Lessons Learned About Feedback


Feedback has been a constant ally in my career. My memories are like a slide show; snapshots of giving or receiving feedback mark the beginning of many stories of personal change. It moves in all directions in my retrospective; up, down and sideways. It traveled among direct reports, peers, bosses, sometimes clients. At times feedback was formal, as a part of of performance reviews. Other times it was informal, such as post meeting debriefs. My highlight reel shows triumphs and mistakes on both the giving and receiving ends of feedback.

My key conclusion is that it’s well worth the effort to master a personal practice of giving effective feedback and receiving it with grace. Feedback develops my self awareness. It’s the mirror that reflects what others see, despite what I might wish to project. Self awareness can be a little magic. It brings the spark of change – knowledge of gifts that enable my success or behavior that blocks our it. As Maya Angelou says: Once we know better, we do better. Most positive change in my life started with feedback. I am grateful to those who planted the spark.

Five Things I’ve Learned About Feedback

While I’ve benefited from great thinkers who have shared formulas and advice, my principles for giving feedback have been formed from experience. (I’ve listed my favorite feedback resources at the end for those interested in models and formulae.)

Start With You.
Reflect on your motives to give feedback. Follow the Hindu practice Help Ever, Hurt Never. Are you motivated to truly help? Can the person do something about this behavior, even to make it a little better? Is it about them or about you? Have honest and positive motives before you give feedback.

Set Boundaries.
Establish what you dowant and don’t want as a result of offering feedback. Like goal posts for football and soccer players, boundaries keep your feedback on target. If you do want the person to build awareness and don’t want to damage their motivation, be aware of the boundaries that keep the message in bounds.

Set Yourself Up for Success.
In their book, Willpower, Roy Baumeister and E.J. Masiacampo discuss the harm too many distractions, inadequate rest and poor diets have on our self control. I offer that this extends to self control and focus necessary to discuss constructive feedback. This may go on the “duh” list, but don’ give feedback when you or the other person are depleted or distracted. I learned this lesson the hard way. I attempted to give feedback to a colleague when we were both rushed. It did more harm than good when the colleague focused on my timing instead of the message. If you invest the effort to get the right message, don’t blow it by the wrong conditions.

Link Feedback to Aspirations.
Feedback that helps an employee achieve something meaningful shows good faith in your effort to help, not harm, others. Linking feedback to aspirations can be motivational. It’s a forward looking orientation that gives others a chance to make change in the only place possible – the future.

Offer a Vote of Confidence.
Include your belief that the employee can change their behavior or skills and that you will help. A vote of confidence makes feedback constructive instead of destructive. It adds to your credibility that the feedback is sincerely intended to be helpful. The single most important “must do” to maintain confidence and trust is to follow through with help and encouragement when change hits the bumpy path.

I am a beneficiary of others who cared enough to develop masterful feedback skills and the personal leadership qualities to deliver it. They encourage me to follow their example. As I do, experience may change these five lessons. And, once again, it will all start with feedback.

A Few Favorite Resources for Feedback

K. Patterson, J.Greeney, R. McMillan, A. Switzerland (2005). Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When The Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw Hill.

Marshall Goldsmith Feedforward Tool.

Goulston, M. (2010)Just Listen: Discover The Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Everyone. New York: American Management Association.

While not specifically about feedback, Willpower provides great insight into the focus and control necessary to deliver it effectively.
Baumeister, R. & Masiacampo, E.J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Books.

What Great Leaders Get About Performance Management


We’re in full swing of the Performance Management season again. You know it’s time when Human Resources professionals have inboxes crowded with forwarded articles citing merits of doing away with the process. Pleas are made to make the process simpler, complaints about the time commitments ring through every meeting. In some organizations, year-end reviews are as welcome as the bathroom scale on January 2.

In fairness, some performance management systems have terrible design flaws. Employees and managers complain that only a narrow range of evaluation points is used because of cultural or financial practices. As a result, ratings and rewards don’t differentiate performance.  On the other extreme, some misguided organizations still insist on relative force ranking of employees, despite the evidence that this destructive process harms, not helps, overall organizational performance[i].   Efforts to instill consistency can make the process onerous.

All of these design flaws produce legitimate complaints, but each can be fixed with the right leadership attention. Don’t allow bad practices to interfere with the organizational benefits of performance management, including year-end reviews.

Five Things Great Leaders Get from Performance Reviews
Great leaders look beyond the practice of performance reviews to its possibilities. As Edward Mone and Manuel London (2009) describe in their book Employee Engagement Through Effective Performance Management, great leaders look beyond the stacks of forms and meeting schedules to opportunities to develop more engaged employees who feel “involved, committed, passionate and empowered” through performance management.

