Feedback is Destructive

Tyrone Coupland
Oct 29, 2021 8:35:39 AM

I absorbed a fascinating course the other day built around a central idea that feedback is destructive. This idea seemed the opposite of what I thought about the necessity of feedback. I read this with the mindset of a complete skeptic.

The book was "No more feedback" by Carol Sandford. The online course was Carol herself talking about key points in her book.

The argument was laid out well and, for me, was rather profound. There were some obvious ideas, such as understanding that the feedback you receive can come with inherent bias. To clarify, Carol outlined some of the 40+ types of cognitive bias that can come into play. One study cited found that over 80% of feedback received was as true for the deliverer of the feedback as the person receiving it. So, a case of projection. Interesting.

There were many informative examples provided, and I'd be watering the content down if I attempted to summarise it all here. Not only that, you might view my assessment as feedback, and your feedback on my feedback might trigger all sorts of cognitive biases, so put that aside for now and let's consider what the alternatives might be to the insidious forms of feedback that can do more harm than good.

Two come to mind, and they both revolve around the idea that we need to develop the capabilities of self-reflection and leadership. First, it turns out that altering the nature of feedback, encouraging self-reflection, and supporting people's efforts to improve on past performance can have more dramatic results than delivering, essentially criticism. 

Carol outlined a case study involving two groups of children identified as troublesome misfits at school. Both groups were assigned a simple physical task. Group A kids stated they performed the task well. Then they showed group A a video of them doing that task. Clearly, they were hopeless. The moderator essentially called the kids bluff and pointed out where and how they failed at the task. Group A got another chance. This time, knowing they were being monitored, they tried harder but performed worse. Consequently, they became more belligerent and uncooperative and played to their stereotype of being troublesome. Ouch.

Group B was given the same task. They also were keen to state they performed the task brilliantly when questioned at the end. This time though, instead of receiving feedback, they were gently guided with statements like, "even though you did brilliantly, can you think of any ways to improve it the next time you do it?" This approach (repeated after each session) saw continual improvement, increased engagement, and eventually, the kids were having fun setting themselves harder and harder tasks. The whole story just blew my mind. The simplicity of the approach and the obvious results have helped me think about many situations quite differently.

That brings me to the second approach. Leadership. I believe this is increasingly the skill we all need to develop in a world increasingly being automated and managed by technology. This has been happening since the industrial age, but perhaps the rate of change is increasing. This will make it increasingly important that we all connect as humans, and leadership becomes recognition of those with the skills to encourage and relate to each other, no matter the job role. In context with feedback, the leader that encourages self-reflection and supports autonomy is a person that will serve as a living example of those qualities that will make a difference to the culture of an organisation. We must remember that to err is human and is a vital part of the learning experience.  Opinions don't need to be couched as feedback - they can be the results of reflection and experience.

So the next time feedback is requested, consider how our own cognitive biases come into play and think about the most effective way we can inspire positive change. 

Thanks for reading.

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