The Miracle of Feedback

Adjust your sails
I wake up smiling this morning because it’s a beautiful, sunny day. The window is open and it doesn’t feel cold outside. I get out of bed and dodge a few walls on my way to the bathroom. Then I shower, get dressed, and head out the door.

I look both ways before crossing the street, then I jump into my Honda.

I drive to the corner and wait for cars to pass, before I speed behind a Chrysler mini-van that I’ll eventually pass. I sneak a peak at my phone, and see that I have plenty of time to get to work. As I’m sitting at a stop light, I think about writing this post.

Life is an absolute marvel, but what would life be without the ability to try new things, experience the unknown, and somehow have the feeling that you’re progressing in life?

And yet, how can one progress or gain mastery of something without the miracle of feedback?

Feedback brings life

Peter Senge wrote a book titled The 5th Discipline, including the follow-up The 5th Discipline Field Book. I read the opening chapter of the Field Book in the bookstore over 10 years ago, and it always stuck with me. Here’s the excerpt:

Among the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to “hello” in English, is the expression: Sawu bona. It literally means, “I see you.” If you are a member of the tribe, you might reply by saying Sikhoma, “I am here.” The order of the exchange is important: until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if when you see me, you bring me into existence.

This meaning, implicit in the language, is part of the spirit of ubuntu, a frame of mind prevalent among native people in Africa below the Sahara. The word ubuntu stems from the folk saying Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu, which, from Zulu, literally translates as: “A person is a person because other people.” If you grow up with this perspective, your identity is based upon the fact that you are seen-that people around you respect and acknowledge you as a person.

Not long ago, an internal consultant who had been raised in a rural village became visibly upset after a meeting where nothing much had seemed to happen. When a project where he had played a key part came up for discussion, his role was not mentioned or acknowledged. Asked later why it bothered him so much, he said, “You don’t understand. When they spoke about the project, they did not say my name. They did not make me a person.”

Acknowledgment is a form of feedback, but so is being ignored. So, when we don’t acknowledge one another, does a part of us disappear?

A simple “hello” and a smile can work miracles in someone’s life.

Communication is about the response you get.

If someone is yelling at you, what did YOU say to them?

If someone is kissing you, what did YOU do to them?

If someone is speaking bad things about you, what did YOU do?

It’s all feedback, but how will you adjust?

Are you listening?

There are two kinds of feedback that will take you far in life.

External and internal feedback.

Jimmy Dean said,

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”

This represents EXTERNAL feedback.

You begin with a goal, make a move, sh*t happens, you cope, make adjustments, and persevere towards the goal.

Feedback comes from everywhere. Teachers give out grades in school. I smile at a woman and her look tells me if she’s interested or not. I get a crowd reaction depending on whether I make or miss a jump shot.

The wall tells me to go around it, objects on the floor ask me kindly to step over them, and heat coming from the stove cautions me to keep a safe distance.

You’re constantly receiving information (feedback) through your 5 senses, then you either correct course and keep moving forward or you give up on your goal entirely. Moving forward or quitting depends on two things: how difficult the next action step is AND how bad you want to accomplish that goal.

If you’re highly skilled at dealing with feedback, you’re likely to accomplish much more than the average person.

If you’re poorly skilled with feedback, you’re likely to settle for a life of mediocrity.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote,

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

This is INTERNAL feedback. You know when you KNOW something. You know when something is RIGHT for you.

Internal feedback is instinct, intuition, or that gut feeling.

Sometimes the world around you seems right, but somehow you know something is wrong. That business deal seems right, but the person behind it is all bad.

You’re constantly getting signals and cues from your inner and outer worlds, but are you listening?

“We always know which is the best road to follow, but we follow only the road that we have become accustomed to.”

~Paulo Coelho

Your intuition tells you to approach him, but you’re afraid of rejection.

Your gut tells you to go for the job, and that it’s right for you, but you decide against it, rationalizing that your lack of experience will work against you.

Feedback is coming at you all the time. Are you listening?

Feedback deepens connections

According to George Anders, what’s the most valuable skill to have in 2020? Empathy.

How can you empathize without feedback? How can you get feedback from somebody if you’re not in direct contact with them? It’s impossible, yet empathy is sorely lacking in the business and nonprofit sectors. Everyone suffers as a result.

With expansion, organizations tend to lose contact with the very people who have the power to help them grow. This includes employees as well as customers/clients.

No contact, no feedback.

No feedback, no empathy.

No empathy, no adjustments will be made.

No adjustments made? Nothing personal, but it’s just a matter of time…

See Kodak, Blockbuster, and Border’s Books.

When we adjust, we demonstrate empathy.

Sure, you can adjust based on analytics, data, and sheer manipulation, but it won’t take you very far. Empathy is the obvious choice, but decision makers still don’t get it. Empathy is a culture.

See Apple, Zappos, and Netflix.

Feedback is neutral

Most times, the feedback we get sucks and feels like a kick in the chin.

To correct mistakes quickly, to address situations before they get out of hand, and to acknowledge the elephant in the room is not just critical to progress, it gives you an opportunity to find and express your humanity.

What good does it do for you to get the message, then ignore it?

What good is it to look at yourself in the mirror, see those unwanted results, and then go back to doing the same things?

What good does it do to look at your bank account, then continue with the same spending behaviors that cause you to live from paycheck to paycheck?

What good does it do to look at your organization’s subpar results, and still continue to deliver the same level of service?

See that dirt? Go ahead, sweep it under the rug. Soon a mound of dirt will pile up, waiting for someone to step on it, and *poof* everybody gets to taste it.

Feedback is neutral, it’s not making a personal attack on you.

Given what you’re trying to accomplish in life/work, feedback is asking you to change course, to adjust. Is that too hard? Does the truth really hurt THAT bad?

What if your quality of life was as simple as telling the truth about what you experience and then DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT?

Can you HANDLE the truth?

Feedback increases engagement

I’ve been thinking about the concept of feedback as it relates to the nonprofit I work for, and decided to conduct a “feedback experiment”.

What happens if we INCREASE feedback for participants in the form of a more structured environment, clearer goals, and more interaction with staff?

Could we accomplish more in one two-week workshop than we have in the previous ten workshops combined?

How will this affect long-term retention and engagement?

Since it’s only been a week, I can’t answer how it will impact long-term engagement (we’re talking months and years).

However, I can definitively say that the results we’re seeing are game changing, and I don’t see how we can ever go back to business as usual.

Still, as good as these initial results are, it’s NOT all that surprising. Feedback is a powerful tool for individuals and organizations, and it’s always right there, in your face.

Will you listen? Will you adjust and adapt?

Will you demonstrate the values that you profess to others? Will you walk the talk?


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