Why Feedback Doesn’t Work, and What to Do Instead

the same old thinking and disappointing results, closed loop or negative feedback mindset concept - a napkin doodle with a cup of coffee
Closed loop or negative feedback concept by Marek

There are common misconceptions in the workplace around the definition and value of feedback. Feedback is generally focused on finding fault. The “helpful” information you give people often raises defenses or lowers confidence, decreasing initiative and innovation.

Most people are not raised or trained to comfortably accept criticism. When people experience a threat in the form of negative feedback, they move into a physical as well as mental defensive posture. This closes instead of opens the mind to seeing situations differently.

In the article, Find the Coaching in Criticism, professors Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone found even well intentioned opinions, “…spark an emotional reaction, inject tension into the relationship, and bring communication to a halt” no matter the position or years of experience of the feedback recipient. People want to learn and grow but they also have a basic human need for acceptance. Unsolicited, one-way feedback hurts.

Most people want to get better. As Korn Ferry found in a recent survey, they just don’t want more feedback. They want conversations that pull out their ideas and have their eyes opened to greater possibilities they could explore, not one-way directives focused on what they did wrong. Heen and Douglas suggest, “People need to stop treating feedback only as something that must be pushed and instead improve their ability to pull.”

A study conducted by SAP with Oxford Economics across 27 countries found top performers expect at least a monthly meeting with their managers not for feedback, but to discuss challenges they can take on in the future. The study quotes a high-potential millennial in China saying, “My manager keeps me because with every assignment she gives me, she also tells me what new thing I am going to learn by doing it.”

Most leaders base their feedback on what they would have done instead of asking people for their ideas about what they could do better. If they started with a coaching approach instead of giving feedback, they would activate creativity instead of defensiveness.

However, there many misconceptions about what coaching is. Coaching is not giving feedback and criticism. It is an inquiry-based methodology designed to increase awareness. If you ask them, most people know what they did wrong when they reflect on a situation. They might need help “seeing” how to change.

A coaching approach encourages self-discovery and self-generated solutions, which is a more efficient learning process than telling people what to do. The manager acting as coach facilitates this process and then sets up accountability markers. This is far more effective than giving feedback and looking for compliance. Coaching has proven to improve leadership development, productivity and satisfaction.

Of course there are times when a course correction is needed. But if the smart person you are coaching knows what to do but isn’t doing it, the conversation should focus on what is stopping the person from applying what they know or from doing something different, not on giving advice.

I had a client who disrespected her peers in meetings. We talked about her concept of leadership and her responsibilities in her role. When she realized she wanted to inspire change instead of hammer people into submission, she knew what to do.

Another client wasn’t prioritizing. The problem turned out to be her lack of vision and motivation. She did not need me to tell her how to prioritize.

According to award-wining author John Renesh in When Fluff is Sold as Organizational Transformation, personal transformations are required for organizational change, which begin with “profound personal shifts in worldview.” Based on new research in learning psychology, conversations that expand what people believe about themselves and the world around them lead to sustainable, positive change.

If people want to learn and grow but they shut down to either direct or “sandwiched” feedback, what should you do instead? Here are 7 steps to consider.

  1. Set regular check-ins. When people expect regular conversations they won’t fear the occasional summons.
  2. Create a safe space. Be there in service of their desires and future. Feel hopeful and caring. Be curious and open to their ideas. Don’t judge. They need to feel seen, heard and respected to risk thinking and acting differently.
  3. Start with coaching. Start by asking for their perspective of the challenges they are facing. Listen and summarize their assessment of their behavior. Share what you have experienced as the impact of their behavior, both good (praise when you can) and not-so-effective, affecting the successful achievement of their goals. Ask how you can support their learning and development. Ask them to make suggestions for improvement before you offer your own.
  4. Don’t focus on what went wrong. Discover their desired goals and keep the focus on what it will take to better achieve these outcomes.
  5. Give clear expectations of results. As they work toward their outcomes, be clear on what you and others expect will happen. Set regular conversations and be accessible as they work on making changes.
  6. Be patient. Self-reflection and grasping a new way of thinking takes time.
  7. Be comfortable with negative reactions. If you stay present, grounded, and caring they will process through their emotions. Give them a chance to learn and grow before you stop or save them.

I recently heard a speaker suggest leaders create a Coaching Culture based on giving feedback. Coaching isn’t about giving feedback; it’s about helping people expand what they think is possible for themselves and their work. Instead, strive to create a Connection Culture using a coaching approach where managers have regular conversations with employees around development, and colleagues support each other to grow.

If you would like to have me speak at your upcoming event or talk about leadership training and coaching, please reach to me at:https://covisioning.com/contact/

Marcia Reynolds

tel:+1 602 954 9030


Curious for more? You will find a deep coaching model and practices that help others create new realities in my book, The Discomfort Zone.

2 thoughts on “Why Feedback Doesn’t Work, and What to Do Instead”

  1. Great post on how to handle feedback and the coaching approach. This approach allows for a lot of growth. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you Lauren. It too get stuck in the giving feedback trap that creates more conflict than growth. I am grateful to learn and practice coaching. All my relationships have improved!

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