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Why Feedback Is Not Enough

By Gerald Walsh ©

In sports, visualization is used all the time to influence future performance. For example, golfers are told to picture their putt dropping cleanly into the cup. Basketball players are coached to think about their foul shots swishing through the net. Marathon runners are encouraged to focus on what “it’s going to feel like” when they cross the finish line.

All of these sport coaching techniques

So what I don’t understand is: Why do managers in business insist on focusing on past performance? Why do these well-intention people persist?

Why then in business do we insist on focusing on past performance – on mistakes people made – rather than looking toward the future?

Just think, for a moment, how it would be if sports coaches used the same techniques as business managers:

1. Golfers would be reminded of that critical putt that stopped two feet short of the hole in yesterday’s round;

2. Basketball players would be encouraged to think about their last foul shot, the one that ‘banged’ off the front rim, so next time they’ll put more arc on their shots.

3. Marathon runners would be told to think about all the pain they went through last time, when they dropped out of the race.

When we coach managers and professionals, we gain insight into that person by speaking to his or her associates in the workplace. We call these individuals your ‘key stakeholders’ and they can include your manager, peers, employees, or even people outside the organization, such as company lawyers and accountants.

But in speaking with them, we do not focus on past performance. Unlike traditional 360° feedback systems and performance review systems, which look backward, we encourage your key stakeholders to look forward and offer “performance suggestions” – constructive ideas on how you can improve in the future. By creating a picture of what the future could be like, the probability of success increases.

Why is it better to focus on “performance suggestions” rather than traditional feedback?

Performance suggestions reposition the ‘giver’ from one of judge to one of helper.

Rightly or wrongly, feedback is associated with passing judgment. The person providing the feedback is commenting on the person receiving the feedback. He is in effect judging that individual’s actions that happened in the past. The ‘giver’ is for some reason seen as the expert, when in reality he might have little knowledge of the circumstances behind an action. Focusing on performance suggestions eliminates the ‘judge’ and re-positions the giver to one of ‘helper.’

People dislike giving negative feedback.

Many managers are very poor at giving feedback to others. Although praise, compliments and constructive advice are considered excellent motivation for employees, managers still provide feedback only sparingly. They are even worse at giving negative feedback. Let’s face it – most of us do not relish delivering bad news. And negative feedback can be considered bad news. We do not like to run the risk of hurting other people’s feelings. And although, logically, we understand that feedback should be timely, accurate, and fair, in practice this is not the case.

Performance suggestions deal with the same issues as feedback.

Some people argue that focusing on the future rather than the past is somehow sidestepping the real issue. I do not agree with this view. Assume you’ve just completed a major client presentation that just ‘bombed.’ Having your manager review your entire presentation, pointing out all the mistakes you made, could be humiliating and demoralizing. Instead, if your manager’s approach was “What’s done is done. Let’s look at some strategies you might want to use in future presentations,” your reaction would most likely be favourable. You would likely leave the meeting encouraged, motivated, and determined to do better next time, rather than defeated.

Feedback is almost always personalized by the receiver.

In theory, feedback is intended to focus on the performance not the person. In practice, almost all feedback is taken personally, since a person’s identity is closely connected to their work. So when you criticize an action, you criticize the person. It is hard to provide constructive feedback that is not taken personally. Because performance suggestions relate to something that has not yet happened, comments are less likely to be personalized.

It is better to help people be ‘right’ than prove they were ‘wrong.’

All feedback, even that which is well delivered, becomes a discussion of mistakes, shortfalls and problems. As it often contributes to a feeling of failure, the receiver tends to become defensive in the process of explaining why a particular act was completed. In the ensuing dialogue, the giver then feels he must prove the other person wrong. Performance suggestions avoid this dilemma entirely by focusing on positive, forward-looking alternatives.

Goal-oriented people want help achieving their goals.

Suggesting how people can improve their future performance and reach their goals quicker is clearly a more effective approach for highly motivated individuals. Those individuals who are clearly focused on the future tend not to look back and are optimistic about the future. Providing negative feedback in particular is heavily resisted by this group.

I would like to receive your comments and questions about this topic. Please email me at walsh@geraldwalsh.com and I will respond to you.


Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and writer. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn