Goodbye, Feedback; Hello, Point-Of-View--Part 1

By Chris Thurber

For nearly two decades, I have touted the advantages of candid, balanced feedback and the benefits of appreciative inquiry, a change-management approach that identifies an individual’s or group’s strengths and uses them to motivate improved performance. In fact, six of my favorite video training modules on ExpertOnlineTraining.com provide coaching on how to deliver effective feedback. Scott Arizala hosts some; I host others. Together, we agree that the best way to hack feedback—no doubt the world’s biggest supervisory challenge—is to sidestep the universal concern about how the other person will react.

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Everybody Asks For It
Wait. How do you “sidestep” every manager’s nightmare that the person to whom you are offering feedback will get upset? That might happen, at first. But Scott and I believe that the most effective organizations thrive by creating a culture where managers do not have to deliver feedback because everyone asks each other for feedback. Routinely. Casually. With a shared commitment to continuous professional development.

Roam around organizations that have reached this cultural apex, and you are likely to hear questions such as:

  • Honestly, how do you think that went?

  • What did I do well and not-so-well in how I handled that?

  • Any thoughts about what you just saw?

  • What ideas do you have for improvement?

Changing from the “manager gives it + employee gets it” model of feedback to the “everybody asks for it” model is one way to transform organizations from stagnant to vibrant. However, it does require the shared commitment to continuous professional development noted above. Everyone up and down the org chart must participate, including supervisors. Because some supervisors and some supervisees are too proud or too lazy to participate in the “everybody asks” cultural transformation, this approach takes vigilance and encouragement.

Too Good To Grow
When it is in place, the “everybody asks for it” model works well, both at improving performance and dissolving anxiety about people’s reactions to unsolicited feedback. In some organizations, however, a stubborn problem remains: Some folks think they can self-assess with great accuracy. Therefore, they believe that feedback is simply not necessary. People may offer them feedback, but they dismiss it—outright or tacitly—creating frustration in co-workers and stagnation in the organization. Most of us have had the displeasure of working with people like these. They may politely listen to criticism, but their behavior does not budge. They are Too Good to Grow.

Given how fraught the situation is, I have often wondered whether feedback is always necessary. Then, last week, while listening to the podcast On Being, I heard Nobel laureate Dr. Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking Fast and Slow) say that feedback is not only helpful, but necessary. Kahneman points out that our self-assessments of our own performance have so many flaws baked in that it’s unhelpful—sometimes even harmful—to rely solely on our opinions of how we’ve done … at pretty much everything … pretty much all the time.

Driven Amok By Emotion
Kahneman is an expert on noise and bias in human thinking, and how both cause us to make irrational (albeit confident) decisions. For example, his research has revealed how high-net-worth individuals often fire their financial advisers after a downturn in the market. With great (yet misguided) confidence, motivated by regret (not an empirical assessment of the financial adviser’s expertise), these rich folks tend to terminate the one person who might be able to sidestep their irrational, emotionally fueled decision-making and ride out market fluctuations to ultimately realize a high return on smart investments.

It is easy to criticize irrational behavior from a distance. Yet imagine a real-life situation of losing $1 million on a single day. We, too, would regret having invested in whatever commodity had lost value. And we, too, would be likely to call up our financial adviser and deliver critical—if not colorful—feedback. According to Kahneman, few of us would hold back on criticizing—perhaps even firing—our adviser after a massive loss. And most of us would not hold back out of a concern for the adviser’s feelings.

In cases like this, we may let our irrational decision-making get the best of us. Perhaps the adviser is reckless and deserves to be fired. However, advisers are likely to be skilled, so firing them will cause us to lose even more money over time. Market fluctuations cannot always be predicted, so a sudden loss of value in our portfolio is probably independent of our financial adviser’s expertise and judgment, both of which have long-term validity. Nevertheless, when we are overcome with emotion and make false assumptions about causality, that is precisely the moment when we need a trusted other to offer us feedback.

Kahneman’s revolutionary research confirms that self-assessment is capricious in emotional moments. We think we know better when we’re angry, sad, or euphoric … but we should not trust ourselves to make wise choices in those fiery moments. Simply put, strong emotions cloud thinking. We need someone we trust to literally talk some sense into us, ideally with a touch of empathy as a prelude.

Trusted Voices
In our investment example, that voice of reason might sound something like this: “I know you must regret this sudden loss of value in your portfolio. But this is temporary, so hang in there. You know that if your financial adviser had been able to predict that market downturn, she would have sold your shares. She didn’t see this one coming, and you both wish she had. But don’t get too angry with her; don’t fire her unless you’re convinced she’s being reckless. She has the expertise you want on your side, especially in the long run.”

So how do these insights into feedback and emotion inform your role as a youth leader? How can the “Everybody Asks For It” model and Kahneman’s research on self-assessment bias transform your management style? I will answer these questions and provide easy-to-follow examples in Part II of “Goodbye, Feedback; Hello, Point-of-View.”

Dr. Christopher Thurber is devoted to educating leaders, using innovative content that stirs thinking and compels action. An entrepreneur from a young age, Chris is the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, the Internet’s most popular library of educational videos for youth leaders. He has been invited to deliver keynotes, contribute articles, and lead workshops at schools and camps on five continents. Learn more about Chris’s books, articles, videos, and in-person workshops by visiting https://DrChrisThurber.com.