ENGAGING HUMAN PERFORMANCE TO DRAMATICALLY IMPROVE STRATEGIC BUSINESS RESULTS
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June 2009

THE FEAR OF FEEDBACK

How fascinating to find that we would almost rather fail than accept the fact we may not be doing well! The graveyard of failed companies testifies to a pervasive unwillingness to read very evident tea leaves. The failure of very few companies comes as a surprise to objective observers. It is a surprise only to those on the inside, so called “leaders” and their internal acolytes.

How equally fascinating to discover that success tends to breed complacency more often than it breeds ongoing drive to keep raising the bar. How sad that such complacency fortifies itself behind barricades of arrogance and reality-avoidance – often militantly.

This then makes the relaying of potentially critical insight, ideas and intelligence increasingly unlikely. We become so absurdly “uncoachable” that we may drown in a literal sea of life preservers.

THE PATTERN

Jim Collins has spent his life researching companies that stay great, become great, and now, fall from greatness. This latest research highlights swatting away any feedback contrary to an often increasingly delusional sense of company effectiveness and success, responding to a slump in results by going for massive overspending on peripheral businesses or off-target product or service extensions or mindless acquisitions, careening from initiative to initiative and fad to fad, looking for every panacea and band aid available, seeking “savior” CEO’s, and seeking to do whatever isn’t working harder.

But this is the macroscopic view of what happens. This is the aerial view of what is happening to the organizational tectonic plates. So where are the real fault lines, and what pressures build to cause both the initial tremors and the eventual Richter-scale destabilizing quakes that can leave business units or whole companies, in ruins?

It comes down to the fear of feedback. In GE’s heyday (and that story is still being written, it may be premature to write off Jeff Immelt’s ability to lead a turnaround), an external person who knew the company well said “There isn’t an ounce of denial in the place.” No bullshit, face the facts, then transform the facts, own the problem, keep making some tangible progress happen.

Whether or not that was or is accurate about GE, how many companies can really say that describes their culture, their leadership and team interactions, or what is valued and recognized in their business? And if not many, why not? Should this not be the natural default setting for organizations arguably dedicated to the profit motive, seeking to maximize stakeholder (if not just shareholder) value?

And so let’s unpack “fear of feedback” into different components.

The world is as I see it

The first culprit is the belief that my perception is reality. There is only one problem – that is a hallucination shared with virtually everyone else on the planet who also believes that their perception is reality. Welcome to a very overcrowded club!

Rather than accept that my ideas and perceptions are provisional, and rendered accurate or inaccurate based on engagement with reality and how results aggregate (not how self-evident they seem to me), I then tend to shut off sources of contradiction.

This is why people who agree with each other tend to hang out together, why political clubs are in existence, why cliques form, why religious groups get increasingly insular and intolerant. A community of common interest is a great thing. But as my mentor of old and past collaborator, M. Scott Peck pointed out, it’s a short slippery slope from community to cult. The difference is inclusivity versus exclusivity, openness to challenge or the virtual outlawing of challenge (at least relative to cherished verities, personal or corporate myths, or long established taboos).

Businesses have to avoid cult-like behavior at all costs. Leaders have to be outward looking as well as reflective, eager to explore views before finalizing their own, eager to calibrate and course correct relative to tactics and dedicated to the company vision not the inevitable limits of their own (in a the sense of what the world “looks like” to them). A leader’s judgment has to finally predominate. But judgment has to be fed; it is an ocean, not a moat.

My authority is based on being right

This is a particularly rancid misunderstanding. The question has been asked, “Why should anyone be led by YOU?” The answer cannot be, “Because they have no choice, I’ll fire them otherwise.” And the reason that can’t be the answer is we want people’s passion and commitment, their engagement and drive, not just their tepid compliance or vapid acquiescence. You can’t order commitment, you can’t command passion.

So people are led by things other than where you are on the organizational chart. They are usually led by a compelling set of corporate goals or vision, by credible and authentic leadership behavior, by being enrolled in meaningful and challenging work, by working in dynamic teams where they are both stimulated and supported, by being fairly rewarded and recognized, and by being strategically developed.

So people have to trust it’s about the goals of the organization — results that matter in the market — not putting a pedestal under you.

If you’re habitually wrong and insist that others follow you down that path, indeed you will debase your authority. So yes, we aren’t capriciously going to take directional mistakes lightly. They are expensive and painful.

But if what genuinely made sense when you chose a path, turns out to have been ill-founded or misguided, then perpetuating the error won’t bolster your authority either!

You then have to be courageous enough, committed enough to the real end in mind, to explain the basis for the change, accept responsibility and redirect corporate energies. Anyway, people remember the final score, not the shifting vicissitudes of the game.

The opportunity is to make sure you make your calls tapping the best intelligence you can, internally and where relevant, externally. You own it finally as a leader, but en route to that ownership, your ideas and strategies should emerge from a healthy tapping of ideas, some insightful due diligence. Insights may happen in a ‘blink’, but they get converted into paths forward when we collectively think.

My sense of worth is damaged if I am wrong

Here we move to the psychological aspect of this pathology. If I define myself as a competent person, and my sense of worth is based on therefore demonstrating that competence by not being shown I’m wrong, then the battle to repel feedback becomes an almost existential affair. Swirling eddies of primal emotion bubble within whenever someone suggests that I’ve failed.

