CareersLessons on Leadership

Two Things you Must Know When Framing Feedback

By Jacquelyn Adams

“It is impossible to offer an unbiased choice. Based on external factors, one phrasing is always more compelling than another, even something as simple as asking someone if they prefer the red or blue pen is not the same as asking them if they prefer the blue or red pen.”

Suddenly, I feel myself thrown into a whole new matrix, and wonder if Morpheus had offered the blue pill or the red pill (instead of the red pill or the blue pill), would it have all turned out differently?

With the weight of this awareness on his shoulders, Jordan Birnbaum delves into human behavior and how we can effectively and ethically provide feedback. As a behavioral economist, by way of organizational psychology, Jordan’s role is to infuse ADP products and communications with an understanding of how people actually behave, as opposed to how we wish they’d behave. He does this by mapping out the biases and heuristics that affect peoples’ perceptions and subsequent decisions. His work in creating the award-winning leadership development tool Compass is specifically focused on how the framing of feedback affects the intrinsic motivation to develop, based upon it. So here are some tips from the pro:

It’s not you; it’s them

Birnbaum explained that the idiosyncratic rater effect makes any feedback complicated. This principle states that more than 60% of feedback is attributable to the feedback provider, rather than the recipient. Yup… that’s right, more than 60%. If that doesn’t make you re-evaluate your last workplace review, nothing will.

With this in mind, Birnbaum tells leaders receiving feedback from their direct reports, “This is not an accurate and objective measure of your performance. It actually tells us more about your team than you. If you have a low score in recognition, it means that your team has a high need in that category. If you had a different team, then most likely your low score would be in a different category. But if you want to do the one thing that will have the greatest impact on the motivation and engagement of this team that you are currently leading, then increasing recognition would be the most effective.”

Not only is this the most accurate way to frame the feedback, but it also makes the recipient more receptive. Instead of feeling defensive about being a “bad leader,” the recipient receives amazing insight into what is needed to most effectively lead their current team. The door is open for coaching and improvement. In this way, the most accurate depiction of the results ends up being the most effective.


Avoid damage control

We went on to discuss two types of feedback — evaluative and developmental — and Birnbaum stressed the importance of keeping these two types separate. This is because confidentiality is key for a recipient to be open to the growth that can come from developmental feedback. If the recipient is concerned about their boss or HR reading the review, then, instead of focusing on an opportunity for growth, they will approach it from a place of fear and be compelled to do impression management. The fear of ramifications or lost opportunities will serve as a distraction and create a need to discredit the feedback. Their attention and energy will go into pleading the case that it’s out of context or came from a disgruntled employee, rather than stopping to really consider and digest the feedback. By sharing the feedback with a boss or HR, it is almost guaranteed that the opportunity for personal growth and development will be lost.

Honestly, I was amazed with how concisely Birnbaum offered up this one-two punch. Both points were completely logical once considered, but how many of us really stopped to consider them before? My time with him served as another clear example of the value, not just in what we say, but also how intentional we are with the words we use to deliver the message.

Do we really do people any good by telling them the truth if we don’t do it in a way that helps them to change? Again, we can all hear the difference between “You scored very poorly on communication” versus “Your team has a higher need for communication.” The words we choose make a difference, and, while it’s all the rage right now, we can’t just blame those around us for being close-minded.

In the same vein, I could end this article by saying, “Think of all the opportunities that could be available to you if you take advantage of Birnbaum’s advice.” Or I could say, “Think of the opportunities you will miss if you don’t take advantage of Birnbaum’s advice.” But thanks to a principle called loss aversion, I now know that people are twice as motivated to avoid losses as they are to secure gains.

So, let me share this in a way that leans into your natural motivation; please, consider these insights and don’t miss out on opportunities.

Now the choice is yours.


Jacquelyn Adams is a career development enthusiast and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, delving into more effective employee training strategies… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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