Performance feedback: does “tough love” really work?

If you think reality television is a waste of time, think again.

While some would say that it’s the detritus of the entertainment industry, there’s one area in which it generally excels – in the quantity and quality of its feedback conversations.

The ability to give effective feedback is an essential leadership skill and, in our experience, one of the most underdeveloped and undervalued organisational capabilities.

One study suggests that the provision of useful feedback could boost productivity by 16%. The same study states that two-thirds of the employees involved in their study reported receiving little or no useful feedback.

The trouble is, feedback conversations aren’t easy. Many people are genuinely confused about how to deliver feedback effectively.

So what can reality television teach us about how to give feedback more effectively?

Praise vs provocation

Two contrasting approaches to feedback were highlighted recently in the so-called “feud” between pop singers Delta Goodrem and Jessie J on Channel Nine’s The Voice.

The Voice is similar to other singing or talent contests in that the judges provide feedback to the contestants after each performance. The difference is that the judges on The Voice are also enrolled as coaches. After their initial audition, the contestants have an opportunity to choose which coach they want to work with. This quirk in the format enables us to gain some insight into the immediate relational impact of various coaching styles on the contestants.

But before we get into that, it’s important to distinguish between three types of feedback – appreciation, coaching and evaluation.

Three purposes of feedback

Three Purposes of Feedback

This model, proposed by Harvard’s Roger Fisher and Alan Brown in Getting It Done, identifies three distinct purposes for feedback and provides clear and powerful guidance about how workplace feedback (or any feedback) should be delivered.

  • Appreciation refers to gratitude or approval and is designed meet the emotional needs of the subject. Whether it is MasterChef’s Gary Mehigan swooning over a perfectly-baked raspberry and white chocolate tart, or The Voice’s Ricky Martin talking about how a performance gave him goosebumps, appreciation is critical for building self-esteem and enhancing motivation. Delivered with authenticity, it can also pave the way for more effective coaching and evaluation.
  • Coaching (or advice) focuses on performance and suggests how particular behaviour should be repeated (‘Working Well’ feedback) or changed (‘Do Differently’ feedback). It should be timely and relevant to the subject’s performance goals.
  • Evaluation is simply a decision-making mechanism. In the workplace, it’s the annual performance review that may lead to salary increases or bonus payments. In the world of reality television, it’s the ranking and elimination process by which contestants are ejected from the show.

In the workplace and on television, a balanced mix of the three types of feedback is essential for healthy relationships, effective performance and meaningful progress to occur.

The feedback model in action

In studying feedback, the stark contrast between Delta Goodrem’s and Jessie J’s coaching styles is very instructive.

During the initial auditions, Delta Goodrem is extremely liberal with her appreciation. She showers the contestants with praise, even (and perhaps especially) when their audition is unsuccessful. She tells an unsuccessful couple, “In my opinion you did a brilliant job… I enjoyed it and I just want to say I was entertained, and it was beautiful.”

On the other hand, Jessie J tends to focus more on coaching – especially ‘Do Differently’ coaching. She says to one contestant: “I think you need lessons, and I feel like you deserve tough love, nothing sugar coated. But I can help you vocally.” In delivering that feedback, many would describe her communication style as direct – perhaps even harsh.

This divergence in approach leads to a degree of frustration and noticeable friction between the two coaches.

So which approach is better?

From a holistic perspective, both approaches are important and necessary. But context is also important.

On the one hand, Delta Goodrem’s nurturing style of feedback is important for motivation and morale. It helps to ease the emotional tension for those who have just auditioned in front of hundreds of people live and 1.5 million+ people on air. This is especially important when you consider that some of the contestants are still teenagers. But her praise does little to help those who genuinely need guidance on how they could improve.

The workplace equivalent of this is the manager who smiles enthusiastically and tells their staff that they’re a “real asset” to the team, but that’s it. Their staff are either blissfully ignorant of their own incompetence or frustrated at the lack of forward momentum in their skills development (and career).

On the other hand, Jessie J’s focus on coaching, coupled with her more abrasive communication style, carries a real risk that the contestant might become defensive and reject the feedback altogether. But it also gives them something to work on – or towards. And Jessie J’s honesty and sense of purpose seems to engender greater trust and respect. Anecdotally, it seemed that she was more successful in recruiting contestants to join her team.

Jessie J equates to the manager who tells it like it is, with a large dose of compassion and constructive intent. Initially, it may be uncomfortable to receive the feedback, but the conversation builds trust and creates an opportunity for genuine learning and growth. Over the course of my career, the managers I remember most fondly are those that pushed me to be better than I thought I could be.


Putting it into practice 

Feedback conversations aren’t easy. But one way to become more effective at delivering feedback is to observe and analyse those who give feedback professionally. In doing so, consider the following:

  1. What is their purpose? Are they trying to motivate (appreciation)? Are they providing advice on what’s working well or what could be done differently (coaching)? Or are they making a decision based on performance (evaluation)?
  2. In terms of their communication style, what is their impact? Do you think that impact is what they intended?
  3. How do they engage the person receiving the feedback in the conversation? Is it a one-way conversation or is there room for dialogue?

One of my favourite examples of coaching comes from My Kitchen Rules. When a contestant was struggling with her runny soufflé batter, chef and restaurateur Colin Fassnidge could simply have told her how to fix it – but he didn’t. Instead, he asked her questions to stimulate her own thinking, along the lines of: “What’s wrong with your batter? It’s too runny? Okay, so what do you need to do to make it less runny?” With a series of simple questions, he forced the contestant to think for herself rather than rely on him – and it’s almost guaranteed that she’ll never leave the flour out of her soufflé again.

So now you have a legitimate excuse for watching reality television. Put your feet up one evening. You might learn something!

To learn more about giving and/or receiving feedback, you can read, Thanks for the Feedback

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