This particularly afflicts those who have had to “audition” for affection by performing, who have experience of highly conditional and contingent affection and approval from key loved ones or role models. Such reflexes die hard. And so we not only resist contrary views, we resent them, and harbor grudges against those who have brought the challenge to us.

In fact, those with this disability immediately respond to any input that suggests they may have to improve, by casting about for a scapegoat, for someone who must be undermining them. If they don’t find them, they will invent them by projecting their doubts onto an individual or group. This almost McCarthy-esque mania (the equivalent of seeing a Communist under every bedcover or the equivalent of an autocrat seeing “enemies of the state” under every bush) can lead to corporate purges of dissenters and amassing senior-level stooges who will do our bidding but never tell truth to power…often to the great detriment of the company.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if willingness to grow, rather than immunity to error, was the cultural trait we admired, extolled and celebrated?

Our actual worth comes from expressing our abilities, adding value, creating value through others, and from what we are able to learn and apply. In a deeply spiritual sense, all value is inherent in being myself, being human. In a practical, performance-based sense, value comes from making the most of both our successes and failures and using both as floodlights along the way.

We need faith more than we need facts

These are companies where it is considered disloyal to challenge the prevailing homilies. It seems to be assumed that we need faith in misguided, clearly failing strategies. Bad news is whitewashed so it seems not quite so bad, or is “re-interpreted” by some statistical sleight of hand (by redefining the market, competition, share, or potential).

This is a tough one to tackle, because faith in face of insurmountable odds is sometimes how leaders help their teams deliver real miracles. But I am unaware of any leadership miracle that happened by denying the challenge. The genius is to be able to deny the inevitability of defeat. It is fidelity to a larger aspiration or commitment, not dogmatic “faith” in Tactic A or Tactic B.

The global financial debacle is a prime example of where a consensus of convenience was reached by pigs feeding at the trough, combined with the obliviousness of regulators paid fees by the clients they are regulating, combined with the ‘magical thinking’ that says illusions can be perpetuated forever (bubbles and Madoff both come to mind here), all combining to bring down a clearly rotting and yet frighteningly pervasive system.

But then at the macroscopic level you can always explain away peaks and valleys, until it’s too late. That’s why one has to look at whether a dedication to reality, an openness to input and course correction, an unromantic engagement with the facts and then a creative transformation of possibilities (rather than a creative engagement with the facts and a romantic tragedy as possibilities get foreclosed) is present or not. If it’s absent, we may not know when the hammer will fall, or where. But rest assured, it will.

Feedback is either fake or it’s brutal: there’s no way to make it easier

Marshall Goldsmith minted the term “feed forward” suggesting that we can’t remake the past, but we can influence the future. Hence we should make future-based requests, rather than excoriate someone relentlessly about the past.

So let’s take a look at this claim about fakeness or brutality. If all we do is castigate someone tirelessly about what they can’t change until we feel they’ve been battered enough, indeed it will be brutal. But there are things that can make it easier, better and more effective.

For one Stephen Covey talks about making deposits in someone’s self-esteem bank account. People in relationships that are healthy do that – they catch each other doing things right. This isn’t insincere flattery; it’s noticing when someone gets it right and being appreciative.

If someone’s self-esteem bank account relative to us is robust and healthy, if we then make a few withdrawals based on our improvement observations, our account won’t be overdrawn, they won’t feel we’re being brutal or unfair. And we can then state our thought, without either spicing it up with accusation, or chloroforming it to the point it’s unrecognizable. There is a vast difference between, “You behaved like an ass,” and the anodyne “Your behavior was interesting, perhaps you could consider alternatives?” You can simply say, “The way you behaved wasn’t constructive.” Or even “I found your behavior difficult to accept.” But even here, tone of voice, inflection, body language, your past fairness towards them, all conspire to convey impact and therefore reaction.

Moreover, if 20% at most of our improvement dialogue with someone refers to the past (to anchor and explain the perception primarily) and 80% to “feed forward”, to agreeing how we will act in the future, the input becomes creative rather than a cross-examination or worse, an outright prosecution.

Leaders and teams have to learn how to foster relationships where support means hanging in there with and past sometimes unavoidable hurt feelings to something more constructive, more in line with the improvement intent. Those that can’t do it artfully but honestly aren’t leaders. Those who can brutalize but never encourage and support, are bad leaders at best.

This isn’t though about bedside manners. It’s about the reality of how we treat, acknowledge, support and coach people over time.

MOVING TOWARDS GROWTH

There are four modes we most often find ourselves in. The first is denial. In other words, there is no problem. The second is defensiveness. This implies the problem isn’t with me, others are to blame, and I’m being attacked unfairly. The third is curiosity. This suggests I’m eager to understand the perception, want to establish its basis, get facts not opinions, and be open to multiple options. The fourth is fresh design. Here, we use obstacles as raw material. We outgrow our current limiting paradigms or tactics. We re-imagine ways to be competitive. We enroll critics and supportive stakeholders alike in finding answers with us.

If we can make our companies more like permeable membranes, if ideas and stimulus, feedback and feed forward can flow freely in and out, then assuming we have a viable enterprise, the right talent, and are given a fighting chance by the fates, we’ll break through our current plateaus and barriers.

The only thing we have to fear frankly is not feedback, but rather our own blinkers. When the fog of denial clears, only then can leaders find ways forward. To create the roadmap though, we have to open our minds, our hearts, our eyes…and our ears!