Karolina Numminen

Rethinking Feedback Part 1: Grow Without Relying on Others

In a world preoccupied with the notion that feedback is the key to professional development, it's time to challenge this widespread belief. What if I told you that feedback might not be the ultimate catalyst for your growth? Moreover, relying purely on others’ feedback might actually harm your long-term development. In this four-part series, I will debunk the feedback myth and explore more effective ways to enhance not only your performance but also that of your employees. This first part delves into four reasons why feedback often fails to deliver on its promise and why learning to evaluate your own work can take you much further.

Feedback seems to be one of those areas that we don’t often question in the business world. So much has been written on how, how often, when, and who should give and receive feedback, but very little debating whether the overall idea makes sense. Luckily, there are a few daring minds who took on this task. One of the best arguments against the widespread reliance on feedback was presented in the 2019 HBR article by Asley Goodall, and Marcus Buckingham called The Feedback Fallacy. This idea is further expanded in their excellent book Nine Lies about Work, which I recommend reading to everyone!

Encouraging dialogue and debate around topics like feedback is essential, ensuring that we continually seek to challenge the norm. Aren’t we all supposed to do that when developing our products and services? Why not apply the same to our ways of working also? If you are ready to take a fresh look at the widespread feedback phenomenon, let’s dive into the fundamental problems of why it doesn’t deliver on its promise.

1. We are all full of biases (and we don’t know it)

The first problem has to do with our lack of objectivity when it comes to evaluating someone else’s performance. We are born with our subjective views of the world and further develop them by carrying around an imaginary backpack filled with insecurities, past experiences, and preconceived notions about how things should be done. When encountering someone with a different perspective, we feel the urge to impose our way of doing things upon them. Although these biases and impulses are normal, acting on them is a choice that can be detrimental. 

We would all need to open our backpacks and look at what’s inside, but unfortunately, most of us were never taught to be aware of our biases and how to overcome them. Also, how many of us have ever received proper training on giving feedback- an activity we are supposed to do daily? And why do we then assume that we can evaluate anyone on anything?

Biases also come into play when your supervisor is tasked to interpret feedback given to you by others during a periodic performance review. This snowball of biases will result in a total caricature of your performance that will hardly help you improve anything.

2. The things we give feedback on don’t make sense

Are you a proactive problem-solver, go-getter, and a true team player? Do you have a laser-sharp customer focus? Who knows. And more importantly, who cares? Empty phrases we often see in job ads then carry on to performance reviews, although nobody really knows what they mean. If these are the categories you are rated on, you won’t get any meaningful insights about your performance.

Now how about these questions: are you meeting project deadlines? Staying within budget? Delivering bug-free code? Driving traffic to the website? Despite the complexities that sometimes surround today’s work, your deliverables are evident at the basic level and matter more than made-up categories on a feedback form. 

So as long as you deliver and do so without breaking the law, harming your colleagues, or ruining customer relations, maybe you are doing just fine. And if you can achieve these results in a new way that nobody else has tried before, the better for you and the whole company really. 

What's even more worrying than rating people on nonsense categories is giving feedback on areas heavily affected by our personality or cultural background. Evaluating how enthusiastic, excited, or talkative employees are, is not uncommon. And as someone who lives in Finland, I can tell you that as a country, we collectively fail on all three. So here’s a secret: you can be great at your job without being enthusiastic, excited, or talking in meetings because, ultimately, these things do not matter to anyone but your manager.

3. We don’t like to be critisized and we don’t respond well to it

Negative feedback (even if masked as ‘constructive’) doesn’t work as a driver for change. Our brains see this sort of feedback as a threat. And how do we react to any threat- perceived or real? We stop being rational and go into fight, flight, or freeze mode, none of which will result in a positive change. 

Motivation research reveals that simply pointing out mistakes is insufficient for significant behavioral changes. While we may grit our teeth and comply with the feedback, it rarely leads to lasting improvement and can harm relationships and overall commitment to our work. 

Managers can give some ideas on where to put our focus. But only when we recognize what’s holding us back from achieving our goals will we be motivated to change.

And finally, who even likes to give negative feedback anyway!? It’s simply awkward on both ends. And since it doesn’t actually help anyone, there really is no reason to force constructive criticism on anyone ever again.

4. Heavy reliance on feedback kills independence

We often praise seeking feedback as a sign of caring about personal development. However, constantly relying on others for evaluations can hinder personal growth and independence, particularly for junior workers.

The early stages of our careers should be devoted to exploring what we are good at, what is difficult for us, where we add value to a team, what excites us, etc. If we are taught to rely on others to give us the answers, we become robots who will eventually struggle to navigate our careers independently.

And on the other side: if, as leaders, we want our team to seek and act on our feedback constantly, we will have to monitor our team 24/7 and will have 0 time for our development.

Encouraging self-evaluation from an early stage allows people to learn about themselves, their strengths, weaknesses, and values. Instead of becoming overly dependent on external feedback, cultivating self-awareness empowers individuals to chart their career paths and make meaningful progress.

Karolina Numminen

Want to better navigate the feedback you receive?

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I believe it's essential to reevaluate the excessively high importance placed on feedback in our working culture and explore alternative approaches to assessing performance. In the next part of this series, we will delve into a simple tool that encourages self-reflection on our work and boosts personal growth.

Karolina Numminen
Karolina Numminen

Hi there!

Thank you for reading! I'm Karolina, a career coach with a passion for helping people have fulfilling and successful career journeys. I love writing about all things work and sharing the insights I’ve gained from years of coaching clients.

I would love to connect with you on LinkedIn and continue the conversation. I’m always curious about different professions and career paths!


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