Learning Through Feedback

Kay Peterson

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.”