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In my clinical work, I regularly hear about the difficulties of working with supervisors and supervisees. These work relationships are important. In contexts that require long hours, fast learning, remote coordination, and independence, these relationships can be fragile as well.
Recently a colleague shared an article from the March/April 2019 Harvard Business Review called “The Feedback Fallacy.” Poor feedback processes are not the cause of every problematic dynamic I hear about, but I was struck by the authors’ main argument, that managers routinely overestimate both the accuracy and the helpfulness of their critical feedback. And importantly: if you are interested in helping someone excel, telling them how you think they should improve may actually hinder their learning.
Many managers assume that employees need feedback on when and where they are not meeting the manager’s expectations for performance. But this type of feedback requires a prefabricated model of excellence defined by the manager (or organization), which may not align very well with an employee’s greatest strengths.
One of the many reasons that critical feedback can go astray is that excellence is not a universal set of behaviors that can be defined and passed down from one expert to the next. Rather, excellence tends to be inextricably linked to the person performing the task. In other words, the things that I do in order to give an interesting presentation might not be the things you would do. If I try to make you give my presentation in my voice, we miss out on the elements you bring that work better for you. The fact that people have unique ways of refining their competencies applies to areas that are highly technical (e.g., sports) and creative (e.g., comedy).
I know absolutely nothing about American football, but there is a famous coach for the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry, who helped his floundering team by having each player watch slow-motion replays of their greatest moves. This went against the practice of most coaches at the time, which tended to have players review their mistakes from past games. Landry’s reasoning was that he could help each player improve his performance by helping him understand his best moments, or his own personal version of excellence.
You may be able to think of a time when a teacher or a supervisor helped you see something you were doing well, and you learned from that. I’m just not talking about praise, which makes us feel liked or competent. I’m talking about feedback that helped you understand something that you could do uniquely well, which, once it was noticed, helped you focus on it and refine it.
I’m not saying you should never give critical feedback. There will likely be obvious times where a mistake needs to be analyzed and specific corrections need to be made. But for managers who supervise people with some autonomy for how they do their job, consider ways to notice and communicate moments of excellence to them. And if you are the supervisee, when you get non-specific praise (e.g., “Good job”), don't be afraid to ask for details (e.g., “Which part?”) so that you can fully understand your strengths.
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