When’s the last time someone pointed out what you were doing…right?
Easier question: When was the last time someone gave you a suggestion for improvement? Probably five minutes ago.
Feedback usually comes from a good place—from the belief that we can make each other better, maybe even great, by spotting and fixing flaws.
It’s not easy to give feedback, or to receive it. So, to make feedback palatable (maybe for all parties), we’ve been told to “sandwich” the tough stuff between two pieces of fluffy white feedback: Say something nice, then get to the meat of it, then end with something nice.
What has happened is that we’ve learned to inherently distrust anything but the hard stuff, thinking that the only feedback worth hearing is that which tells us where we got it wrong. The implied message is that you need to fix yourself to be good, maybe even to be great.
The problem? If we get tunnel vision around “what we did wrong,” we’ll not only never get there; we’ll miss out on the chance to be truly exceptional.
Thought leaders and authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall believe that our traditional approach to feedback simply doesn’t work, or at least, not NEARLY as well as we hope it does.
In their popular 2019 HBR cover story, “The Feedback Fallacy,” they explain that the widely accepted business theories behind criticism are partly to blame.
By and large, these theories presume three things: that there’s one source of truth and it’s one person’s job to enlighten the other; that you’re an empty vessel that needs to be filled up with other people’s knowledge, and that great performance is “universal, analyzable, and describable… and can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of who each individual is.”
Wrong, wrong, and wrong, the authors say. And the more we rely on these flawed theories, the less we can achieve, as individuals and as teams.
“Excellence,” the authors say, “is idiosyncratic.” What that means is that there is no one right way to do or learn anything. What’s more, they found, “getting attention to our strengths from others catalyzes learning, whereas attention to our weaknesses smothers it.”
“Your brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and narrows its activity,” they write. “Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.”
Think about that for a moment. Every time we point out why someone’s new idea won’t work, we do little to encourage more innovation and ideas; rather, we give that person another reason to never try that again.
Does that mean there’s no place for correcting behavior or fixing problems? Of course not. But we often go in WAY too early with pruning shears, ready to cut something down to size before it’s had a chance to take root.
And if the only time anyone ever hears from us is when we’re unhappy with something they did, made, or shared, well, it’s no wonder morale is down and trust is tenuous.
As a workshop facilitator trained in the Gateless Writing Method, I’ve actually seen first hand the powerful effect of critic-free feedback on people of all different backgrounds and skillsets. In this particular framework, we use writing as a tool (whether they write for their job or not) and use it as a tool for quieting the critic, and tapping the very part of their brain responsible for innovative thinking.
And many of the guidelines we use in this method line up precisely with what Buckingham and Goodall discuss in their work.
Here are a few of the ways you can start to shift your approach to feedback to encourage creativity, excellence, and innovation:
Catch people in their moment of excellence.
Don’t assume people know when they’re doing something right or well. This isn’t flattery; it’s the practice of being specific about what someone is doing well, with an emphasis on outcomes (a great presentation, expert handling of a tough moment).
Buckingham and Goodall recommend “replaying” that moment of genius; i.e., “When you said that to the client, I sensed the whole room shift. Maybe you didn’t realize what was happening. But I did.”
Focus on what’s working.
It’s a fact: Our brains have a negative bias—a survival trait that has served us well for many millennia. But it’s easy to let that bias drive all of our instincts and communication.
Resist the urge to criticize first, especially when it’s easy and tempting to do. Instead, make a concerted effort to look specifically for what’s working, not just what isn’t. When you do that, you don’t have to worry as much about the stuff that isn’t—it tends to fall away.
Separate the work from the person.
When you put your heart and soul into your work, it’s natural to feel hurt when someone points out what’s wrong with it. It’s also why it’s hard to give feedback—because we don’t actually want to hurt anyone!
Rather than make your feedback about the person, focus on the work itself. That way you can decide together what would serve it, and you, best. Even better, see the work as a real, living, evolving thing—because it, like you, doesn’t have to be perfect to hold promise and potential.