The pressure to show you can “take feedback” seems to have led to ever-harsher ways of giving it, such as the culture of “radical transparency” at Bridgewater Associates, and the Netflix approach featuring real-time 360s, which sound to me like being tried as a witch.

I once asked a very experienced primary school headteacher how she managed to control the youngsters without ever raising her voice. She told me her basic rule was to “catch them being good”. Her version of feedback was to notice and point out good behaviour, and she did it constantly. No wonder they hung on her every word.

That’s a long way from the standard approach to feedback in the workplace. Whose heart leaps for joy on hearing the words “I’d like to give you some feedback”? It’s been shown that we hear negative feedback amplified, and tend to dismiss the positives. You need a ratio of something like 3:1 good to bad to avoid sending someone away broken.

Formal feedback generally assumes the giver knows what good is, and has observed how the receiver is falling short. That often means only that you did it differently from how they’d have done it. Is that useful feedback? Imagine a football team where players are taught the best way to take a penalty is to place it in the top left corner. In a penalty shoot-out, I’m betting on the other team.

In sport it’s about results not about standardisation. We all know about playing to your strengths. And yet in the workplace the focus is more often on the perceived deviations from standard practice. Yes, the how matters, to avoid bullying or excessive pressure – and that’s true in sport too – but that should not mean requiring everyone to behave the same way.

Top sport coaches help players understand when and how they do things right, as individuals and as a team. In “The Feedback Fallacy” (HBR March/April 2019), the authors cite the successful coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry, who turned his failing team around by focusing each player on what they did well. His logic was that while there are countless ways to get things wrong, there are a few things each player does right instinctively and effortlessly. Naturally, the players felt better about themselves, and in sport confidence helps. I imagine they also were always keen to hear what Coach had to say.

Most work is not like sport. We don’t get the rapid feedback of games and results every week. Feedback is occasional and formal, for performance evaluation which leads to pay and prospects.  If you really want to learn and improve your effectiveness at work, get feedback from someone who isn’t having to go on record with it. We also have to lose our dread of feedback. To do this, try giving it more often. Look for specific things that struck you, that had a positive impact, on you or someone else. This is the kind of feedback you can give someone spontaneously. How they’ve written a tricky paper, or expressed a concern sensitively in a meeting, or given supportive feedback to someone else. It has to be specific, not general plaudits of the “you did that well” kind, which are too easy, not at all actionable, and we mostly dismiss as insincere anyway. Praise is nice but it is not feedback. Practise giving positive feedback – you will start to enjoy it, and the recipients will too. This alone is constructive.

In this model, anyone can give feedback to anyone, including their boss. We can all be a model for how to give effective feedback. If you want your feedback to land well, you know it can’t wait until review time. And you know it mainly has to reinforce the good. Be a coach. That’s the kind of feedback we can all enjoy.

Thought leadership | March 2019