Feedback – or Lessons on Hearing Past my Biases

It wasn’t what we expected. Have you ever asked for feedback and ended up being surprised by what you found out?  This happened recently to us and it opened up a great lesson on leadership.  We started a product development cycle to answer a problem that occurs over time in some of one of our products. We designed three new prototypes based on feedback we had received from our customers.  Once we completed building the prototypes we showed them around the factory and reached a consensus about which one our customers would like best.
Then, we schedule some focus groups with customers to decide whether we had the right idea.  We asked the participants in our focus group to rate the prototype designs and tell us which one they would most like buy and why.

Then the surprises started. The participants all gravitated to the one choice we thought was the most boring.  When we calculated the results the product design team challenged the outcome.  Did we ask the right questions?  Did we tabulate the results accurately?  Why did this prototype seem better to the participants than the two factory favorites?

Feedback is always important in product development.  Our customers often give us the best ideas!  But our corporate reaction to this feedback got me thinking about feedback I receive as a leader.  How important do I consider this to be?  What did our experience with the focus groups teach me about leadership generally?  As I thought about it I came up with three feedback pitfalls that I have experienced and seen leaders commit when it comes to either giving or receiving feedback.

Pitfall 1: Championing a Premature Solution (Regardless of the Feedback)

The focus group experience illustrates this pitfall in seeking feedback.  We set up the focus group as a way to affirm a predisposition not explore possibilities.  This was not a conscious act – we did not see the bias we were working out of until we faced the contrast of unexpected response.  Leaders must be aware of their biases. When leaders ask for feedback and that feedback does not give the anticipated results its time to stop and check the biases i.e., the assumptions. Obviously we wanted to know what would sell best but we had inadvertently committed ourselves in the wrong direction – we committed to a particular solution rather than a measurable outcome.  What is the difference and why is it important to remember not just in product development but also in leadership?

Presumably the ask for feedback assumes that the solution has not yet been identified.  The mistake we made was that we assumed we knew the real problem and had the only commercially viable solution.  The mistake was that we owned a solution before we really defined the problem from the customer’s point of view.  I see leaders making the same mistake i.e., rushing to a solution before they really hear the problem. As a result time and energy is spent on actions that have either no impact or the opposite impact the action intended.

The lesson for leaders is to change the focus of attention.  Rather than enter conversations seeking to own (define, promote or insist on) a solution leaders should spend more time helping define the problem and the preferred outcome.  When others engage in helping define the problem then it is possible that several great solutions present themselves.

Pitfall 2: Reactive Response

The internal tension I felt during the focus group was just that – internal. I faced a decision to either be defensive about which option I felt was best or to spend time asking questions to understand why I received the feedback I was getting.  This ability to stop in mid-emotion and think about what I wanted to really do has been a hard-earned skill. There have been times that I projected my own embarrassment at being caught flat-footed on what others were thinking and became reactive.  The result was never pretty – typically I reacted to things no one else perceived. I have often seen leaders react defensively or punitively when they felt like questions were a sign of disrespect and not engagement in a process of change or understanding.

The lesson for leaders is to embrace the reality that emotionally awkward situations may show one’s insecurity more accurately than the disrespect or challenge to one’s authority. When that twinge of embarrassment lurks below the surface ask what internal assumption just got challenged.  Then embrace the emotion and ask for more clarification.  Lead the process of discovery rather than blow it up with reactive emotions.

Pitfall 3: Working on Assumptions not Facts

Feedback is simply information that helps to decide whether actions are moving closer to an objective or farther away.  Somewhere deep in the Judeo-Christian ethic an awareness exists that feedback is a constant companion.  Jesus said it this way,

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26)

Notice the verbs; teach and remind.  These verbs certainly show that providing feedback both in the sense of a moral compass and commentary on behavior is a normative experience. Somewhere this gets lost.  However, effective leaders embrace feedback and create a culture that encourages feedback to engage actions that grow in consistency between their impact and their intention.  In other words feedback helps close the gap between behavior and the vision of the organization.  So what is it that causes feedback to go awry?

