Most of us have grown up in our jobs being told that giving constructive feedback and receiving feedback without flaring up is the way forward in life. This long piece in the FT questions this entire corporate construct based around ‘feedback’. Broadly speaking, this piece raises three sets of issues around which the edifice of the ‘feedback’ construct collapses.
Firstly, it is very difficult for people to give feedback without hurting the receiver of the feedback: “We overestimate the capacity of our colleagues to calibrate their comments to our individual emotional states. We underestimate how bruising it is to hear that we are not meeting expectations, even when the issues are minor. And we can be surprised by critiques that do not line up with our sense of who we are. If you believe you’re a great listener and your 360-degree feedback comes back with complaints that you monopolise meetings, that may not feel like being known so much as feeling alien to yourself.
And yet we all have blind spots. As the psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger showed in a 1999 study, when we are unskilled in a particular field, we are more likely to overrate our ability in that area. Our incompetence makes it all the harder for us to understand how bad we are, a phenomenon now widely known at the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is one reason why feedback can be so necessary.”
Secondly, even if the feedback giver is able to give feedback without hurting the receiver, research shows that it is unlikely that the receiver has the mental resources to do anything useful with the feedback. This point emerges from the author’s interview with Avraham Kluger, co-author of one of the seminal pieces of research in the history of feedback studies: “Why do we care about feedback to begin with? Why do we want to give feedback at all?”…We give it, he argues, because we hope to change the behaviour of another person. But often the person already knows there is a problem. “They don’t change because they don’t have the inner resources,” he says….
Kluger’s journey to becoming a feedback-sceptic took decades. He was born in Tel Aviv in 1958, the son of Holocaust survivors. After studying psychology at university, he took a job in 1984 as a behavioural consultant to a police force in Israel. Hired to apply psychological principles to the management of police officers, he began by interviewing the regional chief of police’s direct reports. The subordinates complained that they received zero feedback from their boss.
Kluger took notes and presented his findings a few weeks later in a senior leadership meeting. Not long after he began speaking, the chief of police interrupted. “It’s over!” he apparently yelled, slamming his fist on the table. “I have been in the police force for 40 years. I came from this rank” – Kluger, re-enacting the scene for me, points to an invisible badge on his upper arm – “to this rank” – pointing to his shoulder – “and I am telling you, a good policeman does not need feedback. If he does need feedback he’s not a good policeman.” The chief turned to his secretary. “What’s next on the agenda?”
And that takes us towards the third set of factors which underscore the futility of giving feedback. The FT article highlights two different sets of studies which show that people who are NOT given feedback go on to perform BETTER than those who do get feedback: “Kluger became curious about what the academic literature did not understand about feedback and its effects on motivation. The following year he began a PhD to investigate this at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. He devised an experiment in which he gave some engineers a set of test questions. One group was told after each question whether they’d got it right or wrong. The other group was given no feedback at all. Once the engineers had finished the questions, Kluger announced that the experiment was over but if anyone wanted to continue working, they could. To his astonishment, the people who had received no feedback at all were the most motivated to continue.”
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