Coaching Letter #74

Happy snow day! At least a foot at my house, took me 2 hours to dig out the driveway. Thank you for all the kind messages and emails about the publication of my Kappan article. If you haven’t read it yet, here it is. Also, just a reminder that we are hosting a strategy workshop in June based on many of the ideas in the article. Click here for the flyer, and click here to register. We are hoping to see educational leaders from all parts of their organization who are interested in doing the adaptive work of designing strategy. I’m so looking forward to it! Bring a friend! And click here for more announcements.

This Coaching Letter is about feedback. The March-April issue of the Harvard Business Review has “Why Feedback Fails”, with a punching bag, on the cover. Pretty dramatic, eh?. One of the featured articles is called “The Feedback Fallacy,” and its authors, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, take issue with the whole idea that feedback is the best way to help people improve. Buckingham and Goodall make a very different claim for feedback: that far from making them better, “Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.” There is lots to chew on in this article, I highly recommend that you take some time to study it.

How Buckingham and Goodall conceptualize feedback isn’t the only way to conceptualize feedback. But it is the way that most people conceptualize feedback, at least until challenged to think about it differently. I know this because of the work that Kerry and I do training coaches. The first thing we do, before anything other than saying hello, is to put people in pairs to coach each other. This is important because it surfaces the participants’ mental models about what coaching looks like. The modal “pre-treatment” coaching conversation consists of the “coach” asking the “client” 6 or 7 questions, all of them requesting more information. Their goal appears to be to glean enough data to diagnose the problem, so that they can start giving advice. (See What a Question Can Accomplish for how to think about asking questions for a different purpose.)

Buckingham and Goodall posit three fallacies of the typical mental model for feedback:

  1. Theory of the source of truth: I know more about your weaknesses than you do, so I should enlighten you in order to help you.
  2. Theory of learning: “The process of learning is like filling up an empty vessel.” You don’t know what you need to know so I should teach you in order for you to learn.
  3. 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.”

They point out that all three share a common source: self-centeredness. This is also a big theme in the coaching training, and it can be a little tricky pulling it out of people. (Think about it: you think you are always right, and I am going to point out that you are not, but to do that I have to point out that I am right, which seems to defeat the point, so you see how it gets a little turned in on itself.) Nevertheless, it is generally true that our default stance is: I am right and you are wrong, I know and you don’t, I can see things that you can’t. The fallacious nature of this stance is hard to see when you are on the feedback-giving side of a conversation (of course I’m right!), but painfully obvious when you are on the receiving end of the conversation (who does he think he is?!). The really curious thing about human nature is that we fail to extrapolate our experience as feedback-receivers to our behavior as feedback-givers.

Lots more to say about the HBR article, so I will pick that up another time. But just to be clear, I think that giving feedback because you think what you have to say is important and that you have the right to say it , and seeking feedback because you really want to know how to improve or be more responsive or how to head off problems before they get away from you, are two completely different things. Seeking feedback is something that successful leaders do all the time, and that coaches both do for their own practice and promote in their clients. For more on how to receive feedback, see this video of Sheila Heen, which I have referred to before so you may have already seen it. Her book, Thanks for the feedback, is a valuable resource, as is this HBR article, “Negative Feedback Rarely Helps People Improve.”

Finally, it is no accident that the use and abuse of feedback and the culture it sustains ties to the new Reading for Leading book selection, The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth, by Amy C. Edmondson. Google+, the platform we’ve been using for the Reading for Leading discussions, is going away, so we are shifting to Twitter for this book. 280 characters may not seem like a lot, but bear in mind that you can do all sorts of other things with Twitter, like link to websites, take pictures of your notes or of your favorite parts of the book. Think of 280 characters as a stimulus to creativity. Happy reading! #FearlessOrg

As always, please let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Best, Isobel

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