Learning Through Feedback

Every great leader knows that every­one in the orga­ni­za­tion — from the top to the bot­tom — must be con­tin­u­ous­ly learn­ing. You can’t keep pace with changes, han­dle crises, adapt to a con­stant­ly evolv­ing work envi­ron­ment, grow as a con­trib­u­tor, or even know what your clients want from you,  if you aren’t con­stant­ly learn­ing. 

Feed­back is an essen­tial com­po­nent to a learn­ing mind­set and a learn­ing cul­ture. Learn­ing about your effec­tive­ness, while some­times uncom­fort­able and hard to take, is essen­tial to grow­ing as a pro­fes­sion­al and as a person.

Our inter­view with Tim Fitz­patrick, retired chief com­mu­ni­ca­tions offi­cer, on this month’s Learn­ing at the Edge  pod­cast, was filled with insights into learn­ing through feed­back and cre­at­ing an orga­ni­za­tion-wide cul­ture of open­ness to learn­ing and change.

“Change and learn­ing are inex­tri­ca­bly inter­twined.  If you want to suc­ceed over the course of a career, you must embrace change,” Tim said. “To do so demands that you embrace con­tin­u­ous learn­ing.” 

A good leader pre­pares his or her team for what­ev­er may lie ahead: divesti­tures, reor­ga­ni­za­tions, upskilling, reskilling, new boss­es, a change in job respon­si­bil­i­ties. Just look at how the pan­dem­ic and the sud­den work-from-home onset hit com­pa­nies: Some were so tak­en aback, they didn’t sur­vive. Oth­ers adapt­ed far bet­ter, because they had some expe­ri­ence with how to adapt. That’s a com­pa­ny that knows how to learn from experience.

In and out­side the cor­po­rate envi­ron­ment, we learn from tak­ing in infor­ma­tion. In cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions, gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion from with­in the com­pa­ny and from cus­tomers and from the pub­lic, before you even begin to com­mu­ni­cate your mes­sage, is a way of learn­ing. 

As the learn­ing cycle informs us, we can take in infor­ma­tion both through feel­ings and facts. If we use our feel­ings exclu­sive­ly with­out also tak­ing in the facts, a learn­ing cul­ture may seem exhaust­ing, judg­men­tal, and sti­fling.  

But feed­back has an image problem.

“In my expe­ri­ence, feed­back loops start to feel dan­ger­ous to both lead­ers and bureau­cra­cies for dif­fer­ent rea­sons,” said Eric Jaye, polit­i­cal con­sul­tant, strate­gist, cre­ative direc­tor and founder of Store­front Polit­i­cal Media. “To lead­ers, some feel it chal­lenges their author­i­ty. To bureau­cra­cies, it cre­ates new work for the staff, so they can be very hos­tile to it.”

For lead­ers, any chal­lenge to their author­i­ty becomes prob­lem­at­ic. The more pow­er a leader has, the more iso­lat­ed he or she becomes and the less open to crit­i­cism and feed­back, all in the name of pro­tect­ing his or her power.

And it goes even fur­ther. Recent stud­ies sug­gest that pow­er changes the func­tion­al­i­ty of people’s brains. Dacher Kelt­ner, a psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at UC Berke­ley, in stud­ies that spanned two decades, showed that sub­jects under the influ­ence of pow­er act­ed as if they had suf­fered a trau­mat­ic brain injury; they were more impul­sive, less risk-aware, and less adept at being able to see things from oth­er people’s point of view.

In his arti­cle “Pow­er Caus­es Brain Dam­age” in The Atlantic, Jer­ry Useem goes into more detail about lead­ers who become so full of them­selves, they can’t be approached with neg­a­tive feed­back. Pow­er­ful peo­ple need a “toe hold­er,” some­one who will remind the per­son of ordi­nary oblig­a­tions and the need to stay ground­ed. Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt had that in jour­nal­ist Louis Howe; and Win­ston Churchill had it in his wife, Clemen­tine, “who had the courage to write, ‘My Dar­ling Win­ston. I must con­fess that I have noticed a dete­ri­o­ra­tion in your man­ner; & you are not as kind as you used to be.’ Some­one had con­fid­ed to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been act­ing ‘so con­temp­tu­ous’ toward sub­or­di­nates in meet­ings that ‘no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming’—with the atten­dant dan­ger that ‘you won’t get the best results.’”

For cor­po­rate lead­ers look­ing to put them­selves and their teams in a learn­ing cul­ture, the “toe hold­er” can be one or more of the tools used to gath­er infor­ma­tion. Mes­sage test­ing, con­ver­sa­tion­al focus groups, and red team­ing are three things that Tim Fitz­patrick used in cor­po­rate communications.

  • Mes­sage test­ing.  In cor­po­rate set­tings, this often involves both quan­ti­ta­tive research such as sur­veys and qual­i­ta­tive research such as dial test­ing.  Both of these involve the tar­get audi­ence pro­vid­ing feed­back on the mes­sage.  What did they hear? How did they under­stand it? How did it make them feel? Will it accom­plish the objec­tive? 
  • Con­ver­sa­tions. For an indi­vid­ual mak­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion or lead­ing a team, you can sit down and talk to mem­bers of your intend­ed audi­ence.  Tell them what you are think­ing about mes­sages and ask for their feed­back.  It will make your com­mu­ni­ca­tions stronger. 
  • Red Team­ing.  In the cor­po­rate set­ting, a red team is assem­bled for the pur­pose of brain­storm­ing every­thing that could wrong in a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion. 

Again, in both cas­es you are real­ly just learn­ing – edu­cat­ing your­self about your audi­ence and what they think and get­ting their direct feed­back. 

Jaye, who has worked with Fitz­patrick as a con­sul­tant, said he enforced a cul­ture of feed­back through con­stant test­ing efforts, so the feed­back was rapid. The cus­tomers were always asked what they thought and that always had to be tak­en into account.

“What Tim accom­plished, and what oth­ers have also done, is take feed­back out of the realm of opin­ion and anec­dote, which are always debat­able, and quan­ti­fy this feed­back in a sci­en­tif­ic way so that it was­n’t one per­son­’s opin­ion - it was a clear and under­stand­able data set,” Jaye said. “That is a mod­el of suc­cess­ful feed­back loops in my expe­ri­ence - they are data driven.”

A good leader not only leads his or her team to seek out feed­back, but makes it part of the team’s process. Help­ing peo­ple prac­tice get­ting feed­back helps to nor­mal­ize the process and takes out some fo the sting.

Jaye points out two sec­tors that not only embrace feed­back, but thrive on it: Tech star­tups and pol­i­tics. In the start­up sec­tor, there is no entrenched bureau­cra­cy to over­come, but there is so much data to be used. The A/B test­ing is a feed­back loop baked into the sales process that requires con­stant test­ing in the mar­ket, “which is a process of focused lis­ten­ing,” Jaye said. 

And in pol­i­tics, the stakes are high. “If you don’t lis­ten to vot­ers, you lose. You don’t lose cus­tomers or mar­ket share or some prof­its — you lose absolute­ly. These all-or-noth­ing stakes dri­ve polit­i­cal cam­paigns to be high­ly focused on a feed­back loop, gen­er­al­ly for the good.”