Avoiding the feedback monsters Using behavioral insights to develop a strong feedback culture

25 October 2017

Giving—and receiving—feedback is one of the most difficult tasks from a talent perspective. Done well, it can go a long way in building healthy working relationships; done badly, it can lead to lead to bigger problems than it hoped to address. Todd Fonseca and Tim Murphy talk about behavioral principles and how they influence the feedback process.

So many people say, “Just give me the feedback; I don't want emotional clutter.” Well, that's not really true either. We found that if you give people too direct feedback or if you don't consider their emotional state or what they need or how to properly deliver it, it will just fall on deaf ears. People just will shut down.

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TANYA OTT: Giving feedback can be one of the hardest things to do—but you have to do it and you’ve got to get it right. We’ve got tips to help you . . .

I’m Tanya Ott and this is a Deloitte Insights podcast on the issues and ideas that matter to your business today.

I still remember the meetings. I had an employee who—as part of her job duties—made regular public presentations. It wasn’t going well. She looked nervous. She sounded unsure. And I needed to help her by giving her feedback on her performance and coaching her to do better. Her job was on the line and my stomach was in knots.

Giving—and receiving—feedback is tough sometimes. But these two guys can say it doesn’t have to be that way.

TODD FONSECA: I'm Todd Fonseca. I'm the vice president of clinical research at Medtronic. I'm also the principal speaker and trainer for a little side gig I have called the Leadership Lab.

TIM MURPHY: My name's Tim Murphy. I work within Deloitte's Research and Insights department and for the last three years I've really been looking into how behavioral psychology and behavioral insights impact the decisions we make at work.

TANYA OTT: Todd and Tim spend a lot of time thinking about talent development and the role feedback plays.

TIM MURPHY: There's a kind of this weird tightrope with feedback that people need to walk, where if you're not giving the proper feedback and you're going for emotional safety, either for yourself or the person that you're giving feedback to, you might just have a lot of fluff and nothing that's useful—and whatever issues you might notice or you need to talk about basically just stay the same course.

TODD FONSECA: Yeah, I think it comes from—we're all taught a sort of compliment sandwich, right? If you're going to give something critical, you should say something good first and then maybe something critical and then something good at the end. The data would say from the research that's been done that that's not even enough—that for every sort of critical or negative thing that you provide, you really need to offset it with [about] six positives.

TIM MUPRHY: On the other hand, so many people say, “Just give me the feedback; I don't want emotional clutter.” Well, that's not really true either. We found that if you give people too direct feedback or if you don't consider their emotional state or what they need or how to properly deliver it, it will just fall on deaf ears. People just will shut down. So you could actually have really great content with a terrible message.

TANYA OTT: There was a recent report from Bersin by Deloitte—and Josh Bersin is someone I've interviewed numerous times on the podcast—and it showed that organizations achieve a 21-percent boost in business results when leaders embrace the culture of coaching. And so to your point, it's not just about people being productive in the workplace, but it's about a whole lot of stuff. Because if you don't have that culture of coaching or feedback on a regular basis you can lose money, you can lose productivity, and lose lots of things.

TIM MURPHY: When we were doing our upfront research on it we actually found a really interesting study from the Harvard Business Review, which essentially said that the people who would rank feedback as one of the lowest ranked qualities in whoever their direct leader is, are also the people that are the most likely to leave a company, search for something else, and be less engaged. So there’s a lot of that where clearly people want direction. And there's, I think in behavioral psychology, a lot of stuff where we want certain things because we kind of have this ideal self-image, but in reality we might not want it. So an example is: I love the stories from Netflix where originally they did these algorithms to figure out what movies people wanted—and I don't know if you have a Netflix account but you would basically say, “Oh I like documentaries and all these things”—and they found that people actually would say that they liked really highbrow films and stuff like that, but when they would recommend it, they would usually end up watching the slapstick comedies.

It wasn’t that people were lying to themselves. It was that they have this ideal self-image of what they want. I think that feedback can be very similar to that where—hey, we want the feedback; we want it. However, if it's not delivered correctly then we really don't want it.

TANYA OTT: So you suggest that there are several factors that can influence how a feedback conversation goes. The first one is the inner dialogue of the person giving the feedback. So I have to give an employee some feedback; what's that internal dialogue gut-check that I should be doing for myself?

TODD FONSECA: I think that the one critical piece of feedback that is at the foundation of all of this data is, what's the intent of the person giving it? Are you trying to really help this person succeed, improve, and get better? Or are you trying to cover your butt or are you embarrassed? Are you frustrated? And so much of it is, what are you feeling in the moment? That's going to be what translates through to the person. Regardless of what comes out of your mouth, whatever you're feeling at that time is what's going to come through.

TIM MURPHY: The idea is that emotions are contagious—we actually talk about that mood contagion idea; if you come in with a negative attitude, [your] negative attitude will be contagious [to] the person receiving the feedback. So we suggest that the best way to do it is to come in with [an attitude that suggests] we want to build to the repertoire, we want to help you. If it's something with presentation that's lacking, can we offer some helpful tips on how to build up that presentation skill versus saying, “You're very dry and boring.”

