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Selfish Feedback Doesn’t Scale

Updated Feb 16, 2021

Continuous Improvement depends upon the Team receiving feedback and deciding to make improvements. However, complete and honest feedback is rare in today’s modern organization. According to Jack Zenger & Joseph Folkman’s May 2nd, 2017 HBR article “Why Do So Many Managers Avoid Giving Praise?”[1], 21% of managers surveyed admitted to avoiding giving negative feedback. Over 36% of those studied admitted to not giving positive feedback. In the acclaimed paper, “The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model”[2], Macial Losada and Emily Heaphy assert that high performance teams have mastered techniques that enable them to attract positive behaviors that lead to great results. As a result, feedback is freely exchange enabling continuous improvement to take place. Low performing teams tend to master techniques which enable them to only focus feedback on a fixed set of behaviors throughout the lifespan of the team. Given the dynamic nature of modern, thought work, the behaviors needed shift over time given the circumstances. A broader set of feedback skills are needed today when compared to 20 years ago. Feedback needs to evolve for our modern workplace, especially when Teams of Teams are working toward a common goal over an extended period of time. Most feedback today, is selfish and doesn’t produce results.

The purpose of feedback is to improve performance. Performance is a set of behavior performed at work to produce desired results. Ultimately, the end consequence of good feedback should be progression toward desired results. In order for feedback to drive results, the givers of feedback need to possess the skill to drive results. The current paradigm around feedback is that producers of feedback should give feedback on whim, and the burden is on the receiver of feedback to divine when and how to incorporate the feedback. Since the givers of feedback share little accountability for the results, they have little incentive to improve the issuance of feedback.

Feedback is a skill which enables teams to explore possibilities for effective action. That skill is as important as any technical skill in a high performance Team. Without this skill, low performance teams are doomed to remain in the domain of the low performers. The reason for this causal, reinforcing relationship between low feedback skill and low performance is often overlooked.

People naturally prioritize the most important feedback. Unfortunately, the prioritization is usually based on the performance effects that the other party has on their feelings, and not the performance effects that the other party has on the results of the organization. This is very selfish feedback. The other party, even if they don’t say anything, can usually perceive it. As a result, they shy away from the person who gives the selfish feedback. Why wouldn’t they? Selfish feedback isn’t helpful. The funny thing is that the selfish feedback giver has usually convinced themselves that they were trying to be helpful by giving the feedback. Thus, they perceive the recipient of the feedback as “defensive” or “resistant” to feedback when they pull away. The giver of feedback usually learns the wrong lesson in this scenario; they learn that they should give feedback sparingly as honest feedback has consequences. Most feedback givers learn an incorrect lesson – that there must be a tradeoff between the feedback necessary for high performance results and the frequency of feedback necessary for maintain the relationships needed within high performance teams. The entire feedback system breaks down when this happens.

However, high performance teams have learned a different lesson; they have learned that they can deliver feedback frequently AND deliver the hard feedback that enables continuous improvement. They just need to have the right mindset which will lead to a common set of practices that optimize feedback. Having the right mindset and practices enables high performance teams to dynamically attract the right behaviors to each other. Those “right” behaviors lead to desired results.

The 1st mindset of high performance feedback teams is the context that the feedback should trace down from the most important result. Low performance feedback teams believe that undergo a set of experiences which evokes a set of emotions. In response, they produce feedback in an attempt to change current and future experiences so that a different emotion is propagated. The feedback is all about them and not about the recipient of the feedback. In contrast, high performance feedback teams understand that the feedback should be about the recipient. They realize that the recipient has limited bandwidth and attention. Thus, they should limit the attempt to change behavior to a little at a time. Hence, they focus on the behavior change that will have the biggest impact to results.