The leadership lesson is that all of us have past experiences, relationships, beliefs and assumptions that serve as filters to what we hear.  Chris Argyris calls this the ladder of inference and he describes it in seven steps:

  1. All observable data and experience
  2. I select “data” from what I observe
  3. I add meanings
  4. I make assumptions
  5. I draw conclusions
  6. I adopt beliefs
  7. I take action based on beliefs

It is important for individuals and leaders to be aware of this process of inference.  When providing feedback it is important to listen for the beliefs behind the responses.  When listening to feedback it is just as important to consider whether one’s own beliefs are they supported by the data or do they distort the data?

The focus group process helped us land on the right product design.  But the greater win may be that we learned something about how we respond to feedback that will make us more effective leaders and better friends in the days ahead.  How are you using feedback?  What experience have you had with either positive or negative feedback?

Shaping Employee Engagement and Emotional Intelligence Part 2

In part 1 “Shaping Employee Engagement and Emotional Intelligence” I outlined a situation in which one of my direct reports (Sally) launched an email broadside aimed at my boss and included my entire team and copied the executive team.  She disagreed with a decision.  She had a significant insight that if delivered with some finesse would have improved the project.  Her edgy emotionally charged tone buried her insights and resulted in a sharp rebuke from my boss.  I returned from a business trip to manage multiple layers of disillusionment and anger.
I urge open communication among my team.  This fact is known in the company and upon my return I was instructed to pull my team in line.  Managing up meant that I affirm the inappropriateness of the email and outline the limits I insist on when encouraging open communication (i.e., respect, a clear business case, passion – emotion does not bother me).  The email failed to communicate respect, it communicated impertinence.  It failed to make a business case – it jumped to unsubstantiated conclusions on the motives of the executive team. It had plenty of passion.  Two things were at stake in my upward management: (1) whether I was leading the team or was being overrun by the team and (2) whether the disruption caused by the employee offset the value they brought to the company. How would you manage the upward challenge?

When I walked back into the office I asked Sally to meet with me.  She entered my office and declared, “Tom already talked to me about the email.”

“Ok, then tell me why it was inappropriate.”  I asked.

She answered, “I was mad and should have just kept this to myself.  I will never talk again every time I do I just get shot down.”

What do you see in her response?  How would you have responded to her statement? What result might I face if I let her statement stand?

The rest of my team was hiding in their offices.  I made the rounds and checked in with each of them.  They felt the tension in the office and universally felt that they had lost something in the public exchange that occurred between Sally and Tom.  They knew I was under pressure to bring things back into control.  They did not want to lose the ability to talk openly with me about their concerns and ideas. On the other hand they did not want to go through another round of acidic public exchanges.  They felt my boss could be punitive even over reactive.

Was my boss over reactive?  What did I need to pay attention to as I responded to the team?

In Part 3, I will tell the rest of the story and how things worked out.

Resilience – A Lesson on Leadership from Manufacturing

Resilience is a process of adapting in the face of difficulty, hardships, trauma, tragedy, or set backs.  Since I work in a manufacturing environment I often think about resilience.  For example the resilience of our foam or proprietary blow molded seat foundation. We design and test seating products to endure the stresses of routine use and support the comfort and durability that is the company quality brand. We go to great lengths to engineer our product to serve the unique demands of our market.
Product design and testing made me think about resilience as an adaptive response needed by leaders who face the stressors of routine activity. No one thinks about a chair failing.  A chair used week in and week out does not suddenly change in how it feels, how it performs and how it looks. Similarly no one thinks about a leader failing.  People expect leaders to be consistent week in and week out (i.e., compassionate, authoritative, certain, open, knowledgeable, inquisitive, courageous etc.).

Leaders unlike chairs actually experience stress inducing events and circumstances. Unlike chairs one cannot engineer leaders to be resilient and durable. The act of leading is more complex.  So, how are leaders tested and proven so that they grow in resilience?  Allow me to stretch my manufacturing analogy to illustrate my observations on leadership resilience.

