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Feedback might not always be the breakfast of champions

By Anna Hinder

If feedback is the breakfast of champions (Ken Blanchard certainly thinks so) then this research on the pros and cons of asking for feedback might have you reconsidering what you ask for.  

People Leaders can interpret requests for feedback in different ways. High performers are more likely to have their requests for feedback seen as making an effort to learn and improve.  Average or low performers making the same request can be seen as trying to make themselves look good.  

The problems don't stop there.  When strong performers ask for feedback, their evaluations get stronger.  The same can't be said for average and low performers - their evaluations become more negative.  Remember this is a game of perceptions.  The same order of feedback for breakfast is met with enthusiasm by one chef and skepticism by another.  

What does this mean for people leaders?

If a people leader takes a growth mindset and believes that people are capable of changing, they are more likely to think positively about a team member asking for feedback.  Those with a fixed mindset who don't believe people can grow and change are more likely to interpret requests for feedback as impression management. Learn more about Carol Dweck's research on Growth Mindset

What does this mean for professionals?

Be selective about when and who you ask for feedback.  Requests are more likely to be seen favourably after a period of strong performance and by those people leaders who are opened minded about the capability of others to develop..  Seek feedback from a range of people - but not so many or so frequently that it can be misinterpreted as being desperate.  Be aware that asking for feedback can risk triggering the Set Up to Fail Syndrome

What does this mean for HR in Professional Service Firms?

Relying on individual initiative to ask for feedback can be problematic for some.  High performers working for Partners with a growth mindset will exchange high quality feedback, while those average and lower performers are likely to have their requests for feedback misinterpreted by people leaders who don't think people can change.  

  • HR Business Partners can identify these combinations of low performing professionals and closed mindset Partners to facilitate feedback conversations as part of a structured process, rather than encouraging people to seek feedback proactively themselves. This research suggests that self initiated feedback works with high performers in practice groups led by Partners with a growth mindset.  Where that isn't the case, a different approach is needed. 
  • Leadership development programs can educate managers about the risks of interpreting the same request for feedback from team members in different ways
  • Individual coaching can assist Partners to develop a growth mindset and reconsider their beliefs about individual's capacity to learn and change.
  • Firms can use engagement results to identify groups that may need more formal processes to ensure feedback to provided, while allowing those where it's working well to continue with informal approaches.  
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Anna Hinder is the Principal of Searl Street Consulting. With over nineteen years of experience in human resources, Anna has held a range of senior HR generalist roles in financial services, global consulting and investment banking. Anna has worked with partner leadership teams across Australia, Asia and Europe and understands the environment and challenges of influencing business leaders on people issues in fast paced organisations.