The Point of Feedback is Understanding


It seems obvi­ous does­n’t it — the rea­son we take the time to have tough con­ver­sa­tions with one anoth­er is to cre­ate bet­ter under­stand­ing. With that new under­stand­ing in place the oth­er per­son can then choose to grow into bet­ter ways of mov­ing in the world. He or she may choose, for exam­ple, to become more assertive or more sen­si­tive, more order­ly or less rigid as a leader, alter­ing bad habits or learn­ing new ones.

Some­times, in a par­tic­u­lar­ly mean­ing­ful way, that tough con­ver­sa­tion also leads to a rela­tion­ship between peo­ple being renewed. This is like­ly if the con­ver­sa­tion becomes tru­ly a two-way street. It is won­der­ful when this hap­pens and it’s not uncom­mon in my work to wit­ness peo­ple reach­ing out to one anoth­er in exact­ly this way. What starts as one per­son tak­ing the risk to offer feed­back ends up as two peo­ple learn­ing from each other.

Yet, too often, we don’t actu­al­ly use feed­back or believe in it in this way. Instead, we act as if the whole point of giv­ing anoth­er per­son feed­back is for that oth­er per­son, for a you out there, an “Oth­er” on the far side of some inter­per­son­al wall, to change. Espe­cial­ly when there is mis­trust or peo­ple have hurt one anoth­er; espe­cial­ly when there are blind spots or offens­es where peo­ple’s fun­da­men­tal sense of dig­ni­ty has been threatened.

Yes, there are sure­ly times when feed­back does rep­re­sent a legit­i­mate demand (not just an invi­ta­tion) for an imme­di­ate behav­ior change — obnox­ious, sex­ist or racist con­duct, for exam­ple. But I also think we may have grown a lit­tle abso­lutist, a lit­tle con­fused and maybe a lit­tle holi­er than thou that this is what all feed­back is about: action and imme­di­ate­ly changed behav­ior, instant­ly vis­i­ble shifts in con­duct or per­for­mance. If so, then we have set our­selves up for feed­back to become a very dimin­ished tool. “There, I gave you the feed­back, now use it!” is not like­ly to get any of us very far, par­tic­u­lar­ly when real­is­ti­cal­ly prob­lems between peo­ple are com­plex and nuanced.

Too often it’s as if because I took the risk to speak up to you, you owe me adjust­ed behav­ior. I may say to myself (and you), “feed­back is a gift,” but I treat it as an offer you real­ly can’t refuse and if I don’t see the shift I want quick­ly enough I give myself per­mis­sion to give up on you, to dis­tance myself from you and in the extreme, to hate you or fire you or in some oth­er way get you out of my way. This is already a mis­trust­ful, sus­pi­cious, dis­as­trous fram­ing of feed­back. While there are cer­tain­ly times when giv­ing up is an appro­pri­ate, san­i­ty-pre­serv­ing reac­tion, I say let’s not get there too fast and let’s not assume that any feed­back needs to be brit­tle in order to be effective.

It takes patience and gen­tle forth­right­ness to con­sid­er the per­son and to speak in a way that active­ly cre­ates under­stand­ing. Often this is about the why under the feed­back — not the why, as a hypoth­e­sis, about the rea­sons the oth­er per­son is act­ing as they do but why the oth­er per­son­’s behav­ior caus­es such pain or frus­tra­tion for oth­ers, includ­ing you. The per­son may not see any­thing like an alter­na­tive to the way they’ve oper­at­ed, or may have for many rea­sons been oper­at­ing blind­ly and unconsciously.

If under­stand­ing can be cre­at­ed, it’s like light­ing a can­dle — maybe a dim one, but a can­dle nev­er­the­less, and it’s a frag­ile thing. You may not see change right away, but even­tu­al­ly a per­son­’s eyes will adjust to the light. You might have to relight that can­dle many times. You might have to be very car­ing and very direct about the issues involved but if under­stand­ing is the goal then you have offered not only infor­ma­tion but also real dig­ni­ty to the oth­er per­son. You have trust­ed them to learn. You’ve affirmed what’s human on both sides of the equa­tion. Is there a fin­er form of respect?


We are addict­ed, I believe, to the notion that if behav­ior changes then the mind will even­tu­al­ly catch up. This view even seems super­fi­cial­ly to cor­re­spond to neu­ro­science. Behave dif­fer­ent­ly and neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty takes over. New rou­tines are acquired by act­ing “as if.”

For instance, Joe takes a 360 review and it says he should rec­og­nize and com­pli­ment oth­ers. The the­o­ry is that, indeed, if he does so Joe will even­tu­al­ly learn to val­ue oth­ers more. But you see the prob­lem here, I’m sure. Joe can com­ply behav­ioral­ly and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sup­press his feel­ings so that he does not actu­al­ly learn. Instead he ends up com­plain­ing behind the scenes about Mil­len­ni­als “need­ing strokes all the time” rather than actu­al­ly reflect­ing on him­self and his own behavior.

If the fix is always action first, we doom our­selves to a kind of incom­pe­tence, because we are pre­tend­ing the inner world of the oth­er per­son does not even exist or does­n’t count for much of anything.

But under­stand­ing, deep under­stand­ing between peo­ple, does count — I’d argue it always counts, and no mat­ter what the con­text, the stuff that goes on at work, the stuff at home, the stuff we see and feel in soci­ety at large.

A bet­ter way is to offer the feed­back, the pat­terns of strengths and weak­ness­es, if you will, but then instead of focus­ing imme­di­ate­ly on what the per­son needs to do and on cre­at­ing some kind of action plan or “check­list,” focus on the deep­er ques­tions for both of you: “What are we learn­ing?” and “What would you like to learn about in light of this feed­back? Here’s what I want to learn.” And “How can I be of sup­port to you?” But even here, while this for­mu­la is intu­itive, it can sound like a patron­iz­ing reduc­tion of some kind rather than an enrich­ment, and you’ll have to be smart about such things as tone and tim­ing and con­text and using your own heart­felt words so that you tru­ly cre­ate a dialogue.

With­out such an approach, at best I believe you are invit­ing pret­ty much a sin­gle loop pre­scrip­tion for some­body else’s changes, and my pre­dic­tion is you’ll be quite dis­ap­point­ed by the results.


RSS and email sub­scrip­tion, occa­sion­al Unfold­ing Lead­er­ship newslet­ter, search and oth­er func­tions may be found at the “Fur­ther Infor­ma­tion” tab at the bot­tom of the front page.

Pin­ter­est users, you can pin pic­tures from this weblog via this Board.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.