Start with Purpose

When we think about new products the first question we ask is always how will a chair be used e.g., for a “3rd place”, a training room, a sanctuary – each application places different demands on a chair.  We look at design trends in facilities.  We look at aesthetic trends.  Why?  Manufacturing a top selling church or hospitality/banquet chair means it has to serve the customer’s purpose with distinction.

Developing resilience in leaders requires a similar intentionality.  Leaders who have a sense of purpose define the present based on where they are going in the future. Think about what you want your leadership life to look like in the future.  Imaging for a moment what it would feel like to experience that future – to be there and enjoying the outcomes. How do you feel – empowered, encouraged, confident, energized? Leaders always start at the future and work backwards.  This propensity to live “future forward” creates hope and a sense of purpose and lays a foundation for resilience.

Resilience doesn’t mean an absence of difficulty or emotional pain. Resilience develops in leaders who practice “future forward” thinking in the midst of difficulty and emotional pain and show a specific set of characteristics:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
  • A positive view of oneself and confidence in one’s strengths and abilities
  • Skills in communication and problem solving
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses
  • Accept that change is part of living.

Individuals or leaders who move through life without a sense of purpose typically share an opposite set of characteristics.

  • Lack the capacity to make realistic plans usually supplanting plans with “pipe dreams” that are disconnected from their context
  • Exhibit a victim mentality and lack of confidence offering the evidence of how life and circumstances have stolen their opportunity to make it big
  • No problem solving skills instead they shift responsibility for action to others
  • Demonstrate a lack of self-discipline as seen in impulsive actions and inappropriate and accentuated emotions (e.g., rage, fear, self-loathing)
  • See change as a threat to well being.

Great leaders like a great chair exhibit a structure in life that absorbs impact and returns to its design parameters.  For example, sit on a chair and stand up – the foam in the seat returns to its original shape after being compressed.  Great leaders show the same consistency in character – their sense of purpose helps them keep their emotional and intellectual shape as they live “future forward”.

Define the Cost

Once we understand the purpose of a church chair and determine a design that meets the use requirements and aesthetic sensibilities of the greatest number of customers we define the materials needed to manufacture the new church chair. The process of finding quality material at the best cost helps us decide whether future customers will be able to afford the price of the chair.

Jesus’ parable about the tower builder affirms the importance of cost awareness. (Luke 14:28-30)  Leaders recognize the cost of their actions and routinely reassess this cost.  What costs are associated with leadership decisions?  The costs of living “future forward” include more than financial costs. In a leadership context cost include factors such as:

  • Impact on relationships
  • Ethical challenges
  • Follower’s emotional capacity for change
  • Unexpected impact on facilities, regulations, and organizational structures

Even in successful leadership initiatives that propel an organization to a new level of prosperity and influence hidden costs arise because change has occurred.

The question we face in manufacturing is whether the value to the customer makes up for the cost of producing the product – the question of price.  If we design ingenious chairs but the associated costs cannot be offset by the value added to the customer the price would be too high.  If we design ingenious chairs and use substandard materials then the chairs fail in meeting their purpose.

Leaders routinely face similar dilemmas.  What is the best solution or direction for the organization and its people?  If grand plans use substandard processes and inadequate resources because a leader did not count the cost then resilience fails and the leader and the followers loose.

Our design process involves people from every function in the company as well as customer focus groups.  In order to understand purpose and cost we gather advice from as many sources as possible to expect as many potential problems as possible and see opportunity we would otherwise miss.

Leaders who count the cost are only as effective as the feedback they receive.  Make connections with family members, friends, and others who are important and who care about you and listen to you – listen to them.  Solicit their opinion.  This strengthens resilience by clarifying opportunity and identifying potential problems.

