The Feedback Reality

Positive feedback alone won’t cut it. To truly reach your employees (and achieve personal growth) you need to take the bad with the good.

By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., John W. Fleenor, David W. Bracken, and Allan H. Church

We live in a world filled with feedback. In the digital ecosystem, likes, shares, and views are currency. When a drive for this sort of fast and easy feedback gets translated to corporate settings, we find a huge proliferation of technologies that make recognition easier to give and get (Ledford, Benson & Lawler, 2016).

And yet, more and easier feedback may not be betterfeedback (Rose, 2019).

Combine these technological trends with the popular, even cult-like, assertion that the only good feedback is positive “strengths-only” feedback (Buckingham, 2015; Buckingham & Goodall, 2019), and companies are left asking one big question: What kind of feedback should we provide employees?

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While some would suggest ignoring our shortcomings is the key to success, the truth is that balanced and honest feedback from coworkers has never been more valuable. As Conger and Church point out in The High Potential’s Advantage, “The simple answer is it’s not an either-or, but both … Our guidance … is that it is most effective to help them identify strengths to build on and opportunities to improve” (2018, p. 225).

For individuals, and particularly for leaders, successful job performance is more dependent than ever on how well an individual can interact and collaborate with his or her coworkers (Braddy, Gooty, Fleenor, & Yammarino, 2014).

Trying to improve by ignoring feedback that’s unpleasant or not positive might even be quite harmful to growth as a leader (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2016; Kaplan & Kaiser, 2013). Contrary to the opinion of strengths-only evangelists, the most effective employees are those who crave critical feedback, are mature enough to put it in context, and then use it to improve (Braddy, Sturm, Atwater, Smither, & Fleenor, 2013).

Top performers want to deeply understand the good, bad, and ugly of how their behavior affects others because they realize the path of ignoring coworker perceptions is an organizational road that leads to nowhere.

So what’s the value of honest, even if difficult, feedback?

1. We’re all unique. Performance is not.

Who among us wants to believe we’re the same as the next person? It’s a popular and compelling notion that we can all just be ourselves and find our own path to excellent performance. The strengths-only orientation to feedback would suggest we just need to encourage everyone to express their uniqueness, rather than specifying what good performance standards look like and holding employees to those standards. But the challenge with this line of thinking is that while people surely are unique, jobs are not—and there are common minimum standards of behavior everyone in a job must meet.

For example, sharing information, treating customers with respect, and following through on commitments are behaviors all employees must do at every level. Articulating a compelling vision for the futureand clarifying expectationsare not optional or stylistic choices for a leader. Each employee may get results in their own unique way, but it’s absurd to argue employees should ignore (or not even ask for) the evidence that indicates they’re falling short on these baseline behaviors.

Even Marcus Buckingham, one of the most vocal advocates for strengths-only feedback, found in his research that the best leaders did not ignore their weaknesses. Instead, they “found ways to manage around their weaknesses” (Buckingham and Clifton, 2001, p.26)—which implies they knewabout their weaknesses—likely because they received some sort of critical feedback that helped them see which behaviors they weren’t doing as well as was needed. With that knowledge, they created a plan that involved working around their weaknesses.

That sounds an awful lot like actively seeking constructive feedback and using that knowledge to improve, doesn’t it? Only at their own peril would an employee ignore feedback about a behavior like listens to and acknowledges others.No matter how unique they are, or how much they excel in other areas, an employee simply must exhibit this behavior at some basic level to succeed in their job.

Listening may not have to be their greatest strength, but they can’t be horrible at it and expect to succeed. Without feedback from others, it may be impossible to know if this is a strength or a gap that needs closing. And without honest feedback from the people they should be listening to, employees simply won’t have a clue.

2. Constructive feedback prevents toxicity in organizations. 

Toxic cultures can quickly develop in companies epitomized by behaviors that need to be stopped, like harassment and bullying, which have no clear positive descriptors. We need to label negative behaviors and create ways for employees to provide constructive feedback to “call out” these behaviors as being inappropriate and not tolerated. 

By providing feedback that flags these behaviors, employees can be made aware of their counterproductive actions, but they can also be held accountable for stopping. Employees must learn to stop certain behaviors as they change roles, and prior behaviors are less adaptive for the new role (like “winning too much” or “adding too much value”) (Goldsmith, 2007; 2015). While these behaviors may not be patently negative, certain behaviors lose their importance and value as leaders rise through the ranks (Charan, Drotter, & Noel, 2001).

3. Numeric ratings are more reliable than you think. 

Historically, performance feedback for employees has been largely dependent on a sample of one: Your boss. Small samples like this are prone to error; if your boss doesn’t like you, your performance ratings are likely to reflect that. Methods like 360 Feedback fix this issue by diversifying the sample.

