Seinfeld's excellence in comedy is different from Sarah Silverman’s and Trevor Noah’s. Excellence is inherently and wonderfully unique, feedback should reflect that.

A TL;DR of “The Feedback Fallacy”

Johanan Ottensooser
Feb 22 · 4 min read

The Harvard Business Review wrote an article about common misconceptions about feedback promoting excellence, and how to actually promote excellence through outcome-based praise and experience-driven “replays” of good performance.

My colleague, Nicolas Joseph, brought up a good point → “this may be a better way of giving feedback and creating excellence, but is it compatible with getting a product to excellence quickly?”.

The article separates this into two problems:

  1. Feedback, when given correctly is good at driving excellence in an organization
  2. Excellence in output is driven by both excellence and the quality of the instructions

The article was a little bit chunky, so here’s a digest.

TL;DR:

Most feedback is ineffective. Replace with positive reinforcement and good instruction.

Do:

  • Draw employees’ attention to their success, to build a feedback loop around how they achieve excellence
  • Give “replays” of an employee’s performance based on your experience of it

Don’t:

  • Assume that an employee doesn’t know their weaknesses, they do
  • Assume that the way you achieve excellence is the same as another actor’s way of achieving excellence
Block diagram for feedback. Patterned after Figure 6.1, p. 192 in Santiram Kal: ‘Basic Electronics’.

The problem with Feedback

Radical transparency and harsh feedback are based on two theories: that other people know your weaknesses more than you do; and that you can learn from feedback.

The goal of feedback, however, is not to make people aware of their weaknesses. Focusing on their shortcomings impedes learning.

Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.

Excellence:

Instead, understand the goal: excellence in work.

Excellence is achieved in many different ways, so feedback should be personal, and goal/success driven.

Excellence in any endeavor is almost impossible to define, and yet getting there, for each of us, is relatively easy.

How to help people excel

Look for outcomes.

Excellence is an outcome, so take note of when a prospect leans into a sales pitch, a project runs smoothly, or an angry customer suddenly calms down. Then turn to the team member who created the outcome and say, “That! Yes, that!” By doing this, you’ll stop the flow of work for a moment and pull your colleague’s attention back toward something she just did that really worked.

Replay your instinctive reactions.

The key is not to tell someone how well she’s performed or how good she is. While simple praise isn’t a bad thing, you are by no means the authority on what objectively good performance is, and instinctively she knows this. Instead, describe what you experienced when her moment of excellence caught your attention. There’s nothing more believable and more authoritative than sharing what you saw from her and how it made you feel. Use phrases such as “This is how that came across for me,” or “This is what that made me think,” or even just “Did you see what you did there?” Those are your reactions — they are your truth — and when you relay them in specific detail, you aren’t judging or rating or fixing her; you’re simply reflecting to her the unique “dent” she just made in the world, as seen through your eyes. And precisely because it isn’t a judgment or a rating it is at once more humble and more powerful.

Excellence is idiosyncratic:

Excellence is idiosyncratic. Take funniness — the ability to make others laugh. If you watch early Steve Martin clips, you might land on the idea that excellence at it means strumming a banjo, waggling your knees, and wailing, “I’m a wild and crazy guy!” But watch Jerry Seinfeld, and you might conclude that it means talking about nothing in a slightly annoyed, exasperated tone. And if you watch Sarah Silverman, you might think to yourself, no, it’s being caustic, blunt, and rude in an incongruously affectless way. At this point you may begin to perceive the truth that “funny” is inherent to the person.

Watch an NBA game, and you may think to yourself, “Yes, most of them are tall and athletic, but boy, not only does each player have a different role on the team, but even the players in the same role on the same team seem to do it differently.” Examine something as specific and as limited as the free throws awarded after fouls, and you’ll learn that not only do the top two free-throw shooters in history have utterly different styles, but one of them, Rick Barry — the best ever on the day he retired (look him up) — didn’t even throw overhand.

Excellence seems to be inextricably and wonderfully intertwined with whoever demonstrates it. Each person’s version of it is uniquely shaped and is an expression of that person’s individuality. Which means that, for each of us, excellence is easy, in that it is a natural, fluid, and intelligent expression of our best extremes. It can be cultivated, but it’s unforced.

As it happens, you find that effective leaders put their egos in the service of others, not themselves, and that effective salespeople take rejection personally because they are personally invested in the sale — but the point is that you will never find these things out by studying ineffective performance.

Johanan Ottensooser

Written by

Customer Success @ Datalogue. Fintech @ KWM. Cornell Tech LLM v1.