Leadership Conversations: The Art and Heart of Feedback
In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a six game tournament. The fists of computer programmers around the world pumped the air in jubilation. Here, for the first time in history, was proof that artificial intelligence could outsmart humanity at their own game.
And they were right. But for the wrong reasons.
Roger C Shank is one person who understood this more than most. A world leader in the field of artificial intelligence, learning theory, cognitive science, and virtual learning environments, Shank already knew that it wasn’t superior logic that won the day.
When Deep Blue and Kasparov faced off across a chess board, Shank already had 25 years experience with AI research and development. To make computers think like humans, he knew he first had to understand how humans think. And more importantly, how they learn.
The results of Shank’s research so inspired him that he eventually pivoted his work to champion the cause of educational reform. Shank’s most profound discovery was this:
‘Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic. They are ideally set up to understand stories’.
What does all this have to do with leadership conversations and feedback?
Kasparov’s undoing in his historic defeat by Deep Blue was not due to any lack of logic or intellect on his part. It was story. Specifically, the stories Kasparov was telling himself during the tournament. And his very human emotions that came along for the ride. He over-thought some of the machine’s moves and became unnecessarily anxious about its abilities, making errors that ultimately led to his own defeat.
The human brain is not just organised. It is organic.
Our brains may be a matrix of neural networks transmitting an infinite number of electromagnetic messages, but we don’t operate with the cold, objective logic of a computer. Our brains also generate and respond to mood altering neurotransmitters and biochemical reactions. There’s a visceral, personal and social context to our thinking. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reminds us, ‘We are not necessarily thinking machines, we are feeling machines that think’.
We think emotionally. We think and feel in stories.
Which is why many attempts at feedback, despite being well intended, often fail.
Leadership conversations are learning moments – for us and the people we’re engaged with. They are deliberate conversations designed to help us and our teams clarify our purpose, refine our mission and adjust our strategies. These are moments when we learn more about ourselves, the people we work with and serve, and how we can best achieve the results we all want. So to make the most of these leadership conversations, these learning moments, it’s vital to keep in mind Roger Shank’s wisdom – people think and learn in stories.
For feedback to work, facts and logic are essential. But the story they come wrapped in will ultimately decide how we process, understand and learn.
Now I’m not saying you should stock up on a repertoire of anecdotes and parables and become the world’s best raconteur. What I am saying is be mindful that people think in stories. So any conversation about feedback, course-correction and behaviour adjustment will always be embedded in a story. In fact, there are multiple stories overlaid on any one event.
There’s our story – what we see and feel about the situation, about ourselves, the other person, how they may respond or react, how we feel about that, what the possible outcomes might be for our organisation or team.
Then there’s the other person’s story – what they think and feel about this issue, their self-image, their perceptions of you and your leadership style. And whether they welcome feedback as a positive process for self-development or see it as an inevitable but irritating part of their job. Is it any wonder then that some of us may feel a little apprehensive about these kinds of conversations.
It helps to keep in mind the words of Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’.
What is the most important story here?
Despite any broader context, the conversation we’re about to have is a simple one. The topic is this person’s behaviour, the impact it’s having on you, other people and operational outcomes.
That said, we approach these conversations with an attitude of grace. One of my mentors was fond of quoting Hanlon’s razor, ‘Never attribute to malice what is more easily explained by stupidity’. He meant (in a kind way, sort of) that people are unaware of their blind spots. Often, they are simply oblivious to broader effects of their behaviour or the emotional wake they leave behind.
There are two issues. People are either unaware of their problem or they are insufficiently disturbed by it. Our job is to help them become more aware and, if necessary, more disturbed. To do that well, we need to guide the narrative. It is a narrative for change, and therefore by nature, also a narrative of persuasion.
Think of any story you’ve ever heard. They all follow the same basic pattern. It’s about change. There’s situation-normal, then an interruption, challenge or problem to solve, followed by a solution that leads to a new normal. Whether it’s Cinderella, Shrek, NCIS, Star Wars, Dr Who or Lord of the Rings, there is always a narrative arc that leads from an existing situation to a better one through some form of problem/solution paradigm.
Think of your organisation’s broader narrative – it’s a story of change. At a macro level we aim to help those we serve create a new and better normal. Within that, at a micro level, we seek to create a new normal for specific individuals, in a given context, one conversation at a time. Feedback is our opportunity to interrupt a faulty story line and lead people towards a new and better status quo. Leadership is understanding that if we don’t shape the story, someone else will. If we don’t provide clear guidance about the story we want, other people are going to make up their own. We’re human. It’s what we do.
Above all, our communication goal is to help this other person see a way forward so they can become the hero of their own story.
As such, our story is also a narrative of persuasion. Leadership is allowing the gravitational energy of our presence to attract people towards a better orbit or trajectory. In the art of persuasion, our tools are words and questions. Our craft, to shape positive influence.