1. Great leaders get information to make the next year better than last year.
Great leaders use the year-end review process as a point to gather critical stakeholder information from a 360 perspective. What does this employee do well? How can I leverage their talents in new ways? How can I help them maximize their potential? What can I do differently? Great leaders know it’s not about the forms; it’s about the insight.

2. Great leaders get maxim benefit from rewards and recognition.
They know that year-end bonuses and merit pay are more meaningful when employees’ understand what they did to earn it. Great leaders don’t just deliver the number, but offer feedback on how employees can enhance or change their performance to achieve their compensation goals for the next year.  They know that it’s not only dollars that increase employee motivation, but also the knowledge of how they can grow as people and contributors.

3. Great leaders get improved self-monitoring by employees.
They know that the ultimate goal of feedback is to develop employee self-awareness, which fosters greater understanding into why they get their results.  Once employees understand why, they can change how they approach situations for different outcomes. Through constructive feedback with specific, relevant examples and description of impact, employees become more aware of how to utilize their strengths and minimize their shortcomings. Great leaders shift the burden of monitoring behavior to employees through constructive, helpful feedback.

4. Great leaders get more optimistic, higher performing employees.
Medlin and Green ( 2009) examine the relationship between goal setting, employee engagement, optimism and individual performance through a survey of 426 employees. They conclude that goals engage employees with the organization by informing them of their specific responsibilities and available opportunities.  Measuring performance and experiencing progress against goals increases optimism among employees. Medlin and Green cite numerous studies that show the relationship between optimism and higher performance. Great leaders know that, like athletes, achievement oriented employees’ want to know how they performed against goals, and competitive ones want to do better next year.

5. Great leaders get even better through performance reviews.
They use the process to seek feedback from subordinates, customers, peers and supervisors on what they can do to be a better leader.  Great leaders use the performance review to address questions or concerns that may have impeded their development or that of others. Through the performance management process, great leaders improve their ability to set goals, communicate, evaluate results, coach and listen.

Maybe you know of leaders who don’t want to be better next year, don’t benefit from offering rewards, enjoy the burden of monitoring employees, demoralize achievement-oriented employees and don’t care if they get better. These will probably be the leaders moaning about the forms. They will be hounded to get year-end reviews done. On the other hand, great leaders will use the same process but get far more out of it.  Chose the outcome that best suits you.


E.M. Mone and M. London (2009). Employee Engagement: Through Effective Performance Management. New York: Taylor and Francis Group.

B. Medlin and K.W. Green (2009). “Enhancing performance through goal setting, engagement and optimism.” Industrial Management and Data System, vol. 109, no. 7 pp. 943-956.

(1) S.G. Roth, A.M. Sternburgh and P.M. Caputo (2007). “Absolute vs. Relative Performance Rating Formats: Implications for Fairness and Organizational Justice.”
International Journal of Selection and Assessment.  Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 302-316.

My Christmas Wish For You


As we celebrate another holiday season, I am full of gratitude for the many, many people who touched me with kindness in 2011. I am better and stronger because of you. Thank you.

I can’t capture my wishes for you better than Fra Giovanni, a Renaissance artist who wrote the following letter to a patron on Christmas Eve, 1513.

There is nothing I can give you, which you have not got,
but there is much, very much that while I cannot give it, you can take.

No heaven can come to us 
unless our hearts find rest in today.
 Take heaven!
No peace lies in the future 
which is not hidden 
in this present little instant. 
Take peace!

The gloom of the world 
is but a shadow. Behind it, 
yet within our reach 
is joy. 
There is radiance and glory
 in the darkness 
could we but see -
and to see we have only to look. 
I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver, 
but we, judging its gifts 
by the covering, 
cast them away as ugly 
or heavy or hard. 
Remove the covering 
and you will find beneath it 
a living splendor, 
woven of love, 
by wisdom, with power.

Welcome it, grasp it, 
touch the angel’s hand
 that brings it to you.
 Everything we call a trial, 
a sorrow, or a duty, believe me, 
that angel’s hand
 is there, 
the gift is there, and the wonder 
of an overshadowing presence. 
Our joys, too, be not 
content with them as joys. 
They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full
 of meaning and purpose,
 so full of beauty
- beneath its covering -
that you will find earth 
but cloaks your heaven.

Courage, then, to claim it, 
that is all. 
But courage you have, 
and the knowledge that 
we are all pilgrims together,
 wending through 
unknown country, home.