When feedback is focused on the other person (i.e. developmental vs. selfish), the natural inclination is to be specific. Low performance feedback teams find it difficult to obtain specificity because their attention is focused on their own feelings. High performance feedback teams are focused on the behaviors necessary for success. This enables them to not only describe the desired behavior in detail, but also to give examples, steps for implementation, and offers for continued support. High performance feedback teams can easily communicate facts rather than opinions or judgements as they have thought about EXACTLY how the behavior can be improved. They have spent time planning which words will best relate the message to the recipient in way that will change the behavior. High performance feedback teams follow up with assistance naturally as they are truly vested in the end result. High performance feedback teams don’t need to think about how to deliver feedback; their actions are a natural extension of their belief that helping their teammate is the best way to reach results.

The second mindset of high-performance feedback teams is that emotions are a barrier to be overcome in effective feedback. Low performance feedback teams think that emotions are essential part of the communication process. They believe that people are emotional creatures and consequently, emotional inclusions in the feedback process should be accepted; after all, “everyone has emotions so why not act on them?” High performance feedback teams understand that the emotional state (along with physical state and belief systems) can cause misinterpretations of the message. Thus, the high performance feedback give attempts to remove emotions from the delivery.

Delivery of an unemotional message usually begins by stating the intent of the feedback. In the absence of data, emotions tend to fill the void. In crucial conversations, often the intent of the feedback giver can become questionable in the face of feedback that hurts one’s self-image. Knowing this, high performance feedback teams start and end particularly critical feedback sessions by declaring their intent (i.e. to assist in development of the recipient in order to improve results) so that the intentions are unmistakably clear. They state the expected behavior and contrast it with the observed behavior. Most of all, they invite the feedback recipient to challenge the expectations and observations. High performance feedback teams understand that they are not infallible, so they seek common understanding. Finally, (and arguably most importantly) high performance feedback teams don’t offer judgements; instead, they invite the recipient to judge the effects of their own behavior and decide how they want address it. Feedback givers do offer changes that they will make to assist the recipient. High performance feedback teams will even offer suggestions for behavior changes in the recipient of feedback if the recipient request ideas. However, high performance feedback givers default to keeping their opinions to themselves. Additionally, they deliver the feedback in a way that allows the recipient to feel safe. This may include giving constructive feedback in a private environment, when the recipient is open to feedback, in a place that is comfortable to the recipient. It may also include postponing the delivery if signs point to the recipient being in an emotional state where they cannot receive the feedback constructively. They know that the desired behavior can only come from a state of readiness.

The 3rd mindset of high performance feedback teams is that of minimalism. Low performance feedback teams gain opportunities for feedback and focus on taking full advantage of the time slot by filling the agenda with anything they could possibly have ever wanted to change. As a result, the recipient is overwhelmed with information and can’t process it. High performance feedback teams understand that people receive over 2 million bits of data per second from their senses but can only process 134,000 bits of information per second. Additionally, the feedback giver probably isn’t the most important person on the list. Thus, high performance feedback teams recognize that the number of feedback items should be constrained in breadth but go into great depth in order to bring about lasting change.

When feedback is given, no more than 2 issues should be discussed during the session. Discussions of multiple issues feels more like an attack than an attempt to help results. Thus, high performance feedback givers limit their topics. They keep talk about themselves to a minimum (as the feedback should be about the other person) and they avoid comparisons (as comparisons to others are just judgements in disguise). They stay on script concerning the feedback if they really want to help. Then they monitor the capacity of the recipient to continue with the feedback session throughout. If they believe the recipient is over capacity, they reschedule.

Feedback, like any other skill, can be improved if we can overcome the impediments that prevent us from improving this skill. That starts with instilling the correct mindsets in the organization to selfless development of others rather than the selfish push to make ourselves feel better. When feedback doesn’t work at the team level, problems of miscommunication and missed opportunities are exacerbated at scale. Thus, Team should focus on changing the mindset that drives the skill of feedback throughout the organization.


[2] “The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model”,

Marcial Losada, Emily Heaphy

First Published February 1, 2004 Other

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