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Giving feedback that works

Most managers dread giving feedback. Offering a blend of praise and criticism is supposed to help your team members do more of what they’re good at and improve in areas where they’ve missed the mark. But research shows it rarely works that way. In her book How to Change, Wharton professor Katy Milkman shares a different idea: work to build people’s confidence if you want them to achieve a goal. In Virgil’s words from around 20 BCE, “they can because they think they can.”

Scientists like Alia Crum, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, have shown that we can create expectations about what will happen, and that in turn can influence what actually happens in four key ways. First, our beliefs can change our emotions. Positive expectations often generate positive feelings, which have a host of physiological benefits such as alleviating stress and reducing blood pressure. And that can make a big difference in what happens next. Our beliefs can also redirect our attention, keeping us focused on our goal instead of on minor setbacks and inconveniences along the way. There is also evidence that beliefs can improve motivation and even affect our physiology.

On the other hand, research confirms that when we don’t believe we have the capacity to change, we don’t make as much progress changing. That belief can be reinforced when a manager offers what they perceive to be helpful advice on what’s going wrong and how to fix it; that helpful advice may inadvertently be perceived as criticism that could weaken confidence.

Whatever goals you and your team are working toward, success may depend in part on how much you believe in your ability to achieve them. The three Action Steps below can help you become a confidence builder, unleashing the potential of each of your team members.

Ask for advice. Research by Northwestern University Assistant Professor of Management Lauren Eskreis-Winkler suggests that when managers ask for a team member’s advice instead of offering their own, they convey confidence and trust in the team member and their abilities. That then leads them to feel more motivated than when they were given the very same caliber of advice. Even on the spot, with no time to think hard about it, people are capable of producing useful insights about how to better tackle the same goals they themselves struggle with, and the act of giving advice has been proven to improve the advice-giver’s own performance.

Place underperforming employees into mentoring roles. It might seem counterintuitive, but it could boost their lagging performance. It’s no accident that well-regarded programmes that are designed to help us achieve lasting change, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), encourage members to mentor one another. People in AA get another AA member as a “sponsor” when they sign up, but the sponsor isn’t just there to help a mentee stay sober. Becoming a sponsor may help you by boosting your self-confidence. Not only that, thinking deeply about the best way to succeed at a goal so that you can offer guidance and being accountable to someone else should also strengthen your own commitment. Mentoring programmes in companies and schools serve this dual purpose, too, whether or not they were designed with these additional benefits in mind.

Model a growth mindset, and teach others to adopt one. People with a growth mindset recognise that abilities, including intelligence, are not fixed and that effort has a profound effect on a person’s potential. Adopting a growth mindset boosts confidence and helps you bounce back from setbacks.

How leaders use it

Mike Mangini, lead drummer for world-famous heavy metal band Dream Theater, says he developed the confidence he needed to rise to stardom through requests for assistance from other drummers. Mangini spent the 1980s as a software engineer, practicing incessantly on the drums at night and on the weekends, daydreaming of a big career in music with little hope of achieving his goal. Then, drummers in a shared practice space unexpectedly began asking him to give them lessons. Their requests gave Mangini a newfound confidence. If so many people thought he had a special talent, maybe he did. Mangini quit his day job and devoted himself full time to drumming. Today, he’s one of the best-known drummers in the business. He attributes his success, in no small part, to being asked to give other people advice.

Max Bazerman, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, has won numerous awards for mentoring. The secret to his success is three-fold. First, he offers clear, direct advice sparingly, and only when prompted. More often, he provides students with chances to share their own suggestions. Second, Bazerman also strongly encourages his more senior mentees to work on research with his newest advisees, which helps the advanced doctoral students just as much as the newcomers. Third, he has an unshakable faith that each student he advises has remarkable talents, ranging “from very smart to spectacular.” As Bazerman’s students confront the challenges that are inevitable in any competitive career, they rarely grapple with the kind of doubt that plagues most who pursue a PhD - because of Bazerman’s confidence in them.

Pete Carroll, one of only three coaches to have won both a Super Bowl and a College Football National Championship, is widely admired for the confidence he has in his Seattle Seahawks players to work hard and get better. He studied performance psychology early in his career, and he puts a strong emphasis on players’ development. It begins with an investment that’s highly visible to players: a department of specialists concerned with their health and performance, including a life skills consultant/addiction counselor and a high-performance sports psychologist. Carroll also champions positive energy - players are expected to leave negativity in the locker room and are celebrated by their coaches for every achievement, even during practice. Players are expected to do the same for each other - blaming is not an option.

Adapted from 'How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be', by Katy Milkman; foreword by Angela Duckworth, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Katherine L. Milkman, 2021.

Useful resources:
Knowledge@Wharton
Knowledge@Wharton is the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
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