"Jenny, we usually get to the office before 9 a.m., and I've noticed that sometimes you come in five or 10 minutes late."

That's word-for-word what I overhead a manager telling Jenny, one of his direct reports, during her annual performance review at a Starbucks.

I didn't have to wonder how Jenny felt about that or how she reacted to it. I knew when I heard those words come out of the manager's mouth that Jenny would be finding a new job within six months.

Can we all just admit that the idea of people needing feedback to grow is a lie? The research is in, and it turns out that almost everyone hates formal feedback, whether it's in an annual performance review or one of those uncomfortable meetings with the boss on a Friday around lunchtime.

Most employees don't complain about feedback the right way, though. "I appreciate tough feedback," they say, "but how it's delivered is what bothers me." So managers go through training on how to give feedback in the compliment sandwich approach (which doesn't work) or the radical candor approach (which may be slightly more effective).

But recent research from the Harvard Business Review says the problem isn't in how feedback gets delivered. The problem is the nature of feedback itself. "Focusing people on their shortcomings doesn't enable learning," the researchers found, "it impairs it."

If feedback doesn't work, how can managers help employees grow?

Teach people why what they're doing works. Don't just thank them for a job well done.

When you catch someone doing something that works, stop them and figure out why it works. Chances are, your team member has no idea why their strategy works or even how they've developed it. They just do it because it makes them successful.

Interrupt the flow of their work so they're thinking instead of auto-operating, and together, identify the specific actions that make the process function so well.

Once your employee can grasp the specific things they're doing right in one area, they're more likely to transfer those strategies to other work. By identifying the pieces of success, they can realize the resources and abilities they actually have.

Implement brain-based, research-backed learning strategies.

Management is mainly about learning, not teaching. So focus on how people learn, not how people teach. Students learn best when they are in a relaxed, low-stress environment-- not during an annual performance review or in a meeting where they think they'll get fired. People also learn best when they're engaged. So, chuck the lecture or the brown bag lunch session and get creative.

The most important thing to know about learning and teaching, though, is that people learn best when they are appropriately challenged. Start at the edge of what your employees obviously know and encourage them to expand from there. By incorporating their prior knowledge, you give the employees something to hook new information to.

Tell them what you experience or feel about their work.

The study says that humans can't reliably rate other people's work. Specifically, it says, "feedback is more distortion than truth."

Our own truth, it turns out, is likely to be false. This research flies in the face of everything 20th century corporate America believed about feedback. But we aren't working in 20th century corporate America. Today, you don't need your colleagues to tell you where they think you suck as a manager or entrepreneur. You probably already know that. Instead, you need your colleagues to help you capture your own personal concept of excellence.

Think about that cringe-inducing performance review I overheard at Starbucks. If Jenny's manager had helped her capture her own view of excellence for her position--instead of worrying about her coming in at 9:05 a.m.--he'd have seen a good employee grow to be great. Instead, he probably watched a great employee shrivel until she found a different manager who would help her achieve excellence.

To escape the feedback trap, you have to purposefully decide to help your employees learn and achieve excellence. It takes adopting a new mindset, but it's worth it for both your team and your business' future. 

Published on: Jun 27, 2019
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