A “feedback conversation” is just one way to make someone aware of what “feedback loops” are telling them about the impact(s) of their actions

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.

We need to collect feedback to help us reflect on how we can grow and develop. The sharing of observations with each other is one way we exchange access to information we would otherwise miss due to the fundamentally-human traps of subjectivity (limited perspective) and motivated reasoning (survival instinct).

That said, my feeling is that something went very wrong when we started referring to feedback as “messages we give and receive” rather than as “information on what has been happening around us as a (presumed) result of our actions and attitudes.”

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 to social acceptance / rejection within a hierarchy, and this may be what we really fear. Other people’s observations about us (what we usually call feedback) are (and perhaps should be) scary if we see them as threatening to something important to us, e.g. our ability to continue to make a living, maintain our place in a community / organization or preserve a core element of an identity we have built up over the years.

The biggest challenge seems to be creating environments where people feel safe revealing that they don’t know something or that they now realize they were wrong. These are often the first steps toward reflection for growth. That’s why I’ve come to reframe these interactions away from “the delivery of feedback” and toward “reflection and critical thinking.” When you use a typical behavior-impact model like SBI to “provide” feedback to someone on the impact of their actions, they will tend to see it as threat, regardless of how much you tell them that this isn’t the purpose of the feedback. And the truth is that in reality sometimes the context really does make the feedback threatening.

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.

CIAO adds exploration of INTENTIONS to reflection, feedback and coaching conversations, bringing out more critical thinking to reveal the relationships among intentions, actions and results. Adding questions about intended outcomes yields a dialog formula that can be used for ongoing cycles of reflection and planning: CONTEXT – (INTENDED) Outcome – ACTION – Actual (OUTCOME):

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 an AAR using this methodology, you can use the same schematic to consider 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)?

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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