Feedback sucks

Nora Akins

The sympathetic nervous system lights up in response to negative feedback. This is the “fight or flight” system. The brain is focused only on survival when it’s activated.

“Focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it,” said researcher, psychology and business professor Richard Boyatzis.

A recent article by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in Harvard Business Review said we rely on three theories to improve performance in others. Each is flawed. The source of truth, that I am more aware of your weaknesses than you are; the process of learning is like filling up an empty vessel; and excellent performance is describable and once defined can be transferred to another person.

Rater error is not new. For 40 years, psychometrists have demonstrated people don’t have the objectivity to maintain a definition of an abstract quality, like leadership and then evaluate someone on it. Our understanding of that definition is personal and biased. Idiosyncratic rater effect is more a reflection of the rater’s characteristics than the person being evaluated.

Let’s make it worse by having everyone around you rate your performance in a 360-degree review. A systematic error occurs since each rater’s feedback is a distortion of the truth. The error becomes intensified when averaging a systematic error. It’s a random error that can be reduced by averaging.

The second flawed theory is that we think people can fill in their weakness with information. The brain doesn’t work that way. Neuroscience shows us we grow areas of ability. The brain grows where strong connections exist. Learning starts by identifying strong patterns then giving those strengths attention. Paying attention to a weakness shuts learning down. We learn when someone pays attention to what’s working and asks us to cultivate it.

Finally, excellence and failure are different outcomes, but they are not opposites. When things go wrong, managers must interrupt; tell the person and what must happen to fix things. That’s it, fixing an error. It’s not moving toward excellence. Each person’s version of excellence is their own.

The ancient African philosophy of Ubuntu has two levels of recognition. The first level is to value others simply for who they are. The heart of Ubuntu is we are one human family. This comes first. The second level is to value others for what they achieve. This kind of recognition drives performance.

When you draw attention to a person’s strength, especially just as it’s exhibited, you offer the person a chance to recognize it for themselves, so they can connect with it, re-create it and refine it.

When things are going well, if managers interrupt and tell the person what they think really worked and take the time to explore it; the person will understand what excellence feels like. It will strengthen the brain connections which will move toward excellence.

Negative feedback is like audio feedback; it makes us cringe and hold our ears. Telling people how their positive actions made us feel is the truth. This truth strengthens their ability and our connection as part of the human family.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management provides management training and refines human resource systems to help employers build respectful workplaces. Reach Nora at 219 873-1735 or

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.