Business & Entrepreneurship

Feedback on Personality is Useless, even if Right!

I was looking for an article that lucidly explained why, in a professional setting, giving people feedback on their personality (problems) is not useful (typically to your subordinates, but even to your peers or others). While the advice to avoid bringing in personality in the feedback is almost universal, it is usually buried under “99 things to keep in mind while giving feedback”. There is this one article I found that specifically addresses the issue. It is perhaps an extract from the book Radical Candor. While it covers most important things (read it), the problem is that the examples it employs are too extreme, which may make people feel that they aren’t making the mistake the article describes when they indeed are. Nobody who has cared to search the Internet for “how to give feedback” is likely to be giving feedback like “you are a jerk” to anyone, which is one of the examples in the article. You would have to be a jerk yourself to give feedback like that. But that’s not what giving feedback on personality is like. You can totally not act like a jerk and still give the wrong kind of feedback. I will perhaps be rehashing mostly what has been said in the article, but let me do that with examples that may actually make the point better.

Consider this. There is a salesperson who isn’t doing well. And they are shy. “You are too shy” seems like valid feedback, doesn’t it? Sales is a job where shyness will hamper the work.

But it isn’t useful feedback. Why? There are two possibilities. First is that the person is indeed shy. If they are, they can’t change their personality. So, the feedback is not actionable. The second possibility is that the person isn’t really shy. Their behavior might have something to do with the circumstances. Maybe they feel threatened, maybe they lack confidence. In that case, you have simply given the wrong feedback. At least being called shy is not particularly offensive. But what if you thought someone had an aggressive personality which was coming in the way of their work and gave them that feedback, but you were wrong in assessing their personality. In this case, they will feel misunderstood and unfairly treated, and they would be right.

So, the bottom line is that no good is going to come out of giving someone feedback about their personality. In the best case, you are right. That they have a personality-related problem, but they can’t change their personality. So, you will not get the improvement you had wanted. In the worst case, you are wrong. And have unleashed a different set of managerial problems for yourself. And your feedback is still not actionable as a wrongly-diagnosed personality problem

I would like to emphasize the hard reality of both these problems. First, personality is really not solvable. People don’t change much. Not even for love, much less for work. Even personal relationships that are started in the hope of a partner changing themselves eventually result in disappointments in the best cases, and disasters in the worst.

And the danger of being wrong about personality problems is also pretty high. The reason is called the fundamental attribution error. When it comes to other people, we have a tendency to assume that their behavior reflects their personality, and not the current situation. We would assume that if they are arguing, it’s because they are quarrelsome by nature (and not because they have been provoked or put in a bad situation!) So, even if the behavior you observe could be explained by a personality problem, it need not be because of that.

Given this rather high probability of being wrong about personality, and the uselessness of giving even the correct personality-related feedback, why would you ever want to give feedback like that?

So, what to do if you feel there is a personality problem hampering someone’s performance? You give exactly the same feedback as you would have given if the source of the problem was not their personality. You give feedback on what the problem is (you didn’t meet your sales targets). You can perhaps go a step further and point out the behaviors that are inadequate, or are desired but missing (you did not follow up enough with most of your leads). Perhaps the person is able to act on the feedback and you realize later that personality was not really a problem. Perhaps, despite a personality problem, they are able to solve the specific problem with their conscious effort, or by working around their weaknesses. In which case all is well. And if because of the personality problem or despite not having the personality problem, their issue is not resolved, you take whatever is the next logical step. Perhaps an underperforming salesperson does need to be let go, whether or not they are shy!

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

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