Actionable feedback lessons from John Wooden

How to give feedback is a pretty big business topic that we don’t often seem to discuss. Hell, so is feedback in general. I’m a pretty big fan of the whole idea of ‘feedback’ and ‘giving feedback’ and feel like the concept should be a business advantage to most people, but unfortunately it’s not — and here’s the visual to help you understand that:

Here’s the actual problem: a lot of managers don’t actually like talking to their employees — it feels awkward or uncomfortable for them. That makes sense largely because of how we’ve come to approach management — namely the whole deal where you absolutely, positively cannot be friends with people who work for you. (That’s actually just 1 of about 12 different types of horrible bosses you can have, FYI.)

What if you reduce the awkwardness and make the process of how to give feedback a little bit easier to handle? Maybe you can.

How to give feedback: The John Wooden study

John Wooden was a pretty successful guy at the job he chose. He won nine NCAA Titles, and his teams won 88 games in a row at one point. Well, in the late 1970s two psychologists studied him in an effort to learn more about the psychology behind his success. Here’s what they did, alright? They analyzed over 2,300 of his instructional acts. Here’s the breakdown: 

  • 6.7% were compliments
  • 6.6% were expressions of displeasure
  • 75%+ were information-conveying

See the difference in numbers there? It was overwhelmingly about providing information. You can argue Wooden is the most successful coach in any sport, ever. The breakdown of how to give feedback from this study? Make it about information.

As Fast Company summarizes from that study:

Feedback has an assumed intrinsic benefit: It’s supposed to help us know how we’re doing. But what matters is content of the feedback we’re getting. Rather than praise or criticize the “what,” truly constructive feedback focuses on the “how.” It provides tactical knowledge on ways to improve what you do and how you do it. Without that information, we lack the resources for getting past our “OK plateaus.”

We’re getting a bit confused here, because if you’re a big future of work/leadership/read the business publications guy or gal, you might know Simon Sinek and his whole “start with why” deal. But this is talking about “what” and “how.” GAHHHH!!! What do we do?!?!?

How to give feedback: The problems

This whole “providing information” angle is interesting, because it kind of underscores a problem we have in society in general: we assume everything is all about relationships (and to a certain extent, it is), but in reality most of everything — sales, sex, work, etc. — are about exchanging information. Information drives decision-making and process adjustment, right? So any good process on how to give feedback has to involve information, no?

Here’s the problem, of course: most managers yelp and bellow about “accountability,” which in their mind is just a synonym for scaring someone. And when they do give praise, it tends to be extremely generic — “Good job, Dave!” — which does nothing to advance any cause, context, or process. You see the same shit in the ol’ annual performance review process: a boss walks in looking to go full ‘compliment sandwich’ on you, and the negative part always involves some garbage from six months prior that could have been addressed closer to the point of incident if the boss had any clue how to give feedback.

And of course, here’s the final problem: if a shitty middle manager read this Wooden data and said “Oh, OK, I need to provide more information?” The first thing they would try to do then is micromanage. This is kind of a key difference between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ here: leaders understand that the focus should be on the goal; try to advocate for their way to the goal. That’s where this idea of how to give feedback kinda dies, because “information” to many managers just means “tell them exactly how you’d do it, and thus, how it should be done.” It’s always fun to hit goals for a manager and be told you did it wrong, even though the goal was achieved. “Well see, what I woulda done is…”

How to give feedback: Ways to make it better

Start with the Wooden research above. He was very successful — and yes, coaching basketball is different than, say, running a widgets company — and he rooted his process of how to give feedback in information as opposed to praise, disdain, or something else. He focused on the “how” and helping people understand the process and goals. As a result, he won a bunch of championships.

This could be helpful to some managers who feel awkward about feedback sessions, because now it’s less about the relationship — “Oh God, I can’t praise Jenny, we’re not friends! I’m her supervisor!” — and more about providing the context and information for how to be successful at whatever the set of tasks is. Managers typically love to screech about process anyway, and focusing on the “how” allows them to really build up that process element more. Get that process in place, Steve! Hit those targets!

So that’s the rub: how to give feedback is all about the first word of the deal. How. You’re aiming to address the how, not necessarily the why or the what (although those need to be addressed as well). It’s all about information.

Any other ideas on how to give feedback successfully?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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