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How to really help your people improve

Terry Frost

If you want to help your team members reach their maximum potential, you must reject the “feedback fallacy”, write Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall for Harvard Business Review.

When it comes to improving the performance of your team members, they say feedback is key. The only way to ensure the rapid march towards excellence is to provide each and every member of staff with regular, honest feedback on how well you believe they are doing their jobs.

If you have bought into this idea, you’re in good company. Veteran investor Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest hedge funds in the world, embraces “radical transparency”, while, according to the Wall Street Journal, streaming giant Netflix encourages “harsh feedback”.

Nevertheless, Buckingham and Goodall believe the idea that feedback is the best route to excellence is a “fallacy”.

“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,” they write.


For Buckingham and Goodall, the “feedback fallacy” is predicated on three spurious theories:

1) The theory of the source of truth. You are not able to spot your own weaknesses as well as other people. Wrong.

2) The theory of learning. You need others to highlight the skills you are missing so you can develop those skills. Wrong.

3) The theory of excellence. There is a one-size-fits-all template for excellence. You can be the ideal [insert role] simply by working on improving the carefully defined attributes of a great [insert role] one by one. Wrong.


1) The source of truth. Humans are no good at rating other humans.When asked to rate a colleague, we are unable to adhere to a clear definition of an abstract quality, e.g. business acumen. Our evaluation of a colleague’s business acumen, would depend on our subjective understanding of the term. Psychometricians call this the “idiosyncratic rater effect”.

For Buckingham and Goodall, “feedback is more distortion than truth”. When feedback from numerous individuals is considered in aggregate, the distortion is multiplied. The errors are “systemic”.

The problem is we seem to be unable to accept this built-in weakness. “Deep down, we don’t think we make many errors at all,” write Buckingham and Goodall. “We think we’re reliable raters of others. We think we’re a source of truth. We aren’t. We’re a source of error.”

2) How we learn. We are all unique. Each individual’s brain is wired slightly differently, due to their distinctive genes and early childhood experiences. The brain grows most new neurons and synaptic connection where it is already strong. Learning, therefore, starts with understanding how an individual’s brain is wired.

Focusing on the positive – e.g. an individual's strengths, rather than the negatives – is the more effective path to learning. If an individual feels comfortable, they will be better able to learn. What is working? How can it be cultivated?

3) Excellence. Many people have achieved excellence in their chosen field, but each person’s version of excellence is different. Think Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis; William Shakespeare and Harold Pinter; Niki Lauda and James Hunt; Jerry Seinfeld and Amy Schumer; or Steve Jobs and Tim Cook.


Buckingham and Goodall have identified four new techniques for guiding your team members on the path to excellence.

1) Focus on the positives. If you see ateam member doing something right, tell them immediately. This will make the person feel good, but it will also help them to see what their version of excellence looks like.

Legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry knew that focusing on the positive was the best way to help his players learn. Landry would create a highlights reel for each player composed of examples of when they had done something well.

Highlight excellence, allow your team members to see the best of themselves, and they will learn to recreate and refine these positive aspects of their performance.

2) Express how they made you feel. Unfortunately you can’t produce a highlights reel for each of your team members, but you can do the next best thing: let them know how their excellent performance made you feel.

Praising an individual’s performance is fine, but making it personal is far more powerful.

You must encourage your team members to “explore the nature of excellence”. Make them think. How did I do that? Why did I do that? How can I keep doing that?

3) Interrupt for excellence. Business leadersoften react immediately when their team members screw up, but are far less likely to highlight successes.

“If you see somebody doing something that really works, stopping her and dissecting it with her isn’t only a high-priority interrupt, it is your highest-priority interrupt,” write Buckingham and Goodall.

4) Explore the present, past and future. If a team member asks for help with a problem they are struggling with, ask them to highlight three things that are working for them right now. Focusing on the positive will prompt the release of oxytocin (the “creativity drug”), changing their brain chemistry and allowing them to find a solution.

It is likely they will have encountered the same problem or a similar problem before. Ask, “When you had a problem like this in the past, how did you solve it?”

Act as if they already know the solution and you are just helping them recognise it. Ask: what do you already know you need to do?

Focus on ‘What?’ not ‘Why?’. What do you want to happen? What can you do now to help achieve your goal? This will lead to action rather than endless conjecture and procrastination.


Each member of your team is unique, and so can’t be judged using the same criteria. Treat them all as individuals and focus on enhancing their positive attributes rather than correcting their mistakes, and they will excel.

“We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works,” conclude the authors.

Source Article: The Feedback Fallacy
Author(s): Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall