Why Feedback falters

“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.”

– Peter Drucker

As a trainer, as you grow older, you may not become wiser. But you begin to think and wonder if you ever thought about things before!

What was I thinking of when I asked people to use ‘sandwich technique’ for feedback years ago?! Praise first, Criticise again, End with Praise. Who was I kidding when I asked people to not focus on the person, but focus on the behaviour. That keeps it specific and makes a person less defensive, I said. Both are specific suggestions, much lauded. Both reduce things to a formula. And formulas and human interaction; never have the twain met!

What is wrong with the ‘sandwich technique’? 

As a feedback recipient, do you consider yourself a thinking person, someone who observes, learns and predicts? If you do, you know soon enough that here is a practiced technique on its way. Mechanical, contrived, and utterly predictable. And once you know what’s coming, you stop listening. I can very well imagine two smart subordinates playing dumb in front of a know-it-all manager. The boss starts off saying something good, and the subordinates accurately predict that the sting is on its way. Hell, they can even predict what it is.

Not too long after, they stop listening to the good things – the praise at the beginning and the end. In fact, it becomes hollow and loses its positive energy. And without the positive energy, the criticism becomes worse than it is. Now, what is true ( something was wrong and worth talking about) has been mixed up with what is sham ( the sleight of hand trick, the deception). And eventually, they stop listening in the middle as well. The manager starts a sham and the subordinates dutifully play along.

What is wrong with focussing on the behaviour, and not the person?

Organizations try to have it both ways.

On one hand, organizations want people to be open to a detached look at their own behaviour. That is where the prescription comes from. Can I look beyond myself as a person and focus on my behaviour, not mixing the two? I will be more objective and focus on the merits of the situation, the case. My focus on myself as a person distorts my perception and clouds my understanding. Let us free ourselves of the “I” and see things for what they are.

On the other hand, organizations strive to make people identify with the organization, its mission and values, everything that the organization stands for. This intense quest strengthens the concept of identity, feeds into the concept of a person. Can I proudly proclaim that I work for this great company, and justly identify with my work as a fruit of my labour and my effort, all that I stand for? It is only when I make the connection between my contribution, my identity and my organization that I will be an engaged and committed employee.

Recognize the inherent contradiction?

We are encouraged to become someone as a part of working for an organization. And when things don’t work out, we are asked to dissociate from what we are during the time of feedback. No wonder, people bristle inside when their manager denies their very personhood and clinically talks about the task, the problem, and the solution. If you are rendered invisible as a person, that is a sureshot way to be made to feel like a cog in the wheel. Do you want me to be involved at work, put my soul into it? I will breathe my life into it. But don’t treat it as a impersonal object, a thing, when things go wrong. You are sucking the life out of my work when you do that!

Feedback is about being present in the moment; being alive and sensitive to both- who we are, who the other person is, and what is happening to both of us in the moment.

Anything that takes us away from this essence is management that makes it difficult for people to work. Drucker is special.




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