Be Persistent

Persistence is an outcome of resilience and a factor in developing resilience.  By persistence I do not mean meanness, spite, vindictiveness or ruthlessness.  I mean determination, perseverance, diligence and resolution.  Why must leaders exercise persistence?  Persistence is the practice that refines the leader’s vision and grows capacity for resilience.

Leadership vision is always incomplete.  This is one of the most important leadership principles affecting resilience.  The single greatest relational mistake leaders make is the assumption that they know best because they see a future or an opportunity clearly.  A leader may see a clear future. However the leader also must see the challenges, resistance, threats, opportunities and insights that have the potential of shaping or derailing a leader’s vision.  Leaders need to listen to feedback to gather intelligence about the path to the vision.

A leader’s level of resilience is a result of persisting in a purpose over time.  Persistence accepts help from others, looks for multiple break-out opportunities that set the stage for the future and spends very little time with entrenched opposition to the vision.  This does not mean leaders can ignore feedback. Leaders who persist recognize the difference between a naysayer (resister) and an early adapter or a neutral (who will ultimately contribute to the vision when they see it works) and choose to spend their relational currency strategically.

When we design a new product we persist in getting feedback all the way through the development process.  Persistence is like the actions of a great football running back like Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Terrell Davis, Tony Dorsett or Willie Gallimore.  Like running backs leaders bounce off tacklers, look for blockers, see the opportunities in the open field and always orient to the goal. Like a running back persistent leaders get up after being knocked down.  Persistent leaders look for new means when their planned strategy collapses. Persistent leaders listen for the encouragement of their team mates.  Leaders who exercise persistence are people who:

  • Meet obstacles as learning opportunities
  • Learn from set backs to refine communication and clarity
  • Ask questions to look for insights and correlations they did not see before
  • Interpret setbacks as an opportunity to test the validity of their strategy
  • Incorporate feedback into their tactical responses to new situations


Watching a leader under pressure says a lot about the leader’s future potential. Leaders who own a sense of purpose, exercise cost awareness and practice persistence are leaders whose resilience grows over time thus enlarging their capacity to deal with complexity, ambiguity, resistance, setbacks, and challenges.  More importantly leaders who are resilient see opportunities others miss because they keep looking and learning while others quit.

Resilience is a mindset that practices specific actions over time and adjusts those actions based on lessons learned along the way.  The combination of practice, learning and agility increases a leader’s resilience and enhances the value the leader brings to an organization.

How is your resilience?  Look at the factors I describe above (purpose, cost and persistence) if any of these are weak set aside some time to think about what you see in yourself.  Ask those closest to you for their input. Resilience is learned and is therefore a trait that can increase or decrease.

Defining Moments In Leadership Development

I was thinking about all the defining moments I have experienced or others experience that make them great leaders.  A defining moment is a point at which life takes a new turn because of some deep or penetrating insight, experience or expanded awareness.  Defining moments come in many unique ways and when they come they deeply alter perspective and action. I think of four specific ways defining moments enter the life of a leader.
Defining Moment of Reflection

I thought about a statement one of my students made the other night in class. “I cannot truly know myself by seeing myself just from the inside, I know myself more fully by hearing what others see on the outside.” This student faced a defining moment that will impact the rest of his life. He understood his connection to others in a way that he never had before. The defining moment came as an involuntary insight resulting from the rigor of academic study.  He was struggling with new ideas that challenged deeply held assumptions about himself, his context and his faith. Thinking theologically about what he realized I turn to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where Paul wrote:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.[1]

My student understood himself in a new way. His new insight sent him on a quest of attentiveness to the voices of those who reflect the impact of his behavior.  My student’s insight demonstrates that possessing a sense of belonging in relationship to others does not diminish a sense of self-identity it amplifies it.

If I reflect on this student’s statement psychologically then I turn to the work of Kegan and see that this young man has emerged from a time of differentiation to a new understanding of his interdependence on others. His new self-awareness has provided a new confidence and sense of contribution in life.  If my student did not pay attention to this defining moment he would have become a fearful leader isolated from the advice and help of others.

