Rebutting the Feedback Fallacy
The case for constructive feedback: to learn and grow, we need a grasp of what we’re doing well, and what we could improve.
Team update: A lot has happened since this blog - all great things! We’re now in the United States and our new product launched in November 2021, helping teams in fast-growing organizations find and hire their best-fit junior and mid-level talent in Sales, Marketing, Operations, and Customer Success. Try it here for free. This means some of our articles before this date may have product shots that look a little different. That’s all from us, enjoy the blog.
Yesterday, my husband shared with me a 2019 article penned by two brilliant authors and minds - Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall called The Feedback Fallacy. In essence, they argued that critical feedback is bad - it puts people into fight or flight and harms their ability to learn and grow.
I wholeheartedly disagree with this.
Let’s start with their definition of feedback: “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.”
I think this is the wrong mindset. Feedback to me is about sharing your observations of a person’s behaviour, your story of its impact, and asking them about their experience of the situation. The authors write that "humans are unreliable raters of other humans" - I agree! We view the world with our own biases and heuristics. But this doesn’t warrant negating feedback completely - babies and bathwater etc.
Feedback should be a dialogue, not a mike drop.
It’s having the bravery to share your story of a behaviour or experience and then having the humility to ask the other person for their perspective. The inimitable Brene Brown talks about this beautifully here and in her book Dare to Lead, viewing feedback as an opportunity to build connection rather than disconnection.
The authors shared an example of a neuroscience study where they asked one group of students about their dreams and how they’d achieve them. They asked the other group about homework and what the students thought they were doing wrong and needed to fix. When asking students what they needed to correct, they found it lit up the sympathetic nervous system in the brain, otherwise known as “fight or flight”, which mutes the other parts of the brain, allowing us to only focus on the information most necessary to survive. Their argument on the findings of this study was that “Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.” This feels to me like a huge jump.
I agree that when you receive negative feedback, it triggers an inherently defensive state. But this doesn’t mean that you stay in defensiveness forever. That assumption takes away any agency from the person you’re giving feedback to. It assumes that a momentary experience of defensiveness eradicates any future critical thinking or curiosity. Like the other person will wilt under a reflection of their gaps.
The article talks about comfort zones and says that feedback “take[s] us very far out of our comfort zones, and our brains stop paying attention to anything other than surviving the experience.” I don’t believe it’s as simple as that - I believe in the 3 zone theory; there are Comfort, Growth, and Panic zones (see here for more info). We don’t learn in the Panic zone - I agee with that. But the Comfort zone is only a home base to return to when we need a rest. The Growth zone is what allows us to stretch and go on a journey of learning and development. Look at any development program that has an impact; the leaders are uncomfortable and forced to rethink their assumptions - they’re outside of their Comfort zones.
How they could think about it differently
Rather than avoid critical feedback entirely:
- Give feedback in discovery. This means being aware of your use of language (e.g. ‘what’s your thinking’ rather than ‘why do you think that’) to promote perspective-taking and curiosity. It means sharing your intention of why you’re giving the feedback, e.g. that you want them to improve and grow and you believe they’ve got the potential to. The suggestions at the end of Buckingham and Goodall’s article are beautiful, and follow this pattern exactly; asking more questions to understand the situation at hand. Caroline Webb has written about this here and in her book How to Have a Good Day with some great tools for moving outside of a state of defensiveness and into discovery.
- Give feedback for the other person. We often give feedback out of frustration or shame rather than a genuine desire to help the other person.
- Give feedback to help others keep accountable. We’re allowed to have hard rules on what is and isn’t okay. It’s not okay for you to be rude or disrespect others. It’s not okay for you to miss deadlines and not follow through on commitments. Clear feedback = kind.
Feedback at Hatch
At Hatch, we believe feedback (when given in discovery, with kindness and clarity) is crucial for us to be a high performing team. It’s how we weave development into our everyday interactions and practices. It’s how we know what’s most important and what to run hard at. It’s not weaponised. It’s not only given top-down. Instead, it enables trust, vulnerability, and resilience - all things we value. All new starters at Hatch go through a crash-course in the ‘defend - discover axis’ (see more here), coaching to identify their defensive triggers, and development opportunities for how to lean in to discovery, even when receiving constructive feedback.
It’s something we’re still working on. In our startup environment, we can be a critical bunch. We have to remind ourselves to share what we like about an idea, as much as what we would change. To help us with this, in our design sparring sessions, we use discovery one-liners such as:
- Can you tell me a bit more about your thinking there?
- Let’s pause and rewind a bit - where did we get off track? What’s getting us stuck?
- We both care a lot. Tell me about your passion for this.
- These are my assumptions... what’s going on for you?
Feedback is hard. We fear we’ll mess up relationships, get it wrong, or that we’re awkwardly imposing a sort of power imbalance by sharing our observations about another person that may suggest we’re better at it than them.
But feedback is powerful. It empowers self-awareness, learning, and growth. If given correctly, it fuels curiosity.
Buckingham and Goodall are brilliant people whose strengths-based research I admire and use a lot in my coaching. But I think they’ve missed the mark on this one.
I believe being so binary to suggest that positive feedback = good, and negative feedback = bad, is reductive. And I think we can do better.