I have received some great feedback in my life, and now that I’ve read Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall’s HBR article, “The Feedback Fallacy,” I understand more about why I found it so helpful. When others identified something I did well and asked me to reflect on how I had done it, I was genuinely engaged in thinking critically about my performance. When they asked me to think about a time I had not done this thing as well in the past and identify what happened, I was motivated to understand my past actions in a clearer light. And when they asked me to think about how I could do the successful thing again in the future, even better, I was able to make plans and set an intention unique to me.
In their article, Buckingham and Goodall argue that this kind of feedback is the best kind. Addressing other people with “radical candor” and bluntly telling them what we think about their work is not very useful to them. Much better is to center feedback around this simple question: how can I help this person to thrive and excel? They clarify a bit – “instruction – telling people what steps to follow or what factual knowledge they’re lacking – can be truly useful. That’s why we have checklists in airplane cockpits and operating rooms.” Checklists are not, however, feedback. Feedback, they say, is “very different” and “telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel.” Further, “telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.” This statement is hugely impactful for educators, whose job it is to help students to progress their skills and knowledge.
Buckingham and Goodall name and explain three beliefs about feedback that lead us astray: the theory of the source of truth, the theory of learning, and the theory of excellence. The theory of the source of truth is based on the belief that other people are more aware of our weaknesses than we ourselves are, and that without other people telling us how we failed, we won’t realize it. The theory of learning presupposes that we are “empty vessels” that need to be filled by the knowledge that others possess, and the theory of excellence posits that everyone can achieve the same great level of performance with the right interventions and examples. Buckingham and Goodall explain why each of these theories are untrue and don’t actually help people to improve, and argue that the consequences are significant for individuals as well as organizations: “If we continue to spend our time identifying failure as we see it and giving people feedback about how to avoid it, we’ll languish in the business of adequacy.”
To get into the business of excellence, they say, “look for outcomes.” They give a primer on things we can say to others that may be more helpful to them as they strive to improve. “I’m struggling to understand your plan” and “Here’s exactly where you started to lose me” and “Here are the things that really worked for me. What was going through your mind when you did them?”
There is an art as well as a science to giving good feedback. Buckingham and Goodall’s article is a valuable and timely resource guiding us along an energizing path to better performance in our classrooms, schools, and beyond.