Every effective leader and coach knows that there’s no moment more important than the moment feedback is delivered. When you perform this important process correctly, the learner takes a step forward. Do it poorly, and the reverse happens.
Daniel Coyle asks this great question, “What’s the secret of great feedback?” Coyle says “we instinctively think that effective feedback is about the quality of the information — telling the learner to do this and not that. But is this true, or is there something else going on?”
Leading psychologists from leading institutions including Stanford, Yale and Columbia addressed this same question. They had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing assignment to their students, after which students were given different types of teacher feedback.
To their utter astonishment, researchers discovered that there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they considered it “magical.” Students who received this feedback chose to revise their paper far more often that students who did not (a 40 percent increase among white students; 320 percent boost among black students) and improved their performance significantly.
What was the magical feedback?
Just one sentence:
I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.
That’s it. Simple, 19 words. Not only this is great feedback, but a signal that creates something more powerful: a sense of belonging and connection. Growing up as a child who had ADHD, I remember how my mom consistently used this type of feedback. Though I didn’t believe it on the outset, her constant reminders helped me change my belief culminating into a transformation of behavior and achievement of goals that seemed rather impossible at that time. (Read more on the fascinating study of Pygmalion effect HERE)
Looking closer, the sentence contains several distinct signals:
- 1) You are part of this group.
- 2) This group is special; we have higher standards here.
- 3) I believe you can reach those standards.
I love how Coyle follows up with these insights:
“The key is to understand that this feedback isn’t just feedback — it’s a vital cue about the relationship. The reason this works so well has to do with the way our brains are built. But when we receive an authentic, crystal-clear signal of social trust, belonging, and high expectations, the floodgates click open.”
Coyle offers three, relevant lessons for leaders and coaches based on this finding:
- First, connect: like John Wooden said, they can’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
- Highlight the group: seek ways (traditions, mantras, fun little rituals) to show what it means to belong in your crew.
- Don’t soft-pedal high standards. Don’t pretend that it’s easy — do the opposite. Emphasize the toughness of the task, and your belief that they have what it takes.