Everything you know about giving feedback at work could be wrong

There's a big difference between giving feedback and giving fact-based instruction, management guru Marcus Buckingham says.
There’s a big difference between giving feedback and giving fact-based instruction, management guru Marcus Buckingham says.
Washington Post

Management guru Marcus Buckingham has a bone to pick with one of the prevailing trends in management wisdom — that companies need to get a lot better at giving tough, candid feedback, and need to do it a lot more often.

In a new article in the Harvard Business Review called “The Feedback Fallacy,” which offers a preview of his book to be published in April, Buckingham and his coauthor, Cisco executive Ashley Goodall, argue managers are getting it all wrong. Managers who focus so much on candid feedback are ignoring research that shows how hard it is for people to rate the performance of others, and how difficult it is to standardize and homogenize what “excellence” looks like in different people.

Managers obviously do have to coach their employees toward better performance — and let people know somehow when they’ve messed up. So how should managers talk to employees instead? We spoke with Buckingham about what he thinks most companies get wrong.

You say it’s wrong to think millennials want more feedback at work.


What a misdiagnosis that is. They love attention. That’s totally different. For instance, Instagram is about building an audience. What you’re looking for is each little heart is a positive affirmation of an audience. They’re not looking for constructive, candid or radically candid feedback.

So what you’re suggesting is people want reactions from their boss, not advice?

Words are really important here. If you’re missing facts, you want someone smart to tell you the facts, but that’s not “feedback,” that’s instruction. If there are steps you should follow and you miss one, then you want an expert to say you missed one. But facts and steps are disembodied from you. Don’t tell me what I should be doing differently. You don’t know. Don’t tell me what my attributes or qualities are. You don’t know. Instead, what you do know is what your reaction is to what I’m doing. Your feedback is a distortion, just as it is in music.

Give me an example of conventional corporate wisdom you think is wrong.


Our theory of excellence is wrong. We think excellence is describable in isolation. That there’s a standard definition of what excellence is. Here are the seven [attributes] or competencies or qualities that we’re supposed to have — it doesn’t matter who you are. You’re supposed to have all of these.

The thing that undermines that is the real world. You look at anyone who excels, and you see idiosyncrasy. They’re not always doing it the same way. Excellence is not homogeneous. We like to think it is, but you actually look at excellent salespeople, excellent nurses, excellent doctors, excellent leaders, and the first thing that strikes you is they all look and behave differently.

Are you suggesting managers shouldn’t give negative “feedback” or advice that’s not based on a fact or missing step?

Exactly. Don’t ever do it.



There’s only three sources of input that are valuable to a team member: facts, steps, reaction. Facts — that’s obvious. If a person doesn’t know them, tell them. Steps — obvious, too — if a job is defined by a few set steps and they miss one, tell them. For nurses, there is a step to doing an injection safely, and if you miss it, then it’s entirely appropriate for me to go, “Don’t ever miss that step again.”

But how do you not give negative feedback?

That goes to the third input that’s useful. If a salesperson doesn’t convince me, I can say I wasn’t convinced. A manager can absolutely say to a person, “Look, my reaction to what you just did is I didn’t follow it, I didn’t understand it.” Any reaction like that is totally legit. I’m not telling you you’re not “strategic” enough. I’m saying I didn’t understand what you did. This seems like a small point, but it’s everything. We cross over a bridge with feedback when we start telling you who you are and what you should do differently. The moment we do that, we’ve screwed it up.