Telling People All the Ways They Can Improve Doesn’t Help

Telling People All the Ways They Can Improve Doesn’t HelpDespite the prevalent refrain to give team members feedback on how to improve, a strong body of research shows that “constructive criticism” can actually hamper learning.

Instead, the authors of Nine Lies About Work say to point to moments of strong performance and highlight (even dissect) exactly what makes them good to help employees create even more of them.

We learn by doing — well

Telling someone how something is not working, from how they swing a golf club to the way they produced a financial report, can inhibit learning by triggering the fight or flight response and causing people to shut down.

A better approach is to spot things being done well and build on those. That’s according to the Head of People and Performance Research at the ADP Research Institute, Marcus Buckingham, and Ashley Goodall, Senior Vice President of Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco Systems. They are the coauthors of Nine Lies About Work.

Of course, there are times when someone’s performance is not excellent and you need to step in to share what is going wrong and how to fix it. Buckingham and Goodall acknowledge that basic fact. What they remind us, however, is that those are not really learning moments. They call them remediation. The correction still needs to happen, but realize that you are stepping in to stop the bleeding. These moments are more likely filled with tension than learning.

Instruction vs. feedback

The authors also have nothing against laying out clear instructions with specific steps to follow or providing the factual knowledge needed to perform a task. However, they say such clear-cut procedures tend to be confined to limited workplace settings like airplane cockpits and operating rooms.

Clearly defined instructions work for clearly defined tasks. But most business, entrepreneurial and managerial positions revolve more around a variety of competencies that can be carried out in different ways. You can be an exceptionally successful salesperson as an extreme extrovert who gets chummy with her clients or as a quiet introvert who anticipates client needs before they arise. Most business settings use the term “feedback” to apply to how someone is performing in a job they have the skills to do and focuses on how they could do it better.

Setting people up to learn

Buckingham and Goodall say learning happens most by helping people build on strengths, adding little by little to patterns they’ve already mastered. Having others pay attention to those strengths can also catalyze learning where attention to weakness can make learning break down. “Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it,” they say. Here are their top suggestions for helping people excel and thrive at work.

  • Focus on desired outcomes. When a team member completes a task in an excellent way, stop the presses and focus on it. Tell them specifically and literally what is so great about how they are doing their job. You will waste a lot of time getting Sonia to succeed in the same way that works for Tanika. Instead, highlight patterns that already exist within Sonia so she can recognize it too, recreate it in the future and refine it.
  • Share your personal reactions. Very few situations involve incontrovertible truths, so focus on your personal experience of a team member’s excellent performance. You might say, “When you did x, it made me think y,” or “Here’s how I saw the customer respond to your interest in them,” or “Here are things that really worked for me. What were you thinking as you did them?”

You can use the same approach as someone receiving feedback. If your boss tells you, “Great job,” ask her to be more specific about what worked so well for her.

  • Explore the present, past and future

If someone needs your help now (assuming it’s not a dire emergency), consider starting with the counter-intuitive move of first asking what’s going well in the present. This short detour can move them into a different mental state where they will be more creative and more open to solutions.

Next, Buckingham and Goodall say help the person look to their past. Ask whether they have encountered a similar challenge before and what they did that worked well. Finally, focus on the future by asking what the individual already knows should be done.

While feedback sounds good in theory, focusing on someone’s flaws is not the path to excellence. “We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works,” Buckingham and Goodall advise.