How to Give Great Feedback

Learn about providing great feedback by focusing on positive outcomes, instinctive reactions, and highest-priority interrupts.

Most managers and/or managerial candidates have heard of the concept of the “feedback sandwich”: give the target of the feedback a compliment at the beginning and another one at the end of the feedback session, and it will make it easier for the individual to swallow the whole load. Others have heard more recently of the idea of “radical candor” (popularized by the book of the same name), which suggests that the best way to give feedback is to be extremely candid, regardless of whether that candor is “positive” or “negative.”

Sadly, neither of these is actually a great approach to giving feedback. In an article entitled “The Feedback Fallacy” in the March-April 2019 issue of “Harvard Business Review,” Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall pointed out “the research is clear: Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.” They point out that in the business world, we think of the value of feedback because of three widely-held theories:

  • The Theory of the Source of Truth. The employee does not (or may not) realize the truth of what is going on. That means it is up to you as their manager to point out the truth to them, because if you don’t, they’ll never know, and that would be bad.
  • The Theory of Learning. The employee lacks certain abilities they need to acquire, so you should teach them. In other words, they need the feedback to develop the skills they’re missing, and you’re in a position to be able to tell them how to get them. Not sharing your feedback would prevent the employee from learning, which would be bad.
  • The Theory of Excellence. Great performance is universal, analyzable, and describable, and that once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of who each individual is. Hence your employee (or you) can, with feedback about what excellence looks like, understand where they (or you) fall short of this ideal and then strive to remedy the shortcomings.

Sadly, each of these theories turns out to be false (and the authors spend the bulk of the article describing the research that debunks each of them): “What these three theories have in common is self-centeredness: They take our own expertise and what we are sure is our colleagues’ lack of expertise as givens; they assume that my way is necessarily your way. But as it turns out, in extrapolating from what creates our own performance to what might create performance in others, we overreach.” In particular, regarding the last theory (excellence), they point out that “Excellence seems to be inextricably and wonderfully intertwined with whoever demonstrates it. Each person’s version of it is uniquely shaped and is an expression of that person’s individuality.” This makes itself wildly apparent in the realm of software development and design—those who are often accorded as the best developers in the world did so using tools, techniques, or approaches that differ wildly from each other. Consider this: ask any five senior developers what “great programmers” do, and they’ll likely all reply with some variant of “write great code”; when you ask them what “great code” looks like, with concrete examples, be prepared for some of the most wildly divergent answers you’ve ever heard. We simply don’t have a generalized standard for “great code.”

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