Defining Moment of Success

The most effective leaders I know recognize defining moments when they face them and they pay attention to them. The April edition of Harvard Business Review was devoted to how people deal with failure and success.  One article noted that people and organizations don’t learn as much from success as they do failure.  It is not that success doesn’t have something to teach us but that we don’t really investigate success.  The result of not thinking about why we are successful or what we should learn from success allows blind spots to occur.

In light of this observation about success I was delighted to read about a defining moment that came as a result of success in the life of a pastoral leader.  Mindi Caliguire writing in Christianity Today described a defining moment rooted in success:

Not long ago a pastor told me: “Mindy, we have a lot of young leaders. Most of our staff is under 40. We’ve launched two new campuses, finished a building campaign, and are making inroads into serving the marginalized in our community. The staff has been running hard and fast for a long time. I’m wondering what the trajectory of our ministry will be two years from now if we don’t intentionally focus on the well-being of our souls. Which marriages are likely to collapse by then? Which young leaders will be run over and left for dead?”[2]

Consider the power of this pastor’s reflection on his own success.  What would have happened if this pastor ignored the defining moment success brought about?  Defining moments are unsettling at any point but I have found that defining moments around success are deeply challenging in part because I have to consider the frailty of success and the reality that success is not an end it is a door way into a far greater challenge.  If this pastoral leader had not allowed the discomfort of this defining moment to challenge his success he would become a toxic leader – a reality clear in his own question.

Defining Moment of Change

Times of change also provide opportunity for defining moments to sneak up on leaders. Jack Connell wrote about his process of change moving from a familiar house and community to a new place.  Packing up his library lead him to reflect on what he would do differently in the future.  He wrote and article titled, “Ministry Mulligans – if I had it to do all over again.”[3] He gave five:

  • More collaboration, less competition
  • More pastor, less CEO
  • More rest, less rush
  • More friendships, less isolation

When I review the insights provided by Jack Connell I find a leader who has chosen to allow the exposure of his own limited perspectives to become a leader of greater capacity. If this leader had not allowed the exposure of his limited perspective and skill while packing his office he would devolve into a leader dependent on habits and blinded to the opportunities change put in front of him. Leaders blinded to opportunity ultimately become hopeless and cynical.

Defining Moment of Prayer

In the situations above, reflection, success and change, defining moments emerge that altered the course of a leader’s life.  But there is another situation that opens up deep processing and new defining moments – it is prayer.  The defining moments initiated by prayer are often realized over time and in hindsight.  King David wrote:

1 I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the LORD
and put their trust in him.[4]

For David patient and persistent prayer turned into a profound realization – God hears our cry. There is something about a leader who prays that affirms the reality of God and the acute insight that the Almighty’s attention encompasses personal struggles and turmoil – God knows me.  Leaders who are defined by prayer are leaders who know what it means to be present in the here and now.  These leaders see people not just big plans. Leaders who are not defined by prayer often leave their footprints over the backs of those they trod to success. Leaders who are not defined by prayer can fall prey to the illusion that leadership is all about them.  David understood that leadership was all about living the kind of life that ultimately draws people to the perception they can trust God.


There are no doubt other contexts where defining moments occur.  The outcomes however are similar. Leaders who embrace and not run from defining moments are leaders who: grow in confidence about their contribution (and not stagnate in fear and isolation); see success as a door way to greater challenges (and not becoming a toxic leader characterized by a lust for more); see opportunity (and not barriers that leave them hopeless and cynical) and see people (and not raw ambition alone).  What defining moment has entered your life?  Did you embrace it or run from it?  Are you the kind of person or leader you hoped?  Take a moment and re-engage your most recent defining moment – let its lessons sink deep and bring about transformation.

[1] 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (NIV)

[2] Mindy Caliguire. “Thruway or Partway?” (Source:; accessed 5 April 2011).

[3] Jack Connell. “Ministry Mulligans: If I had it to do all over again” (Source:; accessed 5 April 2011).

[4] Psalm 40:1-3 (NIV)