Feedback – or Lessons on Hearing Past my Biases

It wasn’t what we expected. Have you ever asked for feedback and ended up being surprised by what you found out?  This happened recently to us and it opened up a great lesson on leadership.  We started a product development cycle to answer a problem that occurs over time in some of one of our products. We designed three new prototypes based on feedback we had received from our customers.  Once we completed building the prototypes we showed them around the factory and reached a consensus about which one our customers would like best. Then, we schedule some focus groups with customers to decide whether we had the right idea.  We asked the participants in our focus group to rate the prototype designs and tell us which one they would most like buy and why.

Then the surprises started. The participants all gravitated to the one choice we thought was the most boring.  When we calculated the results the product design team challenged the outcome.  Did we ask the right questions?  Did we tabulate the results accurately?  Why did this prototype seem better to the participants than the two factory favorites?

Feedback is always important in product development.  Our customers often give us the best ideas!  But our corporate reaction to this feedback got me thinking about feedback I receive as a leader.  How important do I consider this to be?  What did our experience with the focus groups teach me about leadership generally?  As I thought about it I came up with three feedback pitfalls that I have experienced and seen leaders commit when it comes to either giving or receiving feedback.

Pitfall 1: Championing a Premature Solution (Regardless of the Feedback)

The focus group experience illustrates this pitfall in seeking feedback.  We set up the focus group as a way to affirm a predisposition not explore possibilities.  This was not a conscious act – we did not see the bias we were working out of until we faced the contrast of unexpected response.  Leaders must be aware of their biases. When leaders ask for feedback and that feedback does not give the anticipated results its time to stop and check the biases i.e., the assumptions. Obviously we wanted to know what would sell best but we had inadvertently committed ourselves in the wrong direction – we committed to a particular solution rather than a measurable outcome.  What is the difference and why is it important to remember not just in product development but also in leadership?

Presumably the ask for feedback assumes that the solution has not yet been identified.  The mistake we made was that we assumed we knew the real problem and had the only commercially viable solution.  The mistake was that we owned a solution before we really defined the problem from the customer’s point of view.  I see leaders making the same mistake i.e., rushing to a solution before they really hear the problem. As a result time and energy is spent on actions that have either no impact or the opposite impact the action intended.

The lesson for leaders is to change the focus of attention.  Rather than enter conversations seeking to own (define, promote or insist on) a solution leaders should spend more time helping define the problem and the preferred outcome.  When others engage in helping define the problem then it is possible that several great solutions present themselves.

Pitfall 2: Reactive Response

The internal tension I felt during the focus group was just that – internal. I faced a decision to either be defensive about which option I felt was best or to spend time asking questions to understand why I received the feedback I was getting.  This ability to stop in mid-emotion and think about what I wanted to really do has been a hard-earned skill. There have been times that I projected my own embarrassment at being caught flat-footed on what others were thinking and became reactive.  The result was never pretty – typically I reacted to things no one else perceived. I have often seen leaders react defensively or punitively when they felt like questions were a sign of disrespect and not engagement in a process of change or understanding.

The lesson for leaders is to embrace the reality that emotionally awkward situations may show one’s insecurity more accurately than the disrespect or challenge to one’s authority. When that twinge of embarrassment lurks below the surface ask what internal assumption just got challenged.  Then embrace the emotion and ask for more clarification.  Lead the process of discovery rather than blow it up with reactive emotions.

Pitfall 3: Working on Assumptions not Facts

Feedback is simply information that helps to decide whether actions are moving closer to an objective or farther away.  Somewhere deep in the Judeo-Christian ethic an awareness exists that feedback is a constant companion.  Jesus said it this way,

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26)

Notice the verbs; teach and remind.  These verbs certainly show that providing feedback both in the sense of a moral compass and commentary on behavior is a normative experience. Somewhere this gets lost.  However, effective leaders embrace feedback and create a culture that encourages feedback to engage actions that grow in consistency between their impact and their intention.  In other words feedback helps close the gap between behavior and the vision of the organization.  So what is it that causes feedback to go awry?

The leadership lesson is that all of us have past experiences, relationships, beliefs and assumptions that serve as filters to what we hear.  Chris Argyris calls this the ladder of inference and he describes it in seven steps:

  1. All observable data and experience
  2. I select “data” from what I observe
  3. I add meanings
  4. I make assumptions
  5. I draw conclusions
  6. I adopt beliefs
  7. I take action based on beliefs

It is important for individuals and leaders to be aware of this process of inference.  When providing feedback it is important to listen for the beliefs behind the responses.  When listening to feedback it is just as important to consider whether one’s own beliefs are they supported by the data or do they distort the data?

The focus group process helped us land on the right product design.  But the greater win may be that we learned something about how we respond to feedback that will make us more effective leaders and better friends in the days ahead.  How are you using feedback?  What experience have you had with either positive or negative feedback?