10 Reasons why Feedback so often does not work

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What is the shortest word in the English language that contains the letters: abcdef?

There are many studies in leadership, organisational development, H.R. and management that prove that feedback just does not work – well it does, but not always in the desired way.

If you would like to explore, there was a study (among many), that produced surprising results carried out a few years ago by General Electric, but I won’t be going into that here too deeply.

Managers often attempt, in the best of faith, to improve their teams of individuals by carrying out feedback sessions and are all too often frustrated at the results that this produces.

The term feedback, was first coined in the broadcasting industry in the 1920’s. If the volume of microphones were not set correctly they would produce unpleasant screaming sounds through the speakers as the feeds were fedback through the amplification system.

Feedback, in it’s origin was both electric and unpleasant – we could perhaps say the same today, although, in management circles it is often eclectic and unpleasant – when not carried out effectively.

The General Electric study found that positive feedback has absolutely no effect on performance of individuals, which I guess is pretty normal – given the general traits of human behaviour:

If I am doing well, I need to be careful or I will be asked to do even more.

If my manager is happy with my performance then I will continue doing what I am doing.

Negative feedback, on the other hand has been shown to have an opposite effect:

(Richards & Gross, 2000). Research has suggested that negative feedback produces a decrease in performance.

Defence mechanisms kick-in that produce resistance to change, spurred largely by a denial or disagreement with the received feedback.

In the electrical meaning, feedback produces resistance – the same can be said about human behaviour – if people do not agree with negative feedback, it will produce resistance and a completely opposite effect to that which was intended.

I believe that people can construe negative feedback from that which was intended to be constructive, meant to help, rather than hinder. The problem lies, often, in the way that the feedback was delivered (How), When it was delivered, Who delivered it, Where it was given and Why it was given.

Some of the reasons that feedback does not work:

1. Negative feedback is given sporadically, leaving the recipient feeling negative about themselves, emotions that can be rapidly replaced by denial, disbelief, resentment and lowered self-esteem. Feedback should be given like a sandwich of Positive-Negative-Postive – first cushion the blow, describe positive things first, give the constructive feedback, then talk about the positives that this will bring – basically leave the person feeling that there is a positive end in sight, but there is work to do to get there.

2. If feedback is ever going to work, it needs to be owned by the person whose behaviour or performance needs working on. Unidirectional feedback can be viewed as unjustified, untimely and unfair – and rightly so.

3. Feedback given without warning. Most people who hear the words “Can I give you some feedback … ?” usually wince as they prepare for the body-blow that feedback often sends their way. Effective feedback is not uninvited but is more valid and valuable when it is sought out.

4. What’s in it for me? Is so often overlooked when giving feedback. Benefits are at best generalised, or at worst, non-existant – telling people that, “we can be a more profitable company if we only ….,” will not foster any real desire to change. However, if the person receiving the feedback can see that improvements in their performance will reap rewards that are tangible for them or those around them, then there is a big chance that change can be facilitated and feedback can, in effect, work extremely well.

5. Feedback is not planned, structured, nor followed up on. Feedback can be great when it is structured, fair, well delivered and then becomes part of a process for development. Failing in the former, it constitutes little more than anecdotal, negative criticism. OK, there is a fine, semantic line between feedback and criticism – and one that is often dictated by the ‘posture’ of the person giving the feedback – but there is a huge difference!

6. Feedback is subjective. Given from the point of view of the person giving the feedback, lacking clarity, objectivity and any tangible goals for the receiver of the feedback. There is little point in considering “You need to change this, about your behaviour” as feedback – it just isn’t and there is no real reason for the person to change, especially as they can see no real reason why they should do.

7. Feedback is just a matter of perception. It should be given thus. Starting a sentence with “You are not organised” with no reasons given will result in no change whatsoever. A perception is verbalised in terms of, “I feel / see (etc.) that you have issues organising yourself ….” Now I am not saying that we need to beat-around-the-bush, but the receiver of the feedback needs to be given an opportunity to put their case across too, and then be instrumental in finding ways to ‘improve’. If the feedback is seen as just a case of one person’s opinion, then the likelihood that any change will occur are minimal.

8. Showing effect can be better than just illustrating cause. If a person can see the effect that their actions or behaviour has in a chain of events, than they will be more likely to see a logical reason to change. For example, if a person is unorganised, this is seen as a personal phenomena. However, if they can see the effect that this has on others, down-the-line, then they will be more likely to ‘want’ to react to the feedback than  if it were just a case of them acting within a vacuum.

9. People act in a positive manner. Everyone acts for a positive end – one of the presuppositions of NLP – if feedback is given that challenges behaviour, which is deemed to be for a positive result (at least for the person) then there is very little chance that any feedback will provoke change.

10. Effective feedback starts with relationships. Feedback is about trust and confidence. If a relationship of trust has not been built, then there is little point in attempting to give feedback. Effective feedback entails with learning and no learning can be done by proxy, nor with a closed mind, nor without a certain level of introspection and looking in the mirror at oneself. People can tell us all they like, but it isn’t until we see it for ourselves that we feel that something needs to be done.

Carl Rogers listed five types of feedback – which he termed a ‘evaluation’.

Evaluative feedback makes a judgment about the other person, evaluating their worth or merit. There is a big difference between judging a person as a person and the actions that the person carries out.

Personal feedback judges the person as a whole and implies that this is a personal and unchangeable attribute. Negative personal evaluation can be very uncomfortable for the other person – sometimes leaving them with a damaged self-image and self-esteem, which can form the catalyst of inaction and further negative behaviour. Positive personal evaluation, on the other hand, is very flattering – although, as research suggests has no bearing on change nor on maintaining positive performance.

Behavioral feedback judges the action, but not the person. This makes negative evaluation easier for the other person to accept

Interpretive Feedback is used in a supportive relationship to make sense of the world and the behaviours demonstrated by the person, whilst asking checking questions, allowing the other person to agree with the interpretation you have made of the situation or offer a correction. The strength of this is that the person to whom feedback is given, actually verbalises and is therefore, implicitly implicated on the feedback process and the changes necessary to put into place.

Supportive Feedback seeks to support a person in some way in order to help them facilitate change with the support of a third party.

Flattery, which is not in any way supportive feedback, can sometimes be used erroneously or purely by accident. Flatter supports another person’s ego, regardless of whether what is said is true or not.

Developmental supportive feedback seeks to help a person change their behaviour in some way, but is not always easy as challenge and sometimes criticism may need to be used to facilitate this (remember the sandwich!) Supportive feedback can be reversed with the deliberate purpose of damaging the person’s ego in a personal attack, when not used in the right hands.

Feedback is generally given either to change, what is considered undesirable, or to underpin or strengthen that which is desirable, in terms of behaviour. It is therefore given to either consolidate or to change behaviours.

Effective feedback is sought out from people that are a trusted source – not necessarily from a person in the hierarchy of the company, but often from peers and subordinates.

It is an ongoing tool that can be either effectively used or implemented in a roughshod and sporadic manner that can do more harm than good to all parties and to the organisation – used well, it is a highly valuable and effective developmental performance tool.

So why then do we not train our managers and leaders in the gentle art of feedback?

As Ken Blanchard said, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” and I guess he should know a thing or two about that.

Be sure to read our post on Giving and receiving constructive and effective feedback.

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