TANYA OTT: So shocking that that feedback would not work! OK, so one of the things that I often really consider as well that I think influences the way a message is delivered, and this actually is a little bit more about the nonverbals. When I'm having to have a meeting with someone or, you know, just even every day, I walk into my building thinking about what kind of mood I am in today. Did I not sleep well last night? Am I really hungry? And that's sort of the emotional gut-check that I have to go through before I respond to an e-mail or have a conversation that might be a little challenging. It's just to know where I am, and maybe it's not the right day for me to give a message.

TIM MURPHY: Absolutely. I think that you're better off pausing for better timing than running into it. There's a really famous study about Israeli judges. And it's incredibly powerful, but kind of scary at the same time. Evidently, judges—and they looked at it over like a 10-month period and there were some thousands of parole cases that they were looking at—at 8:00 a.m., when they would start looking at parole cases, they would grant parole roughly 60 percent of the time. And throughout the day that number would shrink and shrink and shrink to where right before lunch it was almost zero percent.

TANYA OTT: Oh wow.

TIM MURPHY: Yes. And then they go to lunch and then it would jump back up to 60 percent. The idea there isn't that these are people that, because they were hungry, they wanted to take it out on these parole decisions. These were things they didn't even recognize that were just happening in the background. They didn't realize that their blood sugar was impacting somebody's life in a very meaningful way.

It's the same idea with feedback. Obviously, you hope on a much smaller scale than that, but our environment impacts us and if we aren't in the emotional state to have it, we won't be giving our best either.

TANYA OTT: This is one that I find really interesting because we often like to rehearse what we're going to say when we have to deliver a tough message. But you argue that while the spoken words between individuals may get the most attention, it often is the least impactful.


TANYA OTT: Why is that?

TIM MURPHY: Well, first of all it goes back to that inner dialogue that's really setting your internal mood and internal tone. After that it's all these nonverbals: your facial expressions, your body language. Are you slumping? Do you look upset?

TODD FONSECA: The research will show that if there’s any incongruence between our verbal and nonverbal, the nonverbal wins 13 times more powerfully than the verbal does. So I would give feedback that says, if what you’re feeling right now—I mean, if you go between your two ears and say what am I feeling—if that’s the message you want to send, then you should blaze forward because that’s all I’m hearing. But if it's just in the moment and you're thinking, you know what, I'm having a really strong emotional reaction and I need to take—you know, it's like being a parent, right—a time-out. I'm not going to say anything useful right now. I've got to really back off or else it all comes through very strongly nonverbally.

TANYA OTT: You've got some scenarios that you feature called the feedback monsters, and I want to walk through that. What's the first one?

TODD FONSECA: Right, so there's one monster called the irritable monster. There is irritable Jeff. He's already having a bad day and it's about to get worse. And he's dreading the conversation that he's going to have with Kathy because she's been spearheading this project that, frankly, hasn't been well received by senior management. In fact it's been scrapped altogether. So instead of taking the time to break and clear his head and so on, he calls Kathy into his office immediately, delivers the bad news in a somber tone that reflects his own disappointment with the outcome. The conversation is short and clipped and, you know, he's feeling bad and then Kathy basically bolts out of the office feeling really, really bad about both herself and the project.

TANYA OTT: OK. How do we avoid that?

TIM MURPHY: So, assuming that Jeff actually wants to give feedback to better Kathy and better the project in the future, the idea is that we all have bad days, but those probably aren't the best days to deliver the feedback. And for Jeff what he should really be considering is, one: How can I go in there with a more positive face? Probably part of that answer is just time, right? So if he's having a terrible day, it's probably not the best way to deliver the feedback. But the second thing is to really try to say, how can I improve Kathy? Not how can I tell her how poorly she did. What are the skill-building things that she can do in the future that will actually make this project better next time?

TANYA OTT: OK. Number two, the next feedback monster. What is it? What's the scenario?

TIM MURPHY: The next one: Felicia. Felicia is the manager who believes that one of her direct reports, Terrence, lacks strategic business acumen. He doesn't speak up. He doesn't put forward solutions and he never really asks many questions.

TODD FONSECA: But from the employee perspective he may feel like, I'm a natural introvert, and some of the other folks in the organization and the team are very extroverted and they take over the meeting. I don't have an opportunity to really provide my input during the meeting, but afterwards I'm coming back with all these things—solutions and otherwise—but nobody is listening now because they've already either gone off in a direction or whatever else. The boss might be thinking, you know what, I've put my employee in this box of saying he's not strategic, but I'm not really listening to the feedback he's providing me to say—no, it's not about being strategic; it's about situation and my ability to really shine in some situations versus others. Perhaps you need to understand that for me, I need a day or two to process information and come back with something that, in fact, is probably more strategic than a bunch of the ideas the extroverts in the room thought were wonderful in the moment, but they really hadn't thought about all the different issues.

TANYA OTT: So how do we avoid the issue that Felicia has?

