A dogma called High Performance culture: Part 6 - When Feedback is Oversimplified

K. Ramkumar
Updated: May 20, 2013 08:44:47 AM UTC

In this concluding part of the series, I want to examine whether feedback is a key part of any performance process. Without any doubt it is. But we have an idealistic view of the feedback process and it is often not pragmatic, particularly when it is of human performance and not of an inanimate system?

So, what are our current beliefs about performance feedback? Let us first list them:


  • It is natural for people to desire and ask for feedback
  • Feedback can be objective, direct and evidence-based. We are not supposed to mix up the person with the performance
  • Feedback has to be given and received in an unemotional and clinical manner
  • When someone receives feedback, it leads to positive change and performance or ability almost always improves.

To start with, we should explode the popular myth that people desire feedback. They certainly say so. But how often do we see people walking up to someone and voluntarily asking for feedback?

American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham studied the social orientation of people and constructed a model for social interactivity and called it ‘The Johari Window’. They concluded that the propensity to elicit feedback was one key aspect for creating trust and thus openness, but the attribute wasn’t common among people.

When we say we want feedback in any context, more so when it involves performance, we actually mean we want an explanation on why someone has rated or judged us the way they have.

How does a classical feedback session proceed? First, it is carried out reluctantly, under compulsion in most places. After being hounded by the process owner, the boss with trepidation gets done with the ritual. The subordinate enjoys taunting him. He subtly demands: Tell me only what I want to hear or else I will discredit the process and you.

It seldom gets to a discussion of abilities. Rather, it degenerates into ‘the target was impossible’, ‘did not get enough support’, ‘the market was bad and you do not appreciate my achievements in this tough market’, ‘the system is biased’ sort of aggressive push from the subordinate. Most bosses collapse.

In most cases, depending on the power equation, the exercise is either dismissive in justification or ‘you know the stupid system did you in’ type of cop out from the boss.

Any which way, most sessions are a disaster and end abruptly. In three out of four such meetings, none of the fabled agreements on the areas of improvements or personal action plans happen. Some sessions add insult to injury. The hurt is amplified for either the one who gives the feedback or the one who receives it, depending on who is more fragile.

The more senior you are, it is less likely that your boss will engage you in a meaningful feedback session. The stakes are very high here. No one wants to rock the boat, at least not until you want the senior person to go.

Why is this process such a sham? To examine this, we should be prepared to question some of our holy cows.

The assumption is that we all have blind spots and we need assistance to be aware of them. Otherwise, to be aware of our most obvious strengths and weakness, we don’t need any feedback.

That I am temperamental or that I call a spade a shovel or that people can feel intimidated due to my pushy and direct engagement, I have known for the last 35 years. To expect that I need to be made aware of it year after year through a feedback process is a stupid expectation. Just like me, people who are adults, know 99 percent of what makes them succeed and what lets them down.

Yet, we all play along eulogising the holiness of the feedback process.

Is it not useful to help me be aware of my blind spots? Of course, yes. But here’s the catch: It is the blind spot that makes it difficult for me to relate to what the feedback-giver is drawing my attention to.

I often see people who move up the hierarchy struggle. They get there because they were good in execution. Suddenly, they are required to be conceptual, if not strategic. Many are not up to it.

How do we help them accept that they have a problem with thinking without offending them? We get into the classical, ‘You are a great guy but you know, if only you can be more strategic or conceptual….” pitch. I usually see the receiver feigning ignorance and innocently asking you to help him understand this. He will seek evidence, some will challenge and others will betray a sense of incredulity. It hits the self-worth of a person, especially if it is a blind spot. That is where this stalls.

Even worse is when you have to tell someone that he is disruptive with his colleagues or that he is not collaborative or he is self-centred and individualistic.  How do you handle this? If you try one of the daft techniques that coaching manuals tell you to do, you will fall into the same trap as I fell 20 years ago buying a book to learn Bengali in 30 days.

If the receiver is aware of these chinks, the session at best becomes an ultimatum or at worst a free-for-all. It is not in the character of this personality to take it lying down. That is why he is disruptive. If this were to be the blind spot, can you imagine the hurt and shame it will cause to the individual?

Can this discussion be unemotional, clinical and evidence-based? Remember, you are dealing with an emotive and deeply personal issue. Even if you are very adept in handling this, it is very unsettling to the recipient. It is HR mumbo-jumbo to separate the person from performance. Not possible, we are talking motives, attitude, ability and behaviour here. Sure you can be sensitive, but the core of the discussion is the person. The person is the cause and performance the effect.

Can you imagine what an unemotional and objective session will feel—like being in a court room or before a shrink. Because there is every possibility of the session being emotional, many feedback-givers shirk it.

The main reason why any feedback, which involves substantive issues, does not proceed beyond the technical tick in the box or a well-intentioned half-hearted evangelism is the fear the feedback-giver has about hurting the other person or a breakdown in relationship. Many cannot handle emotions or people who become emotional.

Isn’t it the reason why, despite being in such close relationships for years, spouses dread to candidly give feedback to each other or adult children and their parents or in-laws struggle to sort vexing issues? Are we not naïve if we ask for greater comfort and trust in workplace relationships?

Some abilities and characteristics are difficult to acquire or change. At best, one can moderate it. I know this will sound pessimistic. But that is the truth.

Does our PM not know that his private, introverted and silent personality is denting his image and efficacy? In much the same way did George Bush Jr not know that he was being perceived as a person with thinking limitation and a cow boy? Or is Imran Khan unaware that he is seen as vain and arrogant or Sachin Tendulkar that it is time to go?

Why do such intelligent people falter? Because acceptance of feedback disturbs the equilibrium of living, however uncomfortable the present may be. It unsettles one’s self-image, identity and motives. It demands change to give up the present for the slim probability of a better tomorrow—no guarantees makes it harder. This is not like rearranging your cupboard or asking whether your dress is pretty.

I can personally vouchsafe that the period of transition is excruciating, especially if you are dealing with substantive issues.

David McClelland, the 60s Harvard professor, says a very few with strong achievement orientation take the risk of asking feedback and disturbing their living status quo. Most of the material about feedback reduces it to a system metaphor or oversimplifies a complex human process. This then raises expectations to unreal levels. The gullible then look for this manna and do not find it, leading to disillusionment. The more strident the assertion about the divine and inevitable nature of feedback, the less the possibility that the process will deliver even what is realistically possible.

Can the feedback process make you aware of your strengths and chinks irrespective of whether you know it already or are blind to it? Yes, it can. Can it help someone place the consequences of not attending to the chinks? Of course yes, provided he is willing to see the writing on the wall. Can it make you see the writing on the wall? Doubtful, it is a hit or a miss. Does it improve performance or abilities? Mixed results, loaded more towards some people sometimes—especially when it is behavioural or thinking abilities.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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