The Best Kind of Feedback Is Lying. Honestly.

Want a more effective way to motivate your employees? Tell a few fibs and watch them flourish.

By Peter D. Harms, Ph.D.

“Know thyself.” It’s a phrase that was said to be written at the entrance of the Oracle at Delphi, and an idea that has been widely embraced in training and development literature. In the minds of many experts and practitioners, self-awareness is the key to success when it comes to development.

A consultant or trainer administers a test of some sort—personality, leadership style, strengths, work style preferences—and then provides scores or asks participants to score the test themselves. 

Managers then give feedback based on those scores in a manner that seems tailored to the individual: “You’re a thistype of person.” “You’re high on that dimension.” Depending on the result, you’ll learn in this way, and can work with these types of people.

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Many popular press management books are implicitly designed the same way: Provide a simple test or index of something catchy like “grit” or “resilience,” get people to internalize a level, score, or type, and then proceed to tell them how that theory or way of doing things works for them.

But is self-awareness really the key ingredient to success? Maybe not. To be clear, it isn’t necessarily the case that these tests are wrong, or that the techniques don’t work. In fact, they probably do. But the question is whether this is really the best approach. And the evidence suggests otherwise.

The Pygmalion Effect

Recently, a team of researchers at the University of Nebraska reviewed 200 studies aimed at assessing the effectiveness of various interventions for changing follower performance. Their results showed that the type of intervention that made the most difference was what the authors referred to as Pygmalion, which utilizes the power of self-fulfilling prophecies to change behavior.

Named after the Greek sculptor who falls in love with a statue that he has carved, Pygmalion interventions began in educational literature. After students were given an IQ test, their teachers were told some of the students—selected at random—were actually “late intellectual bloomers,” and that they’d likely show superior levels of performance later in the semester. 

Indeed, follow-up assessments showed the designated “bloomers” were more successful later on.

Researchers suspect these gains resulted from the additional attention the teachers showed those students to help them reach their full potential. Studies like these have been repeated in organizational literature as well, with managers being given false feedback about their subordinates and identifying some as “high potentials” with similar results.

To some extent, the Pygmalion Effect is remarkably similar to one of the oldest and best known findings in management. Douglas McGregor long ago hypothesized that the expectations of leaders were self-fulfilling. 

Some leaders, who he labeled Theory X leaders, believed their workers were lazy, selfish, stupid, and unmotivated, and the only way to get them to work was by threatening to punish them or promising them financial awards.

Meanwhile, other leaders, who McGregor labeled Theory Y, believed their workers were inherently good, intrinsically motivated, and acting in the best interests of the company. The Theory Y managers tended to give more autonomy to workers and have better relationships with them. 

Research on these types of leaders often shows Theory Y leaders typically see better results from their workers. And it makes sense: People who work for a boss who hates and despises them simply aren’t motivated to do their best.

The Galatea Effect

Manipulating leaders using the Pygmalion Effect isn’t the only way to leverage self-fulfilling prophecies. Turns out you can achieve the same (or even larger) positive effects by telling your workers or students directly that they have a lot of potential, but they haven’t been living up to it (even though they’ve been selected at random). This is known as the Galatea Effect, after the statue in the Pygmalion myth.

We’re not totally sure why this happens. Some people believe providing such false feedback raises self-efficacy, which makes it more likely that individuals will try new tasks and, in doing so, develop new skills and mastery. 

Others point to the literature comparing students who have entity versus incremental thinking: Some people believe they have a set amount of a given skill or ability, while others see it as developable. And in the long run, those with the developmental mindset tend to perform better because they believe early failures aren’t the final verdict on their capabilities.

So perhaps telling people that the tests show they have a way to grow helps shift them into a more incremental, growth-focused mindset. Both accounts make sense, and both have been backed up by a great deal of research.

The Lying Effect

Personally, I think there’s a third factor at play. A lot of people don’t like being told they’re getting ripped off, or that they aren’t getting awards and accolades that are due to them. 

A disconnect between what we have and what we think we should have triggers our equity sensitivity, and that can be a powerful motivator. Plus, telling people where they stand or who they are without an element that directs or motivates them as to how to improve can create its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

Consider Nick Saban, college football’s most successful coach. In 2017, the University of Alabama legend famously derided members of the media for all the stories they were writing about how dominant and successful his team was, calling them “rat poison” because he felt the praise would breed arrogance and complacency. 

Instead, players tell stories about how Saban tracks down news stories calling the Crimson Tide overrated. In other words, Saban motivates even his elite athletes to improve by creating a perceived disconnect between where they currently are and where they want to be.

It isn’t that Saban doesn’t believe he has excellent players and an excellent team. He surely does. But he knows his men need motivation to stayexcellent, active, and competitive. Putting a chip on someone’s shoulder works. For the Galatea Effect, that chip is the desire to show that the test is actually right, that you aren’t a mediocrity, and that other people have misjudged you. 

In the words of Bob Hogan, “Every great work of literature is a story of revenge.”

Successful feedback using the Galatea Effect often depends on generating that need for revenge or the desire to show someone else they’re wrong. It makes the feedback more than just a cognitive exercise. It gives the feedback an emotional element and makes it a threat to one’s ego. And as we know, people will go to great lengths to protect their egos.

Of course, there are caveats to using false information if you want it to work. For starters, the feedback has to seem real. To paraphrase George Burns, “If you can fake authenticity, you’ve got it made.”

So those scientific tests that get used for feedback? They’re still essential tools. Not only will they lend credibility to your assessments, but they’ll also help keep any exaggerations within the bounds of possibility. 

Specifically, if you tell a manager their worst performer is actually the best performer, you’ll lose your authority as a provider of feedback. Goal-setting theory tells us the best goals are stretch goals, not impossible ones. So you can still use test scores to inform your benchmarks.

Another caveat: False information can’t be used as blanket feedback for all individuals and all attributes. That isn’t to say you should use it only rarely, but try to target areas to develop. Leave accurate feedback for things your employees are doing well to establish your expertise. Then, suggest “there’s this one area where you aren’t living up to your potential, according to the test.”

Want it to stick? Remind your employees of the expectations. The idea is to try to make those expectations move from the unconscious to the conscious. Try to find examples where the employees are actually functioning well, and use them to illustrate their potential.

Counterintuitive as it may be, lying works for feedback. And it requires much more thoughtfulness in terms of how to deploy it. But the research suggests it may even be more effective than telling the truth and increasing self-awareness. 

Just remember: Make it seem real. In the infamous words of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Peter D. Harms, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management at the University of Alabama. His research focuses on the assessment and development of personality, leadership and psychological well-being.