TIM MURPHY: What Felicia should consider is something called the fundamental attribution error. I'll put that in two ways. One: It's kind of just the summary of the idea that we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. So one of the classic ones that people use to explain that is this idea that if you see a really reckless driver on the road, you say that person's a really reckless driver. But if you're the reckless driver, maybe you explain things for a sort of good or bad reason. Maybe it's an emergency and you need to head to the hospital; I'm late for work. It doesn't matter if the answer is valid. But you judge yourself by different intentions, not saying, “Oh I must be a reckless driver.” And that really applies to Felicia as well. She's judging Terrence by his actions. He's quiet, he's introverted, he doesn't contribute, and therefore she doesn't think that there are many opportunities where he can be helpful. But if she's trying to understand his intentions—why is he like that—she can get a deeper understanding of the person and how she can help. If she sees that Terrence sees people as being overbearing colleagues, they talk a lot, they interrupt each other, and he doesn't feel like he can get a word in edgewise, well, then maybe really what she's looking at is how can I help Terrence create the space where he can vocalize his opinions and contribute to the conversation and contribute to the team.

TANYA OTT: Got it. OK. So the final feedback monster—what is it? Give us the scenario.

TIM MURPHY: The final one is Ian. Ian's the project manager and he has a really interesting thing. He gets called in to give feedback from his boss—the CMO—to the rest of his team, but in the meeting he's telling the team in a very monotonous way that the CMO really likes the direction they’re taking and their progress, and so far, they have her full support. But the whole time that he's saying that he's being very rigid. He's known as an easy-going person, as a fun person, but instead he's kind of pacing back and forth nervously.

TODD FONSECA: Maybe he's got slumped shoulders. He's not looking at his team. In fact, he might be saying something like (said in very timid, monotone voice), “Yeah, it's got, um, really great support from upper management.” So, basically what's happening here is his tone, his body language, his excitement are completely incongruent with the words that he's saying and the team picks up on this and is basically, like, what the heck just happened?

TANYA OTT: So how do we deal with that one?

TODD FONSECA: Yeah. So I think authenticity is so key and important and obviously something's happening here with this leader. The news isn't as great and rosy as it should be. The team's clearly picking up on that. He needs to be transparent with what's happening, right? He can't be Pollyanna-ish as a leader. Maybe it's a combination of good and challenging news. Transparency is important, and for him to be able to say look, you know, we got some challenging feedback from the boss. They challenged us here, here, and here. But, you know what, I know this team. We can take a look at this and let's put our heads together figure out how we can tackle this and move forward. So you really have to be super aware of your own thoughts inside your head and if you start deviating away from that in your verbal communications, people will just stop listening completely.

TANYA OTT: And how do we avoid that? Because, you know, for a lot of people those nonverbals—they're not even really aware that they're doing them.

TIM MURPHY: Exactly. And to that point, whatever's going on in somebody else's mind, we understand that the message isn't enough. We need the delivery to be in line with it, so that goes back to the sender's inner dialogue. Is this person in a positive state? Are they thinking about something completely unrelated to this project? And if so, that's once again a time to pause and deliver the message where everything's in lockstep and in line, not off where one part of your delivery is telling one story and the other part is telling another. In this case, the nonverbals are telling a very negative, nervous story and the verbal is telling a very positive one. At minimum it's confusing but most likely they're just getting the nonverbal part.

TANYA OTT: I have a colleague who uses a phrase that I really like, which is called reflective practitioning. And what he means by that—the way he explains that—is because we're content makers, it's a continual sort of churn and burn. You get something out and then you go to the next thing that you have to make and then you get something out and get the next thing that you have to make. And he's really, really reflective about, you know, let's come together and talk about all that stuff that we just made. What worked? What didn't work? As a group or as individuals and actually spend time building a culture of critique.

TODD FONSECA: Wow—that's great.

TANYA OTT: That doesn't happen in a lot of places. Alternatively, I know someone else whose employees were terrified because the only time they heard from this person was when this person would call them and say, “That thing you just did, on the air, on the radio, that thing you just said—don't do that again.” And then they're terrified to ever pick up her phone and talk.

TODD FONSECA: Right. Absolutely! You know it's interesting you say that because I was part of a discussion that took place in a company a few years ago that I was at and we were talking about the very fact that you were speaking of, except that it didn't have the culture that you were describing. Instead, it was very much a, “Who can point out as many flaws as possible in whatever the person that is presenting is talking about?” But at the very end of that discussion someone, usually a leader in the room, would say—hey, great job. Guess what—they didn't necessarily feel like it was a great job.

So, you know, that culture that was built was exactly the opposite and you felt like you were in a firing squad. You know, how do you come into that environment? In fact, I saw some people used to come into the room and they physically were shaking as they were entering the room.

TANYA OTT: It doesn’t have to be that way. Todd Fonseca and Tim Murphy have more tips and a useful chart that can help you whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of feedback. It’s in their article Avoiding the feedback monsters: Using behavioral insights to develop a strong feedback culture. You can find it at www.deloitte.com/insights.

I’m Tanya Ott. Catch ya again in two weeks.

This podcast is provided by Deloitte and is intended to provide general information only. This podcast is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to Deloitte.com/about.