Research is clear that samples of nine or more can achieve levels of reliability that can withstand legal scrutiny far better than a sample of one (Greguras and Robie, 1998). Of course, this assumes the rating form is well built. People are actually pretty good at rating others on a 5-point scale when you give them clear and specific behaviors like informs others of the rationale behind organizational strategies.On the other hand, people are horribly inaccurate and inconsistent when rating broad areas like Strategic Management.

The lesson here is not to throw out numeric ratings because people can’t make good judgments about big buckets of behavior, but rather, to recognize that we need to break down those big buckets into component parts that can be accurately and reliably rated.

And then we need to include a sample of feedback providers large enough that the ratings can be meaningfully combined and interpreted. In other words, follow good measurement practices and you’ll get useful feedback. But it makes no sense to conclude that feedback in general is no good because you used a weak measure.

 4. Feedback is fuel for talent management.

Employee feedback isn’t just useful for those who receive it about themselves. 360 Feedback is the single most-valued tool for talent management functions responsible for assessing and developing talent across the organization (Church and Rotolo, 2013; Church, 2019). Research indicates that about a quarter of companies nationally use 360 Feedback to support succession planning and to identify high potentials (3D Group, 2016). And nearly 40 percent use 360 Feedback as part of their performance management process (3D Group, 2016).

While each of these uses for feedback has some individual impact, there’s a clear and wide-ranging benefit to companies that leverage these kind of assessment data to manage their talent across the organization. There can be little doubt these assessments don’t lead to perfect decisions about talent, but they surely lead to far better decisions with much less bias than would be the case without standardized assessments.

5. Leaders value feedback.

The vast majority of leaders who receive 360 Feedback recognize its value. One study found that significantly more employees want negative feedback than positive feedback and concluded “no one likes to give negative feedback, but everyone wants to get it” (Zenger & Folgman, 2014). 

Another study found 96 percent of leaders across 18 companies agreed with the statement, “The feedback I received on my 360 was valuable.” Meanwhile, 98 percent agreed the feedback had helped them be better leaders (3D Group, 2018). Clearly these leaders were not feeling abused, disheartened, or demotivated by hearing balanced, honest feedback about their behaviors. 

A few essential components of a 360 process are known to make it successful. The feedback needs to be relevant to the job (Bracken and Rose, 2011) and behavioral in nature. The data collected need to be trustworthy and credible (Bracken and Rose, 2011).

Lastly, research is clear that leaders are most likely to excel when they face the difficult messages in their feedback head-on by following up with the people who gave them the feedback and sharing their intentions to change (Goldsmith and Morgan, 2004). This approach isn’t always pleasant, but it works.

6. Humility is a hallmark of excellence. 

The best performers crave feedback and are appropriately suspicious when they only hear positive feedback. Without constructive feedback, employees risk being isolated in a bubble of positivity that’s divorced from reality. And the higher up in an organization an employee rises, the harder it is for them to get critical feedback about themselves.

Many employees find it difficult to speak truth to power, and so we need more, not fewer, mechanisms for senior leadership to hear feedback about their impact on others. Without a way to receive this kind of feedback, we risk feeding narcissism in employees and reinforcing a pattern of brilliant jerks being promoted into positions of power. Even well-intentioned leaders who are not held in check with constructive feedback will struggle to motivate others, walk blindly into mistakes no one is willing to warn them about, and over time will let hubris get the best of them.

The bottom line is understanding employees’ and colleagues’ points of view is a leader’s responsibility—and few organizational cultures support open and honest feedback without some intermediary mechanism that makes constructive feedback safe to share.

Perhaps the most concerning issue when it comes to the somewhat cult-like and data-sparse advice from strengths-only advocates is they don’t seem to see that to succeed in today’s volatile environment, employees need to be open to more ideas, more perspectives, and more ways of seeing the world.

Not everything we do is positive. We all make mistakes, and often coworkers are in a great position to shed light on missteps to help us improve. Giving feedback takes time and effort, and generally it’s given as a gift, not to damage or diminish the receiver. Shutting down this kind of input and ignoring the experience of colleagues—unless it reinforces our own positive sense of ourselves—is a very dangerous choice.

There are countless examples of leaders in political and corporate settings who failed miserably because they were myopically focused on their strengths, and no one spoke up to help them understand how their weaknesses could be doing damage.

Without balanced feedback and a plan to adjust, employees at every level are doomed to continue repeating the same mistakes. 

Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the president and cofounder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development, evaluation research, and assessment-based human resources solutions.

John W. Fleenor, Ph.D.,is a senior researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership. In this capacity, he conducts instrument development research, focusing on the development of new leadership assessments including customized 360-degree feedback instruments.

David W. Bracken is principal at DWBracken and Associates. He’s an experienced organizational consultant with tenure in major corporate settings and major consulting organizations. 

Allan H. Church, Ph.D., is the senior vice president of talent assessment and development at PepsiCo. Prior to his role at PepsiCo, he served as an external OD consultant working for W. Warner Burke Associates and several years at IBM in the Communications Measurement and Research and Corporate Personnel Research departments. 


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