Goodbye, Feedback; Hello, Point-Of-View
Part 2: Applying what you’ve learned to your summer program
By Chris Thurber
In Part 1 of this series, I explained how the “everyone asks for it” model is superior to the “manager gives it + employee gets it” model because it reduces anxiety about the other person’s reaction to feedback. I also explained Dr. Daniel Kahneman’s research that shows how self-assessment has enough inherent inaccuracies that another person’s feedback is usually necessary. Here, in Part II, I’ll explain how to put all that science into practice.
Building on Kahneman’s decision-making research, business authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall debunk three assumptions that managers make about feedback:
(1) Managers typically assume they know best, that they understand what works and what doesn’t work. Heck, that’s why I got promoted to manager, right?
(2) Managers typically assume that employees lack information on the best way to do things; therefore, if the manager provides sage advice, the employee’s performance will improve. I just need to talk with them and explain things.
(3) Managers typically assume that excellence can be analyzed, described, and transferred from one person to another. If I’m intentional, clear, and specific, I can make this employee awesome.
One could summarize Buckingham and Goodall’s three mistaken assumptions in one misguided managerial self-statement: I know better and you lack key information, but if I tell you exactly what to do, you’ll become excellent. Sounds reasonable. In fact, similar self-statements motivate much of what managers do. They reference their own knowledge, assume employees lack it, and believe that a mini-lecture will do the trick. But according to Buckingham and Goodall, managers do not always know what makes employees tick; these employees often have the information they need already, and excellence is sometimes ineffable and elusive, not something that can be taught wholesale to every employee from some handbook.
Eliminate “Traditional” Feedback
What is a poor supervisor to do, especially if excellence is as untrainable as a great sense of humor? Should camp leaders in supervisory positions stop giving advice and suggestions? No. Providing factual information is still essential, as is modeling desired behaviors. But when it comes to feedback, managers should stop giving it. Or, at least, stop giving it in the traditional “manager gives it + employee gets it” fashion. Recall from Part I of this article that Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for research that proved why we all need objective feedback: Human beings are frequently overtaken by strong emotions, and these mess up our reasoning. We can become so upset or so enamored that we make illogical choices … and quite confidently at that. Therefore, dispassionate, objective feedback from a trusted other is essential to continuous personal and professional development.
Establishing a reliable someone who can offer praise and criticism is necessary, but not sufficient. We must check the validity of that feedback. Buckingham and Goodall’s research has revealed that feedback from managers is often garbage, for several reasons:
(1) Traditional feedback neglects the employee’s subjective experience.
(2) This type of feedback usually consists of factual information the employee already knows.
(3) The feedback is often harsh—delivered in the name of transparency—and therefore hurtful, which shuts down the neural pathways necessary for learning.
(4) It neglects the scientific finding that some parts of excellent performance cannot be taught.
Taken together, these four findings suggest that the most enlightened manager might begin with a growth mindset that also recognizes the ineffable quality of true excellence. Then, this enlightened manager will say, “Part of my job is to help the people I manage become their best selves. How excellent they become will mostly be up to them. I’ll be sure they have access to all of the information and skill-building they need. I’ll also remember that their growth hinges on our sharing our points of view much more than it depends on old-fashioned bossy feedback or old-fashioned sugar-coated feedback or modern harshly transparent feedback.”
Shift The Discussion
To promote positive change and guide a supervisee toward excellence, I propose a “Points-of-View” (or POV) Discussion as an enlightened hybrid of David Cooperrider’s Appreciative Inquiry approach, Daniel Kahneman’s “don’t trust yourself” reliance on a trusted colleague, and Buckingham and Goodall’s inclusion of the employee’s subjective experience.
With due credit to these great thinkers, I suggest a productive POV discussion include these four steps, in order:
(1) Listen to each other’s POV: Supervisor and supervisee share their perspectives on how things are going, how the situation looks different from their points of view, and how close they are getting to the desired outcomes. This step establishes perspective.
(2) Describe highpoints: Supervisor and supervisee identify the conditions under which both were performing at their best, discovering what was happening in the “You’re spot on!” and “That’s it!” and “Precisely!” moments. This step establishes positivity.
(3) Share internal journeys: Supervisor and supervisee share their cognitive and emotional journeys since the last time they met. What were places or times when they understood what was going on vs. when they were confused? What were their positive and negative emotional experiences along the way? When did they feel a strong connection between effort and outcome vs. frustration or feeling lost? When did they feel that the team was working well together vs. feeling chaotic or inefficient? This step establishes points of reference (both positive and negative).
(4) Consider pathways: Supervisor and supervisee openly question what they might do differently going forward in order to achieve even better outcomes. Which paths lead to achievement and excellence? Which paths lead to stagnation, regression, or frustration? This step establishes pathways to improvement.
A Set Sequence
All POV discussions include Perspective, Positivity, Points of Reference, and Pathways. To see how different this sounds and feels, let’s look at the contrast between today’s radically open, somewhat harsh feedback, and a POV discussion. For realism, let’s switch from our corporate example in Part I to a common camp-based scenario.
