively receive feedback, you’ve likely noticed a condescending tone. Some entire articles on this topic can basically be summed up as: make eye contact, smile, say thank you. It’s as though being perceived as effectively receiving feedback is more important than actually receiving it – stay tuned for a video all about the art and science of receiving feedback. On that, well, your gut sense on those condescending tones was onto something.

This tone, it’s even apparent throughout the decades of academic research on feedback. There exists an underlying assumption that the giver is the manager and in some cases a kind of all-knowing keeper of wisdom manager, and the receiver is a very junior colleague who desperately needs a manager’s help. This, of course, is one plausible scenario, I guess, but there are countless others – and even this hierarchical example – that more powerful manager may be higher up in the company but what if they’re among that 21 percent who find giving negative feedback so immensely stressful that they completely avoid it? I see the receiver-giver relationship as far more balanced, with the receiver in many cases holding more power in the relationship. If you think about it, part of why managers are stressed about giving negative feedback is they are quite scared of what the receiver’s response will be, so the receiver has a bit of power there. And if we keep in mind that feedback flows in all directions, not only from the top down, it’s clear that power isn’t held by one party. And additionally, and to come back to the research, we’ve known since this piece in 1983 about what’s called Feedback Seeking Behavior – FSB for the cool cats – this is where the receiver makes the first move by literally asking for feedback. In some ways, this puts even more power into the receiver’s hands. And, lastly, for a great read on the vital role of the feedback receiver – and I think it’s a read that will shift your perception of power in the feedback relationship – check out the book I mentioned earlier: Thanks for the Feedback. I’ll link to it in the description as well.

Myth number five – feedback isn’t future focused. I’ll try to keep this one brief. Here again is our definition of feedback. Notice that the purpose is helping someone adjust to become more effective, that in itself of course means more effective in the future. Notice also that one of the three feedback forms is referred to as coaching, which is about helping someone improve in the future. Additionally nearly all of the research on what makes feedback effective points to its capacity to improve future performance. And yet, the term feed-forward has entered the scene, with some folks so passionate about it that they no longer use the word feedback.

The term feedforward arose to ensure feedback takes a future oriented approach, but effective feedback, however, already does precisely that – it points to a past performance with the intention of improving future performance. So in this sense, I believe it’s problematic to position feed forward as the reverse of feedback, which I’ve heard people say. Still, like the term constructive feedback, feed-forward, I think has its place depending on the audience. Reframing or rebranding it… rebranding feedback in this way can also help pull employees back into the feedback process if they’ve had terrible or even harmful experiences with in the past. I believe this new term seems to have entered the scene at least in part because most of us do not have a shared definition of feedback or, as previously mentioned, a nuanced and shared understanding of what it is and how it works. Effective feedback is already future-focused, but if feed forward helps remind you to more directly link the observed behavior with a future one, right on, cool, do your thing. And so that’s a wrap on our five feedback myths. I’m so grateful for your time and I hope some of what I shared has been helpful. I’ll be releasing more feedback videos similar to this, and of course I’d love your feedback on all of them. I’d also love to learn from your own feedback wisdom, so feel free to share that as well. Oh and in the description you’ll find links to books, articles and a feedback glossary I created.

May you and those you love be well.

Feedback Resources Before You Go

[Video] On the meaning of feedback

[PDF] Feedback glossary of terms

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