Reading our impact in a socially complex world: Five perspectives about feedback

By Melinda Sinclair

We work and lead in social contexts that are increasingly complex. Not only do we need to deal with accelerating change and technical complexity; we also need to need to be skilled at navigating social complexity – complexity that results from high levels of cultural and technical diversity in work groups, from fluid relationships without rigidly defined structures and rules of engagement, and amplified by the need to balance multiple interests.

Living in a world of accelerating change and high complexity requires us to be consistently reading our world to assess the impact of our actions, behaviors, and choices so that we can adjust and adapt quickly.  Such a world requires continuous learning and an open mind set about feedback.

Conducting 360 feedback interview processes as part of leadership coaching programs offers revealing windows on both the social complexity inherent in our work relationships, and on the feedback mindsets and practices that we need to cultivate if we are to work and lead successfully. Here are five perspectives on feedback and some practical lessons derived from my experience with this work.

1.      Giving feedback is an act of generosity that can help strengthen relationships

Giving feedback requires us to reflect, think, and then take the time to articulate our perspective so that our meaning is clear. Given this time challenge, leaders are often hesitant to seek out such feedback from their colleagues.

And yet, when conducting  360 interviews I am invariably struck by how willing leaders are to make an investment of their time and mental effort in a colleague’s  growth and development - even in cases where the relationship have been quite strained.  Interviewees often remark that it feels good to be asked for their perspectives, and that they see it as an investment in shared future success.

Practically speaking:

  • Appreciate the generosity involved in giving feedback. Express your appreciation for others when they are willing to give you feedback. This act of appreciation in itself can help strengthen the relationship. Be willing to be generous in return when you are approached for feedback.
  • If there is not enough feedback exchange in your environment, you may need to find different ways to gather feedback. It is not enough to say “people here don’t want to give feedback”. There may be a greater willingness to contribute to your shared success that you could tap into.

 2.      Asking for, as well as giving feedback, requires courage.

Asking for feedback requires courage, along with the commitment to growing ourselves. Leaders being interviewed as part of the process often comment that they admire the courage of the person asking for their feedback.  For the most part, asking for feedback is seen as strength, and not a weakness.

Giving feedback also requires courage. Offering our perspectives on someone - their strengths, their leadership gaps, their impact, on what we need from them– makes us vulnerable too.  So it is important that we create a sense of comfort and psychological safety, so that people can allow themselves to step forward and offer their views.

Practically speaking:

  • Acknowledge that both giving and receiving feedback requires courage, and put structures in places to create some safety for both parties (giver and receiver). A crucial part of this is to clarify what the purpose of the feedback gathering is, and what information will be shared by whom.  Lack of transparency about feedback creates fear, distrust, and paranoia.
  • Develop your capability – and the capability of your team - to give and receive feedback. This requires cultivating strong supportive mindsets about the role of feedback in leadership effectiveness and development in a socially complex world. It also requires developing skills to enhance the quality and positive impact of our feedback exchanges.

3.      A climate conducive to growth and learning is needed to support feedback exchange.

Doing multiple 360 interviews in different organizations reveals huge differences in the feedback climate.  In some organizations there is a great deal of fear associated with feedback. Feedback is seen as a punitive thing. Processes for gathering feedback are not always transparent, making people feel unsafe. Even when feedback is asked in the context of a coaching relationship, there is a perspective that this about “falling short”, instead of aspiring to greatness.

In other contexts offering feedback is seen as an integral part of a learning orientation. In such systems there is a shared understanding about the value of learning more about others’ perspectives on us and our impact – the good, the bad, and the ugly! There is a willingness to articulate what people need from one another. This flow of information among the people connected in the system allows them collectively to become stronger and more successful.

Practically speaking:

  • Cultivate a shared commitment to growth, learning and excellence, and help people understand the value of gathering feedback from each other and the environment in this. Such a shared commitment helps people lean into the process of giving and receiving feedback, despite discomfort.
  • Embrace the value of feedback in a complex social context, and make feedback exchange a regular occurrence, instead of a big deal. You can start by doing this with your own inner circle of close colleagues, and in your own team.

 4.      Attention to the positive amplifies the motivation to respond to the negative

Regardless of what triggers a 360 feedback process, we always first explore perspectives on the leader’s strengths, their positive contribution, and their potential. Such an appreciative, strength-based approach by no means excludes a robust, rigorous exploration of gaps, weakness, blind spots, shortfalls, and more.  It is not about being “soft”. Rather, getting clear on the positives, on the value that a leader brings, provides a vital context for interpreting and responding to perspectives on gaps, challenges, blind spots.

Time and time again, clients are both surprised and delighted that colleagues notice and appreciate their strengths and positive impact.  This positive feedback strengthens their engagement and fuels their motivation for “becoming their even better version”. And, more often than not, this approach also helps illuminate how often their challenges are directly related to their strengths –not being thoughtful enough in how they use them, by overplaying them, or not having developed key complementary capabilities that will allow their strengths to shine.

Practically speaking:

  • Think of perspectives on strengths and positive contributions as a vital part of feedback – regardless of whether you are the receiver or giver of feedback.
  • Use the perspective on strengths and positive impact as a frame to help make sense of how gaps and blind spots create a negative impact that undermines effectiveness. Such a frame not only provides motivation for engaging in learning; it also often provides concrete guidance on how to address gaps and shortfalls.

5.      Making sense of  feedback requires both effort and context

Making meaning of feedback data – transforming the data into insights that can support good decisions and actions – is hard work. In doing this work we often get caught up in limited perspectives and emotional reactions. We hastily jump to conclusions. We get triggered by a particular phrase that hooks our attention, and in the process we miss something else really important. We need to overcome our tendency to defend and deflect feedback that does not match our perceptions of ourselves.

Left to our own devices, we tend to “read” feedback in ways that skew it. This is why it is good to have a coach as a thinking partner when your do the hard work of reflecting, parsing, connecting the dots, and eventually deciding how to respond to feedback. Making sense of feedback requires taking multiple perspectives, looking at the feedback in different contexts and through different frames. The leader’s role, the organization’s direction and current challenges,  the culture and climate of the organization, the styles and personalities of the other leaders – all this and much more comes into play when we work to make sense of feedback, positive or not.

Practically speaking:

  • Invest adequate time and effort into making sense of feedback. Resist the tendency to make quick and hasty interpretations without a thoughtful reflection through a number of different frames.
  • As you process feedback from others, be aware of the particular leadership frame through which you are looking. Use this as an opportunity to become aware of your frame, and where needed to shift your frame.  Similarly, when others ask you for feedback, use this as an opportunity to consider what your own frame and expectations are for effective leadership. Providing feedback to colleague is also an opportunity to assess yourself against your own standards.
Melinda SinclairMelinda Sinclair of PeopleDynamics Learning Group is a Chartered Business Coach™ practicing in Toronto, ON. Her work with leaders and teams focus on enhancing the conditions and skills required for high quality collaboration. In addition to her executive coaching and leadership development practice, she is also one of the lead faculties for the WABC Level 1 Accredited Business Coaching Advantage Program™.
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