The value of feedback as a leadership tool

Am I good enough

By Jon Musgrave

Imagine how difficult even the most routine activities would be if we suddenly never received any feedback. Take going for a walk, for example. Even before you step outside, you are responding to sensory feedback. If the clouds look a little ominous, then you might decide to wear something rainproof or grab an umbrella as you leave. As you walk, you are responding to feedback without necessarily being aware of it. You can sense when the ground beneath your feet is uneven or “squelchy” or when you are climbing an incline or descending a slope, and your posture and effort adjust accordingly.

The human body is an exquisitely tuned feedback machine, continually refining its operations in the world based on the streams of information that ceaselessly pour in. If this all stopped, then your body would cease to function with potentially catastrophic implications for your ongoing survival. What is true of the human body is equally true of human organisations: if poor or malfunctioning feedback systems are in place, then you can be sure that poor or disastrous outcomes will follow.

The elephant slide: how poor feedback leads to bad products

Frost Valley YMCA Chief Marketing Officer Amanda Hinski recently supplied a vivid example of failures in feedback to Forbes magazine. She keeps a photo of a children’s playground slide in the shape of an elephant on the wall of her office. However, the design is deeply unfortunate. Children climb some steps to enter the slide through the elephant’s mouth. After walking through its body, they slide down a tube coming out of its backside.

What has this got to do with feedback? As Hinski puts it: “At some point, someone involved in producing the slide must have thought, ‘This is a dreadful design.’ But either 1. they didn’t speak up, or 2. their leader wasn’t open to feedback. Consequently, everyone kept their noses down and did what was necessary to build this unfortunate slide.”

The picture has had an impact on Hinski’s team. During brainstorming sessions, team members will occasionally say: “Okay, wait. I think we’re building an elephant slide.” The picture has become a metaphor and mentioning the metaphor in this way generates ideas about what is going wrong and how restructuring needs to take place.

The art of cultivating feedback loops by leadership example

Businesses depend for their survival and growth on feedback about processes or concepts that are going wrong. It is everyone’s responsibility to participate in this process, but leaders have a pivotal role to play in creating an effective feedback culture and developing the interpersonal feedback loops upon which success relies. The first step in creating effective feedback cultures is for leaders to demonstrate that they can not only give clear feedback but can also receive it graciously.

When team members observe a leader taking feedback objectively and openly without getting defensive, even if the comments seem misdirected or misinformed, they learn that feedback is inestimably valuable in all their efforts to improve.

Leaders who express appreciation and interest in the “feedbacker’s” unsolicited view rather than reacting egotistically can use civility and curiosity to correct the wrong feedback. Getting angry or acting hurt can have the unwelcome effect of deterring others from giving feedback when it is essential that they do so. For example, they may have doubts about how a project is going or may have spotted an error.

When a leader not only encourages but also receives unsolicited feedback with gratitude and curiosity, it helps build closer, more trusting relationships throughout the team. It is always possible, indeed necessary, to disagree and put forward reasons for a different take on the issue, just as it is possible and necessary to speak up when you do not understand. The resulting dialogue – the feedback loop – promotes clarification about what the feedback really means and yields valuable insights that a leader might otherwise never have seen.

The perils of poor, ambiguous, defensive feedback

We all suffer from the prevention of feedback. The British philosopher of classical liberalism, John Stuart Mill, understood this when he wrote in his 19th-century magnum opus, On Liberty:

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Teams that demonstrate in their daily conduct a spirit of open-mindedness, civil but truthful exchange and cooperativeness produce better results than teams ruled by anxiousness about getting into trouble, defensive closedness and mutual wariness.

Both teams are giving feedback, as it happens – it is virtually impossible not to. Even when they are sitting together in silence, human beings are still communicating. The first team is giving feedback openly and clearly in written and spoken language. The second team is communicating feedback implicitly, defensively, ambiguously and obscurely. One is productive and open to innovation; the other is unable to innovate because the best innovations tend to be the products of mutually correcting human conversations.

The welcome by-products of good feedback culture

Teams accustomed by their leaders to open feedback tend to be appreciably more motivated to excel and will even freely take part in formal exercises such as feedback surveys to improve their performance. Good feedback that is objective, concise, tactful, practically oriented and behaviourally oriented can also improve performance in people who are struggling.

Few people enjoy criticism, but feedback in the form of a constructive critique of obvious shortcomings followed by mutual brainstorming about remedies can save careers. It would be a dereliction of duty for a leader to let a team member fail for want of giving timely, reparative feedback.

Feedback does not only apply to team members. Businesses that welcome feedback from clients, suppliers and stakeholders gain valuable “grist to the mill” that can feed into improved business decisions and lead to better working relations.

Since we all give feedback all the time anyway, why not harness its power by developing a culture of open exchange and benevolently critical thinking? Your team’s success hinges on it.