To trigger genuine reflection, focus on feedback “loops” rather than feedback “delivery” (working draft)

Framing feedback as part of a reflection process in which you give conscious attention to “feedback loops” (like an engineer) rather than as a performance process in which you exchange “feedback messages” (like a manager or colleague) can profoundly change the way you think and talk about performance.

There is no question that we need information to support personal reflection

We need to collect feedback to support our reflection on how we can grow, contribute more and meet the expectations of our managers, colleagues and other stakeholders. The sharing of observations with each other is one way we provide each other with information we might otherwise miss due to the fundamentally-human traps of subjectivity (limited perspective) and motivated reasoning (survival instinct).

Those observations are particularly valuable as a resource to help us meet other people’s expectations. We can make independent choices about how we personally want to grow as well as what and where we want to contribute. In contrast, it’s virtually axiomatic that it is other people who will make the most important judgments about whether our growth and contributions are in line with what they need and expect from us. Thus, it is not surprising that feedback has come to be seen as an essential element of performance management.

The way we acquire the information affects the way we process it

That said, my feeling is that something went very wrong when we started referring to feedback as “messages we give and receive” to improve performance rather than “information on what has been happening around us as a (presumed) result of our actions and attitudes.” Even if our goal is to improve performance, there are good reasons to choose to frame feedback as “information to be collected and digested” rather than “messages to be delivered and accepted.”

If we pay attention, we can notice feedback loops – reactions to our attitudes and actions – everywhere.

By treating feedback as “a set of performance messages people exchange” rather than as the process of collection of information on interactions (cause-and-effect) within a system (as it is used in engineering) we end up shifting the emphasis from learning (proactive acting, observing, reflecting and adjustment) to conforming (gaining social acceptance / avoiding rejection within a hierarchy). The reality is that if we are not meeting expectations, other people’s observations about us (what we usually call feedback) can actually be (and perhaps even should be) scary to us. They can be reasonably be seen as a threat to something very important to us, such as our ability to continue making a living, maintain our place in a community/organization or preserve a core element of an identity we have built up over the years.

We are often told that we should not fear feedback. We should embrace it as something that will enable us to thrive. This is a nice ideal, and it isn’t totally wrong, but it doesn’t take into account the difference between a human mind that is focused on exploring and growing versus one that is focused on performing, conforming (and often lurking below the surface – surviving).

The biggest barrier to creating a “culture of feedback” may not actually be communication skills so much as how we process the fundamental paradox that while learning is necessary to survival, thinking about learning as something connected to survival is unpleasant and therefore something we generally like to avoid.

For ongoing individual and organizational growth, we need people feel safe revealing that they don’t know something or that they now realize they have been wrong about something in the past. These are often the first steps toward reflection for growth, but it is hard to take these steps if we have associated them too closely with the loss of something important to us. One way to reduce the “survival anxiety” associated with feedback is to re-associate feedback with proactive self-driven learning. This can be done by positioning “the delivery of feedback” as part of a greater process of (often collaborative) “reflection and critical thinking for personal and organizational growth.”

When you use a typical behavior-impact model like SBI to “provide” feedback to someone on the impact of their actions, they may tend to see it as threat, regardless of how much you tell them that this isn’t the purpose of the feedback. Part of the problem is that may feel as though the delivery of this message doesn’t take into account the importance of the internal and external circumstances in which they took those actions.

To make the most of our reflection and critical thinking abilities, we also have to learn to pay attention to what we sense, feel and believe. When we work with others, this is particularly important because these internal states influence our external presence and actions, which in turn influence what the people around us sense, feel, believe and do. Thoughts are always accompanied by feelings (sensations and emotions). When we pay attention to those feelings (sensations and emotions) and bring them to the surface, we can apply critical thinking to them to unveil useful information we can use to adjust our beliefs and actions to bring bring out the best in ourselves and others.

Framing performance feedback as something like feedback loops in engineering can help. When you shift framing away from the “delivery of feedback” from one person to another to the “sharing of observations and reflections from different perspectives”, all parties can learn more from the process.

I think of reflection, feedback and coaching as being similar to the practice of AAR conversations in which you consider:

  • what went well
  • what didn’t go well
  • what to do next time.

These questions can all be supported with a deeper exploration of both internal (intentions, sensations, emotions, beliefs, etc.) and external contextual factors (relationships, resources, other people’s actions, etc.) that may have influenced the actions we took and/or the outcomes we got.

I often use a reflection framework called CIAO to bring more critical thinking to the feedback, reflection and ideation process.


CIAO puts a particular emphasis on exploring context and intentions before we dive too deeply into inferences relating to actions and outcomes. I use CIAO with both groups and individuals to encourage broader and deeper application of critical thinking to the relationships among intentions, actions and results. Adding questions about intended outcomes yields a dialog formula that can be used for ongoing cycles of action, feedback collection, reflection and planning.

What was the CONTEXT?

What was/were our INTENDED outcome(s)?

What ACTION(S) did we take (and not take)?

What was/were the actual OUTCOME(S)?

Once you’ve done a reflective AAR using this methodology, you can use the same schematic to explore options and decide what you’ll do next time you encounter a similar situation.

When will we encounter a similar CONTEXT?

What will our INTENDED outcome(s) be then?

What ACTION(S) will we take (and not take)?

How will we assess whether or not our actual OUTCOME(S) match(es) our INTENDED outcome(s)?

The core discipline here is exploring each category thoroughly. Contextual elements include both external factors (business, organizational, interpersonal, resources) and internal factors (perceptions, sensations, emotions, beliefs, values, etc.). Exploration of intended outcomes (both past and future) should include exploration of various possibilities, including the ones we want(ed) to avoid. When reviewing actions, we should remember not only the actions we took, but also those we either did not take or even notice and give them another look when we consider our next round of actions. Finally, when we consider actual outcomes, we should apply a critical eye to all of the three previous categories, as well as the connections between them. What could we add or remove? What might we want to reframe? What did we get right or miss when we connected context, action and outcome?

If we bring curiosity, humility AND a critical eye to our work and relationships, there is always abundant information available for this kind of reflection and planning. We can help each other this sort of genuine reflection in many ways, but our efforts to help must be informed by the realization that even with a great teacher it is incumbent upon each of us to take responsibility for our own learning.

How do you enable others to collect the feedback they need for meaningful reflection that leads to real change? How do you enable yourself to do the same?

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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