After learning about “Radical Candor”, I became obsessed with providing candid and compassionate feedback. I’ve been especially focused on the ability to communicate areas of growth for individual on my team.

And then a colleague of mine shared “The Feedback Fallacy” (published in the Harvard Business Review), which points to some research and outlines a few key problems why focusing on negative feedback might not be the best choice. Research shows that:

  • people are bad at assessing other people
  • we learn best with positive reinforcement
  • focusing on shortcomings impairs learning
  • excellence is specific to an individual

Like many pieces of business literature, it reads like an “all-or-nothing” approach (“negative feedback - bad, positive feedback - good”), and the most effective approach is likely somewhere in the middle. There’s a place for positive and negative feedback, and it’s the focus on positive reinforcement that I see as a primary takeaway from this article.

I’ve noticed that my assessment of others’ performance changes over time. It often depends on what self-help book I’m reading at the moment if I’m being entirely honest.

This piece made me think of the portrayal of successful people in media: there’s an inherent cultural belief that successful people know what makes them successful, and all you need to do is to follow in their steps! What is often omitted is a mix of luck, some talent or hard work, topped with another serving of being in the right place at the right time. Warren Buffet can probably tell you what’s the smartest thing to do with ten thousand dollars you have in your savings account. It’s unlikely that his advice alone will get you to his 98.2 billion dollar net worth.

It seems like once you get past basic competency, success identifiers seem unpredictable.

I attribute part of my professional success to having a reputation of a person who “gets shit done”. I naturally value qualities associated with that style of work. It’s only natural that I prioritize on communication and organizational skills when assessing the performance of others.

In fact, the article made me think about how I landed with the reputation as a problem solver. Every time I accomplished a project on time, owned the problem space, involved the right parties, or raised alarms early – I received positive reinforcement. People I worked with valued those qualities, and years working with those people shaped what I perceive as an effective work style.

Yet, this work style is effective for me, and is not a solution for my peers.

Since reading “The Feedback Fallacy”, I started focusing on the outcomes I like, as opposed to qualities I believe are valuable. Where before I would say “Great comms on project X!”, now I focus on specifics: “I know what you’re up to on project X, which helps me communicate with stakeholder Y and plan resources for the project Z”