That! Yes, that!

Looking up from the table in my office, there’s an entire shelf of books focused on how to communicate with each other including: Radical Candor, Fierce Conversations, Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, and Thanks for the Feedback. I googled “most popular books on feedback.” One of the top hits was “48 Best Feedback Books of All Time.” Forty-eight? The “Billboard Hot 5” of workshops in organizations includes feedback and various counterparts such as managing conflict and having difficult conversations. All of this is in service of helping people work better, and work better together.

For over a decade across diverse industries and teams, when starting a workshop, I’ve asked “What has made the biggest difference for you in your career?” Two answers dominate: 1. Some form of “I got thrown into the deep end and had to figure out how to swim.” I was given a challenging assignment and someone took a risk on me. 2. I had a great manager, or someone senior to me, who really cared about and believed in me.

The Feedback Fallacy

When The Feedback Fallacy hit the cover of the Harvard Business Review earlier this year, it resonated. “Feedback is about telling people what we think of their performance and how they could do better — whether they’re giving an effective presentation, leading a team, or creating a strategy. And on that, the research is clear: Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.” What particularly rang true for me is the notion that focusing on what someone is doing wrong, pointing it out, and helping them correct it will only take them to adequacy, not excellence. The big idea here is that “excellence is idiosyncratic and cannot be learned by studying failure.” Instead, catch someone in the act of doing something really well, and call it out: “That! Yes, that!” This “provides a chance to gain insight . . . highlighting a pattern that the person can anchor, re-create, and refine. That is learning.” This is underscored using legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry’s practice of showing footage of each player doing something “easily, naturally, and effectively.” Not for praise, but for learning. Improvement, he believed, would come from one’s “own personal version of what excellence looked like.”

The 70/20/10 Rule

The 70/20/10 Rule originating from work at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) supports what people report in my workshops. CCL research shows that over the course of one’s career, executives report that 70% of their learning came from on-the-job experiences and challenging assignments, 20% from other people, and 10% from coursework and training. The learning is in the doing. Mentors and exemplars along with coursework and training “have an amplifier effect — clarifying, supporting, and boosting . . . your learning.”

What’s love got to do with it?

John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, spent his career studying what makes a marriage successful (or not). In some of his best known research, he and a colleague asked couples to solve a conflict in their relationship in fifteen minutes while they observed. Gottman was able to predict which couples would stay together with over 90% accuracy based on the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. There is a specific ratio — 5:1— for every negative interaction during conflict, a successful couple has five (or more) positive interactions. Negative interactions included criticism and contempt. Anger, they observed, is only negative in the presence of these emotions. “When the masters of marriage are talking about something important,” Dr. Gottman says, “they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.” Positive interactions also include showing interest, appreciation, empathy, apologizing, finding opportunities for agreement, and accepting the other’s perspective.

That! Yes, that!

If we learn by doing, especially when tackling new and tough things, the learning is supercharged by challenge, support, and encouragement from people we feel genuinely care about us and focusing on what we do well, and relationships that are built to last require a steady diet of positive interactions, what does that mean? It would be foolish to suggest that feedback and other communication skills aren’t an important part of helping people improve and work better together. Shifting the emphasis to what’s working seems like a pretty good idea.

Sunday Morning Reflection

For a day, make yourself notice what the people around you do really well. Shout it out — That! Yes, that! — and see what happens.

Sunday Morning: 113