Imagine a senior leader at a day or overnight camp who manages by walking around. He stops to observe the last 15 minutes of a kickball game and sees evidence of both strong and weak leadership in the staff member running the activity. Presence is power, so this is a good start. When supervisors stay in their offices or hang out with fellow supervisors most of the day, they limit their influence.
As the campers gather their belongings, the supervisor has a few minutes to talk with the counselor who led the kickball game. Of course, one option is not to engage the counselor out of fear that a performance-based discussion will hurt the counselor’s feelings. When a supervisor makes that avoidant choice frequently, the influence is again limited.
Option 1: Transparent Feedback
The modern, harsher version of the uncomfortable, old-fashioned “manager gives it + employee gets it” practice follows:
Supervisor: I know better. “Sam, can I give you some feedback?”
Mistake #1. The supervisor asks an anxiety-provoking, rhetorical question. The counselor can only answer “yes,” and the negative emotions reduce the brain’s learning capacity.
Counselor: Here we go again. “Sure. I’ll take any feedback you have.” But I wish I didn’t have to. “I’m always trying to improve.” I’m such a brown-noser.
Supervisor: “You need to be more decisive with your calls at first base.”
Mistake #2: The supervisor assumes he knows better and that the counselor lacks the given information.
Counselor: Tell me something I don’t know, genius. “OK.”
Supervisor: “Let me be clear: Being wishy-washy about whether that kid was safe or out turned both teams against you.”
Mistake #3: The supervisor’s harsh tone and judgmental label (“wishy-washy”) is critical enough to significantly inhibit the counselor’s ability to learn from this mistake.
Counselor: Thanks for rubbing it in, you jerk. Maybe if you paid attention to the fact that my co-counselor was missing and I was running the activity by myself, then you would ease up a bit. “Yeah, I realized that after the fact.”
Supervisor: Review is always helpful. “Like I explained during staff-training week, it’s a leader’s job to be clear, whether you’re functioning as a referee or leading a hike or making pancakes.”
Mistake #4: The supervisor believes in teaching excellence, but is being condescending. And although certain skills can be taught, there are some elements of excellence that require introspection instead of direction; other elements are intuitive and natural, not learned.
Counselor: Please let this conversation be over soon. “Got it.”
Supervisor: I’m a great supervisor. I don’t mince words or shy away from tough conversations. Thanks to me, my counselors are going to be excellent. “Awesome.”
Counselor: Even my supervisor doesn’t understand me. I’ll keep doing what I always do.
Option 2: POV Discussion
A positive dialogue whose goal is to share perspectives and experiences with the common goal of identifying a pathway to improved performance follows:
Supervisor: “Great game, Sam. Thank you for running this one solo. Tell me about the call you made at first base.”
Smart Moves #1, #2, and #3: the supervisor offers genuine praise, acknowledges the short-staffed situation, and asks for the counselor’s perspective first, even though it may have noise and bias.
Counselor: “Thanks. It wasn’t easy to manage that many kids alone. I kept thinking my co-counselor would show up. By the end of the game, the score was really lopsided; when I saw a chance to make a call in the losing team’s favor, I did it.”
The supervisee acknowledges the supervisor’s praise and appreciates his experience, reasoning, and motivation.
Supervisor: “Yeah, if one team is creaming the other team, it’s good to try to even things out a bit. What seemed to cause the commotion after you called that kid safe at first base?”
Smart Move #4: In the spirit of POV discussion, the supervisor is staying with the supervisee’s reasoning and asks an open-ended question.
Counselor: “Well, the kid was clearly out. I totally chose the wrong moment to even out the game. What would you have done?”
The supervisee is able to reflect on his performance and sidesteps any hesitation the supervisor might have to offer criticism by soliciting ideas.
Supervisor: “That’s hard to say. It takes some finesse, but I’m glad you’re thinking about the timing and the social context of umpires’ calls. There are times at camp when we might become less impartial, just to keep the game fun for both teams. It was definitely good that you kept the game moving. Let me know how the next kickball period goes, OK? And I’ll talk with your co-counselor to be sure he’s here next time.”
Smart Move #5: Recognizing that excellence is partly intuitive (“It takes some finesse”), the supervisor states a method (becoming less partial) and a goal (keeping the game fun), and promises to follow up, both with the counselor and the missing co-counselor.
Counselor: “Sounds good. I’ll do my best and keep you posted. Let me know what you find out from my missing co.”
Every POV discussion will sound different, of course. There’s no script, but there is a sequence: Perspective, Positivity, Points of Reference, and Pathways. I encourage all youth leaders—especially those in supervisory positions—to try this more comfortable, research-based approach to managing yourself and your team.
Dr. Christopher Thurber is devoted to educating leaders, using innovative content that stirs thinking and compels action. An entrepreneur from a young age, Chris is the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, the Internet’s most popular library of educational videos for youth leaders. He has been invited to deliver keynotes, contribute articles, and lead workshops at schools and camps on five continents. Learn more about Chris’s books, articles, videos, and in-person workshops by visiting https://DrChrisThurber.com.