And so, at this time, 
I greet you. 
Not quite as the world 
sends greetings, 
but with profound esteem 
and with the prayer
 that for you
 now and forever, 
the day breaks, 
and the shadows flee away.

Sourced from a Christmas letter written by Fra Giovanni, 1513

Have a blessed and joyous holiday season. May all your good come back to you in 2012.

Let The Monkey Go


Oh, the holiday season! How many of you are like me- trying to close in on work goals, select gifts, plan celebrations, and, yeah, then there’s life? Martha Stewart and your calendar should both come with a warning rating this time of year. For example, starting performance reviews, planning the neighborhood open house, anticipating in law visits and navigating air travel could be Threat Level Orange: Melt -down likely.

Monkey Brain and Holidays
The Buddhist concept of monkey brain is a brain that swings from idea to idea. Like the lovable apes, we land on an idea only to be distracted to a new one. Here’s how the monkey showed up in my brain this week: I have a great idea for the Performance Management presentation. Wonder when the compensation info will be ready? I must send that package to Rick. Don’t forget to send out the team reports!Talk to Peter- do we really want to have two parties? What do we do about cards this year?

The drawbacks outweigh the benefits of monkey brain. First, any focus on things I really need to do is interrupted. The must do’s take longer. Second, monkey brain simmers a low level of anxiety as a result of its nagging reminders of what I haven’t done or could do. It damages the clarity of the present. Finally, monkey brain uses energy that could be put to productive use.

You may be better than me at focus and discipline. If yes, I admire you. It’s difficult for me all the time- and more so at this time of year. That’s why I was fascinated by the ideas in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (2011).  It’s full of useful and proven insights. But when hectic meets end of year crazy; I found the chapters on monkey brain and what to do about it to be particularly helpful.

The Zeigarnik Effect
The Zeigarnik Effect is named for a Russian psychology student you may never have heard of -Bluma Zeigarnik. You may have heard of her famous mentor, Kurt Lewin. Together, they investigated a question: Does the human memory draw a distinction between finished and unfinished business?  Their result is known as The Zeigarnet Effect: Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals will continue to pop up into human minds.  It explains why the project you completed last week does not continue to pop into your mind, but the one you did not complete does.

What To Do About Monkey Brain
If you want to be like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, you don’t have to do anything to keep the screen crawl of ideas coming.  Zeigarnik and Lewin proved uncompleted goals and tasks will pop up uninvited on a regular basis. But if you don’t like the I Got You Babe type of thought interruptions, Roy Baumeister and his colleague, E.J. Masiacampo, have research that may offer a solution.

Baumeister’s and Masiacampo’s research showed that subjects who had a plan suffered less monkey brain than those who did not. Their theory is that uncompleted goals and tasks go into the subconscious. The subconscious cannot plan; only the conscious can plan. So, the subconscious acts like your mother. It picks up the clutter and reminds your conscious to put it somewhere. The subconscious does not need to complete the tasks, but it needs them to be put away in an orderly manner. And when they are, the nagging stops.

There are steps Baumeister and Tierney suggest we take to send monkey brain on a nice holiday trip. Most of these ideas are sourced from efficiency expert David Allen.

Make a Do, Delegate, Drop  or Defer decision for every task that comes across your desk or through your mind. Don’t postpone this decision. I personally favor delegate or drop during the holidays, but make the right decision for you.

Make a plan for the Do decisions. Your subconscious is a nag; it will keep reminding you that it needs a plan until you have it.  If you can complete the task within two minutes, do it now. Otherwise, put the task on your calendar now or in a daily folder for when you need it. Do not leave it unattended on your desk. Every Do must have a place.

For every Do decision, identify a specific next step. Think critically of the exact next step you need to complete the task. Write the specific next step and what you’ll need to do it. For example, if you have to write up next year’s goals before you leave for the holidays, don’t write: Next Year’s Goals on a list.  Break it down to: 1) Seek Input from Manager. Start there. Once completed with that step, ad the next logical one.

Add a Dream folder. Monkey brain also reminds us of our unfulfilled life and career dreams. So, when these pop up thoughts remind you that you want to change careers, move to the beach or learn a new skill, write it down and put it in your dream folder. Occasionally set aside time on your calendar to review your dream folder and identify the next steps for the dreams you wish to pursue.

I’ve been following the advice of Baumeister and Tierney. It makes a positive difference. I get more done with a clearer mind and have less guilt that I “should be” doing the thing that’s popped into my mind.  If you want to give up monkey brain for the holidays, or forever, give it a try.


Baumeister, R.F. and Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Books.