Persuasion in Western thought and culture has its foundations in Greek philosophy and a tradition of oratory that includes three essential elements:
- Logos – facts, logic, evidence
- Ethos – ethics, credibility, a shared sense of integrity
- Pathos – emotions, empathy, social context and relationships
It’s vital our feedback narratives include all three. Our feedback story not only needs to be factual and logical; it must also take into account the emotional elements of the story we’re embedded in and persuade people towards a new normal in a way that is ethically sound and not manipulative. With this in mind, let’s side-track briefly and look at common feedback practice that doesn’t measure up to the conditions we’ve just described.
You’re probably familiar with the Feedback Sandwich. It’s used when someone thinks it’s easier for people to hear and accept negative feedback if it comes bubble-wrapped in positive feedback to soften the blow. Or when the person delivering the feedback is uncomfortable with confrontation. For example, Max (Maxwell or Maxine, you decide) may be a new team member whose abrupt communication style is rubbing people up the wrong way. So the feedback sandwich might sound something like this:
‘Hey Max, it’s great to have you on board with our new project. But can you do me a favour please and maybe tone down the way you’re communicating with the rest of the team. But hey, really appreciate your level of commitment.’
Max could walk away from that conversation feeling upbeat, and simply overlook the part about a need for change. Even if the need is recognised, there’s no guidance about how to do it. Instead, there’s an even chance Max will feel the supporting praise wasn’t genuine. There’s little trust and transparency in the interaction. At best it’s insincere, at worst it’s manipulative. Either way it’s not effective. The change narrative is lost in a bundle of fluff.
Image the story this portrays. Hey Max, I have some negative feedback for you. I’ll start with some positive feedback to relax you, then I’ll give you some negative feedback, which is my real purpose. But I won’t go into detail in case that gets messy. And I’ll end with more positive feedback, so you won’t feel disappointed or angry with me. Phew, glad that’s over.
Sounds absurd right? People prefer frankness to flattery. They want feedback that is clear, direct, transparent and respectful. No carbs, just the filling, please.
For example, we might approach Max this way:
‘Max, I want to talk to you about the effect your communication style is having on our project and the team.’
‘I noticed you interrupted other team members three times in this morning’s meeting. Can we talk about that real quick? I mention this because it seemed to create some tension in the group. Your colleagues were trying to get a point across but couldn’t finish. Did you happen to notice that? And when I saw that, I felt uneasy — I think we might be undercutting our options here by not getting everyone’s ideas on the table. Let’s take a moment to talk about the best way to go forward from here.’
Our narrative arc is clearly defined.
We’ve identified cause and context, we’ve explained our rationale and why this matters, and we’re seeking genuine input from Max about a solution. This is now an authentic story about moving to a new normal. A story that Max can participate in and become more hero than villian.
Remember Logos, Ethos and Pathos – the three musketeers of persuasion? We’ve simply laid out the facts and the effects on you, other people and operational objectives. There’s no manipulation, accusation, apportioning blame or eliciting guilt. It’s an ethical and non-judgemental statement of fact. We don’t shy away from any emotions involved, and we use ‘I’ language not ‘you’ language to describe the issue. When you did ‘x’, I felt ‘y’…
‘When you interrupted and spoke over the top of other team members this morning, I felt uneasy and I sensed some tension in the room. I was also concerned that we maybe left some good ideas off the table, and that could potentially undercut the quality of our project.’
It’s a simple story. The behaviour is Max’s; the feelings and observations are ours. And there’s an open invitation to work together on a solution. We’re guiding the narrative to a new and better normal.
Susan Scott, founder of Fierce Inc, has a fabulous narrative template for exactly these sorts of conversations. You can watch the YouTube video HERE. Or you may like the Ask-Tell-Ask method used by clinician educators Pete Hannon and Kathleen Timme.
Leadership conversations are braver and messier than cold, machine logic. They require story, humanness and vulnerability. Brene Brown outlines this beautifully in ‘Dare to Lead’, describing these moments as a ‘rumble’:
‘A rumble is a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard. When someone says, “Let’s rumble,” it’s a cue to show up with an open heart and mind so we can serve the work and each other, not our egos. It’s declaring, ‘Let’s have a real conversation, even if it’s tough.’
Finally, the principles we’ve discussed apply equally well to positive feedback and praise. In the same way that vague and ambiguous feedback rarely leads to effective change, positive affirmation of good behaviour also needs to be specific and precise to have the intended effect. To create impact, positive reinforcement must shine the light on a specific example, explain why it’s good, and describe the positive emotions you feel.
‘Hey, great presentation last night, those real-world examples helped me see some easy ways to apply your ideas. I feel much more confident about this project now. Thank you.’
Remember, correct in private and praise in public. The more public the better. If our role as leaders is to shape the narratives of the workplace, then good news stories certainly deserve top billing.
We think and learn in stories. The stories we are told, and those we tell ourselves. The stories we believe, and the ones we deny. The stories we run from, and those we embrace. In the end we are our stories. As leaders, our responsibility is to choose our stories well. To shape the stories that matter. To remind those we work alongside, people like us do things this way.
To borrow an idea from Susan Scott, our conversation is not about leadership, our conversation IS leadership.
(By the way, I have no affiliation with any links, people or organisations mentioned in this article. Good work and useful ideas are worth sharing. Likewise, if you found this article useful, please pass it on.)