People Don’t Want Feedback, They Want Attention And Support

It is widely believed that employees need and even want regular feedback and assessment of their performance so they know how they are doing. The thinking goes along the lines that if you don’t get feedback, you don’t know what to improve, and so you can’t improve. If you don’t improve, you won’t grow. Sounds logical. Unfortunately, deep down, humans are not that logical. Emotions and evolutionary biology come to play.

I believe in candid feedback and am a big proponent of Kim Scott’s radical candor. At least in some situations and in Western society. What makes this tricky is our skewed view of ourselves and our surroundings. A bias called fundamental attribution error essentially causes us to see ourselves more positively than others. We attribute our successes to our brilliance and our failures to the environment. When looking at others, we have the exact opposite view. We attribute their accomplishments to the environment and their failures to their personalities and lack of abilities. This then leads us to provide feedback that is often off the mark.

Let’s say someone is late for a meeting with you. As you are waiting, you will come up with a story of why that happened. In your mind, the person you are waiting for becomes someone who is always late and doesn’t respect you and your precious time. So when they finally show up, you are annoyed, and you provide them feedback that they need to show more respect and plan better next time. You ignore and don’t even want to know the fact that they just drove their spouse to a hospital, so that is why they are late. If you were in their shoes, you would be much more understanding that it wasn’t your fault that you came late because of the hospital situation.

People don’t want feedback, they want your support and attention

Have you ever wondered why most social networks have a “like” button but don’t have a “dislike” button? Truth be told, people don’t want to hear feedback. Especially unsolicited one. It is nice to hear praise, but most people dread any negative or developmental feedback. We want to create a positive self-image and like to see others appreciating us. When posting on social media, we want attention, not feedback.

“We want attention, not negative feedback. Positive attention is very powerful in creating high-performing teams as it removes the anxiety negative feedback brings.”

This also applies to the workplace. Employees want the manager’s attention and support. That is what they will respond to. If the manager shows that he or she cares about you and your experience in the team, you will be more motivated and will work better. You don’t need to hear direct feedback that your performance sucks to improve it. Chances are you are well aware you didn’t do particularly well. Positive attention is much more powerful in creating high-performing teams as it removes the anxiety negative feedback brings and focuses attention on more productive things.

In their book Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall describe how the intense emotions we experience when receiving negative feedback trigger our fight-or-flight response. This, in turn, narrows our focus. Negative feedback doesn’t enable better learning. It systematically inhibits it.

No point in giving feedback when correcting entrenched beliefs

Florian Zimmermann looked into how motivated beliefs are sustained in the presence of feedback. Simply put, how do we keep up our motivation when someone gives us feedback? The results showed that “positive feedback has a persistent effect on beliefs. Negative feedback, instead, influences beliefs in the short-run, but this effect fades over time.” In other words, when presented with negative feedback, we get rattled by it temporarily, but then our self-deception kicks in, and over time we suppress the feedback and get our previous level of confidence. This means that feedback is ineffective in correcting misperceptions and entrenched incorrect beliefs.

Focus on strengths and future to maximize the impact

I’m not saying feedback is all bad. It is just a question of what type of feedback you are giving. If you focus on helping the person improve something, they are already pretty good, if you focus on their strengths and help them get every day a bit better if it is something they asked for, feedback is good. This type of feedback is a necessary part of deliberate practice, as first described by Anders Ericsson. This is also being supported by neurological science as it is the frequently used areas of the brain that are the readiest to build additional synapses. It is the area of strength that can be grown most.

As opposed to negative feedback about past performance, there is forward-looking, positive attention. This is how coaching works. You don’t dissect your past. You focus on your future and on what you want to achieve. You start positive and talk about what steps to take and what to do differently. This prevents any fight or flight response from your nervous system and leads to better learning and growth.

People want to know how they are doing in areas they care about. While I may not be thrilled when you give me unsolicited feedback about how I dress, I may want to know how I can improve my listening skills, as that is the area I care about.

As Daniel Pink wrote in his bestselling book Drive, intrinsic motivation comes from three sources: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I would combine it with the concept introduced by Patrick Lencioni in The Truth About Employee Engagement. He proposes that the keys to employee engagement come in the form of people understanding their relevance (how they impact the lives of others), measurement (so they know whether they do a good job), and the opposite of anonymity, let’s call it visibility (whether they feel that others know who they are).

“We want to get feedback if it helps us achieve mastery. And we want to get it from people who care about us and give us attention.”

All of this indicates that people want to get feedback if it helps them achieve mastery. The only way of achieving mastery is through measurement, understanding how you are doing and what areas to improve. People want to get that type of feedback. They want to get it from people who care about them and who give them not only feedback but also attention.

Recognition and praise

Recognition and praise are not the same, even though they are being treated similarly in a corporate environment. Recognition, at its core, is about seeing something in other people, recognizing it, and asking about it. It is an effort to learn about them and let the other person know that you care and want to learn. It is about understanding who that person is when he or she does their best work. It is a very powerful way to make others feel valued and motivated to keep improving.

“By recognizing others, you let them know what moment of excellence you saw and how it made you feel. You let them know how their uniqueness impacts the world.”

Praise is just a statement of past achievement and doesn’t necessarily create an opportunity for more such moments in the future.

By recognizing others, you let them know what moment of excellence you saw and how it made you feel. You let them know how their uniqueness impacts the world. You are not trying to rate them or categorize them. You talk from the heart about how their performance impacted you at this very moment. You give them attention.

Putting it all together

Direct feedback still has a place. When someone messes up, they should know what they did wrong. But make no mistake. They don’t want to hear it. And it won’t help them to get better in the future. It won’t lead to excellence.

If you genuinely want to help someone, give them attention and support. Show them that you care, help them to identify their strengths, and use the attention they desire to help them achieve mastery in things they care about.

What are your thoughts on the topic? What sort of feedback and under what circumstances is useful? Do you prefer to work on your strengths or your weaknesses? Do you need feedback from others to grow?

Photo: colormesunny /

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Categories: Leadership

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