Brilliant Minds and Bad Ideas


Irving Fisher was brilliant. A man no less than Milton Friedman called Fisher “the greatest economist the US ever produced.”  His models  are still used by modern economists. But, brilliant or not, the rest of us have something in common with Irving Fisher.  We can be wrong – really, really wrong. Even with his magnificent legacy, many recall Fisher for his one big blooper: his 1929 prediction that “U.S. stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.”

Irving Fisher isn’t the only brilliant mind that got it wrong. Consider:

  • Winston Churchill is often cited as one of the great leaders of the 20th century for his unwavering leadership during World War II. He was right about many things, but not atomic energy. Sir Winston declared in 1939 that atomic energy was unlikely to produce anything more dangerous than “present day” weapons.
  • For those of a certain age, the Ed Sullivan Show was American Idol and Dancing With The Stars combined. Everyone tuned in to find the emerging talent they put on the stage every Sunday night. The booking agent that set off many careers was not impressed by one act after their first appearance, stating that this group would not last a year. Today, we’d say The Beatles exceeded his expectations.

The smart people who made these pronouncements could not imagine they were wrong. To be fair, history shows they were right about most things. Yet, like the rest of us, they got a few things terribly wrong. We don’t know exactly why in each case. What we can do is understand the thought patterns that kept them, and keep us, stuck in conclusions that crowd out new possibilities. One powerful pattern is the comfort of current ideas, which produces the drive to defend what we think instead of examining it for accuracy.

The Fortress of the Comfort Zone
Our comfort zones are our mental warm beds on cold mornings; we hate to leave them. They are so reassuring that we strengthen them with thinking patterns that minimize the need to venture out to cold floors of uncertainty. Social scientists name this reluctance cognitive dissonance; the discomfort of holding two or more conflicting ideas. We react to this conflict by reaching resolution one way or the other, and climb back under the warm covers by holding onto our established conclusions.

Our tendency to hold onto decisions that resolve dissonance produces one of the most researched cognitive biases: congeniality or confirmation bias. It means that when we reach conclusions, we select subsequent data that confirms our conclusion and dismiss disconfirming data. In a meta analysis of 21 research studies, William Hart, Dolores Albarracin, et al (2009) found that people are almost two times more likely to select information that supports pre-existing attitudes, beliefs and conclusions. This defense motivation was stronger for reversible vs. non-reversible decisions, and strong for recent decisions.

In other words, Hart, Albarracin, et al noticed the same patterns that you may observe when your extended holiday gatherings turn to controversial topics. Many of us don’t like to be uncertain or revisit decisions. To strengthen the fortress around our comfortable ideas, we debate with selective facts that support our views, even when there is little real risk in changing our minds.

Implications for Innovation
Defense motivation and congeniality bias do more than make our family gatherings more memorable. In Harvard Business Review (December 2011), Paul Leonardi writes about the affect that early prototypes may have on harming creativity. He makes the case that while prototypes bring an abstract concept to life (resolve dissonance), they may also produce “innovation blindness” when defense and improvement of the prototype starts and brainstorming on different solutions stops.

I have no way to know if the smart people who made the famously bad calls listed above fell into this trap, but it’s easy to imagine that defending their current view was much easier than imagining a different future. I am certain that years from now someone will critique the bad calls of our day, perhaps because we could not imagine it differently, either.

 Open minds have more opportunities for great moments.

Your first conclusion doesn’t have to be your last conclusion. Don’t underestimate the comfort of resolution after deliberation. It may remain your best option, but be open to other possibilities. Follow the principle of John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind.”

Befriend a Devil’s Advocate. Have at least one confidant comfortable enough to challenge your assumptions and conclusions. As one of my mentors recently advised: “I only challenge to gain clarity.” The right conclusion can withstand the debate; a weak one will be improved because of it.

Intentionally seek out information opposite of your opinion. Once settled into an opinion, seek out others who disagree. Read editorials that differ from your opinion; listen to interviews of people you dislike. It’s not necessary to change your mind, only to recognize that others have legitimate reasons to see the situation differently. This practice can help you imagine what else you can see differently.

Even brilliant people make bad calls. Some of these will be due to the self-interest of hanging onto the comfort of a conclusion after struggling through dissonance. With open minds and ongoing willingness to question, we can improve our chances of being right in the long run.

William Hart, Dolores Albarracin, et al (2009). Feeling Validated vs. Being Correct: A Meta Analysis of Selective Exposure to Information. Psychological Bulletin, vol 135 (4), p.555-588.

Paul Leonardi (2011). Early Prototypes Can Hurt a Team’s Productivity. Harvard Business Review, December, 2011, p. 28.