By Ben Klompus
The role of feedback in improving performance on the job remains a reliably interesting topic in the leadership section of any bookstore. Across sectors (education, business, medicine, aviation), a range of authors offer suggestions for how best to support teams to reduce unwanted behaviors and increase those that are desirable and most likely to lead to stronger performance. Titles such as “Radical Candor,” “Why Feedback Matters,” “Better,” “Get Better Faster,” and most recently “The Feedback Fallacy” provide managers with a spectrum of opinions regarding how best to spur, cajole, and/or coach their teams to achieve the presumably important goals.
At the core, managers across sectors struggle with the same two questions:
How do we systematically and continuously improve performance?
What is the right kind of feedback and how best do I deliver it?
In their recent article, “The Feedback Fallacy” authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, caution leaders against providing individuals with “direct” (i.e. often critical) feedback. In this article, they name three common, yet suspect, theories of improving performance that underlie feedback practices that many managers often employ.
Theory of the source of truth – “other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses, and that the best way to help you, therefore, is for them to show you what you cannot see for yourself.”
Theory of learning – “you lack certain abilities you need to acquire, so your colleagues need to teach them to you.
Theory of excellence – “great performance is universal, analyzable, and describable, and that once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of who each individual is.” (p.95)
These authors go on to explain that while good ideas in theory, in practice, these theories often hinder the very improvement in performance they were intended to accelerate. Even when delivered with the right intention, too much “direct” or “constructive, critical” feedback may have an adverse effect on motivation and more importantly often only tells the receiver what not to do, not necessarily what to do differently in the future. The solution they offer to managers is to “help their team members see what’s working, stopping them with a “Yes! That!” and sharing their experience of what the person did well.” (p.94)
As a former public school teacher and leader, and now Dean at Relay Graduate School of Education, I can’t help but to say “yes, and…” to the authors’ solution. In short, while the authors’ general premise that brash criticism rarely achieves the goal of improving practice and more often reduces motivation in what is already a challenging profession, in our observations of great school and system leaders who have proven to consistently develop cadres of exceptional teachers and teams, we see them skillfully provide more than “Yes, that!” feedback. To illustrate, consider the case below.
It is Tuesday morning when Principal Cadre observes Ms. Smith’s 8th-grade math classroom. While observing both the teacher and students he notices that while students are generally well behaved and appear engaged, he notices that, even after 20 minutes of observations, the teacher has been doing 90% of the talking and students have nothing on their desks and have not been asked to answer any questions independently. One or two students consistently raise their hands and respond to the teacher's questions while all others remain fairly passive listeners. Based on this participation pattern and lacking independent practice, it is clear that the class will soon end with little evidence that students have mastered presumably important content and skills.
As the instructional leader in the building, Principal Cadre has been hired because of both his expertise as a former teacher and the promise he showed in leading adults. In the moments that follow his observation of the above classroom, Principal Cadre has the following choices.
Wait until the teacher effectively asks quality questions that engage students in productive conversation and independent practice, all so that he can say “yes, that!” as the HBR authors suggest,
Provide the teacher critical feedback following the class, citing the evaluation rubric row that names what successful classroom discourse looks like shows how far away from the bar the teacher was in that moment
Schedule a 30 minute 1:1 check in to 1) show the teacher a model of what effective discourse and independent practice might look like 2) show the teacher a video of what their classroom looked like, and ask the teacher to name the gap in order to identify what their action steps might be.
The reality is that students – the ultimate client in this story – do not have time for option a. While naming “Yes, that” is both motivating and, like a flywheel, is likely to lead to continued improvement, it is neither sufficiently systematic (waiting for the “yes, that!” moment may take too long) directive (the teacher may not know or have seen what stronger practice may look like) or intentional (identifying and delivering great feedback takes time to plan, deliver, and provide opportunities to incorporate into practice) to initiate the intended behavioral change.
Option B, while some find useful in work environments with a deep bench of extrinsic rewards (big salaries, bonuses, promotions that may be found in the private sector), schools and classrooms are places where intrinsic motivation dominates.
Leading young people to become stronger, better, more equipped each day requires not only deft skill but an internal compass that privileges the success of others over the success of self.
Regular critical feedback, even when warranted, can inadvertently plant seeds of negative staff culture, increased turnover, and ultimately compromised performance of a system that desperately needs great, smart, people to do important, cognitively demanding work every single day.
In our observations, option c is an approach to feedback that meets many, if not most teachers where they are, builds on their success, and combines both instructive and constructive feedback in a way that ensures the conversation leads to measurably improved performance over time. Through direct observations of practice, one-to-one coaching that builds trusting relationship between leader and teacher, and explicit opportunities to see, name, and practice effective behaviors, we argue that leaders who employ this type of feedback more effectively support and accelerate teacher practice in consistent and measurable ways.
In a complex system of schools that serves more than 50,000,000 students nationally, many of whom have been historically underserved and whose success is both necessary and just, we don’t have time to wait around to rely solely on “yes, that!” feedback. While necessary but insufficient to meet the needs of a diverse, often inexperienced teaching force, we assert that a more directive, practice-based approach to feedback is both useful and necessary. When delivered by instructional leaders who can “walk the talk” and who have trusting relationships with those they lead, we assert that both teacher and student performance can improve when each has repeated opportunities to “see it, name it, and do it.”