3 Myths About Employee Feedback You Must Bust Today

Everything you think you know about feedback is (mostly) wrong.

By Elaine Lin Hering

Feedback: Lots of us claim to love it and others have conflicted relationships with it. We all want it … just not in that tone, or on that issue, and certainly, not from you. So why is it that despite all the effort, analysis, and innovation around feedback solutions, most teams have yet to crack the code?

In my work with organizations, teams, and individuals across industries and around the world, I’ve encountered three myths that hold people back from getting and giving the feedback they truly need. Understanding these myths—and, crucially, understanding why they’re wrong—will help make feedback work better for you and your business.

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Feedback Myth #1: We all mean the same thing when we say “feedback.” 

The reality: There are three types of feedback. We need all three types to learn and grow.

Feedback is all around us: the raised eyebrow, the silence on the other end of the phone, the curt reply by email. We’re given feedback every day, even if we try to avoid it. Yet our understanding of what feedback is—what we’re looking for from it, what the other person intends by it, and how those expectations intersect with each other—differs.

As my business partners Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen identify in Thanks for the Feedback (Viking 2014), three types of communication get conflated under the banner of feedback: appreciation (what’s working well), coaching (what you can do to improve), and evaluation (how you’re tracking against goals and expectations). Failing to distinguish among the three types—and the cross-transactions that occur as a result—contributes to the confusion, frustration, and dysfunction we experience around feedback.

Imagine this scenario: Adam is feeling stuck in his current role. He keeps asking his manager, Elena, for feedback, hoping she’ll have ideas on how he can develop his skill sets. But all she ever says is “You’re doing great!” Adam continues to feel stuck and thinks Elena is useless on this front. Elena, meanwhile, is frustrated because she feels like she isproviding feedback—much more than she ever received, in fact.

Adam and Elena are missing each other, because all the evaluation, even when positive and well-intended as appreciation, can’t solve what Adam experiences as a lack of coaching.

To avoid the frustration, either party could clarify as to what type of feedback—appreciation, coaching, or evaluation—they’re looking for, intending to give, and identifying where they might be talking past each other.

Feedback Myth #2: Feedback is their responsibility.

The reality: Feedback is a joint responsibility. 

We tend to assume that managers give feedback and direct reports receive it. So if our manager isn’t giving us feedback, and the organization hasn’t figured out a performance management system that actually works, and HR hasn’t stepped in to have the conversation with us, then there’s little we can do about it.

Systems and structures are important. They provide guidance and accountability around the awkward and necessary conversations we all need to have about what’s not working, how the work could be better, or how we could be better. The sheer number of organizations shifting away from formal performance reviews to solutions that foster more real-time feedback would suggest the old way is broken.

Yet in working with hundreds of organizations and teams, many of whom have adopted the latest feedback solution, we haven’t seen anything as powerful as empowering and equipping people to ask for the types of feedback they’re looking for and having the tools to receive it with openness and curiosity.

Being able to ask for the feedback you want helps your feedback givers know how to best support you. Back to Adam and Elena: Adam is no longer waiting around for his manager to learn how to be a better boss, but instead, he’s asking her and others for their advice on how he can grow his technical skills. Elena has a better idea of what Adam is looking for and therefore can better channel her energies into supporting him.

There shouldn’t be any passive participants in the feedback relationship. By empowering each individual to ask for the types of feedback they want and equipping them to receive it well, we can democratize feedback to make feedback work for everyone.

Feedback Myth #3: Leaders need to learn how to give better feedback.

The reality: Leaders need to learn how to better receive (and give) feedback. 

The typical approach to trying to fix the feedback conundrum is to focus on equipping leaders to give feedback so they can guide, mentor, and direct their teams to success. While that’s tremendously important, the biggest complaint we hear from individuals across organizations is that their leaders don’t receive feedback well—because they aren’t open to it. In fact, a leader’s inability to receive feedback while expecting others to take it from them feels hypocritical and discourages people from even trying.

Knowing how to receive feedback well is a distinct skillset. Leaders need to learn how to manage their own triggers around feedback, navigate through conflicting voices, see what they might be able to learn, and communicate with those who have taken the risk to givethem coaching that they’ve heard and considered it. 

By becoming more skilled feedback receivers, leaders accomplish the following:

  • Get essential information from their teams about what is and isn’t working.
  • Can continue driving their own learning and growth to avoid stagnation.
  • Model for their teams the receptivity to feedback they’d want their teams to demonstrate.
  • Become more skillful feedback givers because they’re aware of and have had to navigate the triggers that incline each receiver to dismiss or disqualify feedback.

In doing so, leaders lay the groundwork for a real-time feedback culture in which everyone is expected and able to give and receive feedback in all directions. And that’s a reality we’d appreciate.

Elaine Lin Hering is a principal at Triad Consulting Group, where she helps clients develop leadership capacity for discussing what matters most. Founded by Doug Stone and Sheila Heen, Triad is the only organization officially licensed to provide solutions based on the New York Times bestseller Thanks for the Feedback: the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Viking 2014).