Why Traditional Feedback Fails: Insights from Top Researchers

Why Traditional Feedback Fails: Insights from Top Researchers

As I discuss in my book Feedback Reimagined, feedback is one of the most powerful tools we have for driving growth and development. When done well, it can help individuals identify their strengths, sharpen their skills, and reach their full potential. However, as many of us have experienced firsthand, feedback often falls short of this ideal. In fact, research suggests that traditional feedback methods can actually do more harm than good.

In this post, I want to share some key insights from leading experts that underscore the need for a fundamentally different approach to feedback. By understanding the shortcomings of our current feedback strategies, we can begin to imagine a better way forward.

The Trouble with Feedback Today

First, let's look at the data. In a meta-analysis of over 600 feedback studies, researchers Kluger and DeNisi (1996) found that nearly one-third of feedback interventions actually decreased performance. That's right—in many cases, giving feedback made people perform worse, not better.

From my experience as an executive coach, I've seen this play out time and again. Poorly designed 360s, annual reviews that focus solely on weaknesses, feedback conversations that leave people feeling deflated rather than inspired—these experiences are all too common in today's workplaces.

The result is disengagement, damaged relationships, and a pervasive sense that feedback is something to be dreaded rather than embraced.

Clearly, something needs to change. But what, exactly? Let's turn to some leading thinkers for guidance.

Adam Grant on Improving Feedback Receptivity

Wharton professor and bestselling author Adam Grant offers some powerful suggestions for making feedback more effective. In his view, the way we deliver feedback is just as important as the content itself.

Grant recommends four key strategies:

    Explain the why.
    Help people understand the reasoning behind your feedback and how it connects to their goals and aspirations.

    Take yourself off a pedestal.
    Acknowledge your own struggles and emphasize that you're offering feedback to be helpful, not to assert your superiority.

    Ask if they want feedback.
    Give people the autonomy to decide if and when they're ready to receive constructive feedback.

    Have a dialogue, not a monologue.
    Engage in a two-way conversation where you're open to hearing the other person's perspective.

I especially appreciate Grant's point about the power of explaining the why behind your feedback. In one study he cites (Yeager et al., 2014), researchers found that prefacing feedback with just 19 words—"I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them"—boosted students' likelihood of revising their essays by 40%.

This simple framing positions the feedback as a reflection of the giver's belief in the receiver's potential, priming them to be more receptive and motivated to improve.

Buckingham and Goodall's Feedback Fallacy

While Grant focuses on the delivery of feedback, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall dive deeper into the fundamental assumptions that underlie our current approach. In their provocative Harvard Business Review article "The Feedback Fallacy," they argue that many of our beliefs about feedback are misguided.

Specifically, Buckingham and Goodall challenge three common assumptions:

    We are a reliable source of truth about someone else's performance.
    In reality, our feedback often says more about our own preferences and biases than the other person's actual skills or behaviors.

    People learn by filling up their deficits.
    Buckingham and Goodall argue that the opposite is true—we grow most in our areas of strength, not our areas of weakness.

    Excellence is universal and can be defined in advance.
    The authors assert that excellence is actually highly individualized and context-dependent.

Building on these insights, Buckingham and Goodall make a compelling case for a strengths-based approach to feedback. Instead of focusing on shortcomings and gaps, they argue, we should be highlighting what people are doing well and helping them do more of it.

The authors sum it up powerfully: "Learning rests on our grasp of what we're doing well, not what we're doing poorly...Focusing people on their shortcomings doesn't enable learning; it impairs it."

This insight resonates deeply with my own experience. When we shift our attention to catching people doing things right, we open up new possibilities for growth and development. Feedback becomes a way to affirm and accelerate positive behaviors, rather than a critique of deficiencies.

Reimagining a Better Way to Give Feedback

The research and perspectives I've shared paint a clear picture: traditional feedback, with its emphasis on uncovering weaknesses and imposing one-size-fits-all models of excellence, simply isn't working. If we want feedback to live up to its transformative potential, we need a radical rethink.

In my work developing the Shift Positive method, I've drawn on the insights of Grant, Buckingham and Goodall, and other leading thinkers to create a more constructive approach. This method recognizes the relational nature of feedback, the power of focusing on strengths, and the importance of engaging people in a collaborative dialogue about their growth and development. Effective feedback is best when it addresses these core elements.

By reimagining feedback as an affirming, empowering experience, we can finally realize its full potential to drive individual and organizational success.