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 to work.

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

I drive to the main intersection and wait for cars to pass. A Chrysler mini-van drives by, and I get behind it. At the light, I sneak a peak at my phone, and see that I have plenty of time to get to work. As I’m waiting, I think about how all my decisions have been affected by one thing — feedback.

And it made me wonder. 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.”


When we acknowledge each other, we activate a feedback loop. 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.

It’s our way of saying, “Sawu bona. I see you. You exist.”

That’s the power of feedback. That’s the power of responding to a stimulus, internal or external.

Remember, communication is the response you get.

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

If someone kisses you, what did YOU do to them?

If someone spews hate and discontent toward you, what role did you play?

Are you listening?

There are two types of feedback that we’re all working with.

External and internal feedback.

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

This quote speaks of external feedback.

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

This kind of feedback comes from everywhere. Teachers give out grades in school. I smile at a woman and her look tells me whether she’s interested or not. The crowd reaction I get depends on whether I make or miss my shot.

A wall tells me to go around it, objects on the floor ask me 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. Very likely.

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

Internal feedback

“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.”Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

That’s INTERNAL feedback. You know when you know something. You know when something is just right for you.

Internal feedback is instinct, intuition, or that gut feeling. It’s accumulated experience. It’s wisdom.

Sometimes the world seems right, but you know something is wrong. That business deal seems right, but the person behind it is all bad. Conversely, sometimes things look bleak, but something about this person feels right.

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 your lack of experience will somehow work against you.

Feedback is coming at you from everywhere. Again, 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? And how can you get feedback from somebody if you’re not in direct contact with them? It’s impossible, yet empathy is lacking in every sector. People suffer as a result.

As organizations grow, they lose contact with the very people who can help them grow — employees, customers, and partners.

No contact, no empathy.

No empathy, no feedback.

No feedback, no adjustments will be made.

No adjustments made? See Kodak, Blockbuster, and Border’s Books.

When you adjust, you also demonstrate empathy.

Sure, you can adjust based on analytics, data, and sheer manipulation, but it won’t get you very far. Empathy seems like 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 mouth.

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 anyone if get the message, only to ignore it?

What good does it do for you to see yourself in the mirror, notice those unwanted results, but return to the same routine?

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

What good does it do to look at your organization’s subpar results, and continue the same behaviors that got you there?

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 a personal attack on you.

Given what you’re trying to accomplish in work or life, feedback asks you to change course, to adjust. Is that too difficult? Does the truth really hurt that bad? Indeed.

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 remember conducting a “feedback experiment” at the nonprofit I used to work for.

What would happen if we increased feedback for participants?

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?

By gamifying the workshops — essentially increasing feedback using logged data — we outperformed the previous results by a factor of 10x. Sure, we measured outcomes better, but the quality of outcomes blew away past cohorts.

The lesson? 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?