With trust, amplify the feedback loops that will jump your performance level

As a marketing VP, in a company somewhere in Europe, I was called to the President’s office Monday morning. Every Monday morning… As I enter, I notice muscle tension in his face, and as he starts to speak, both voice and words signal the same anger. “This is impossible! What’s happening to this market KPI?! Did you not plan to fix that issue?!”

Even before sitting down for the meeting, I’ve gotten plenty of feedback already and I wonder what disaster he’s about to reveal to me and what role I’ve played in it. Or, is it my colleague who’s framed me – again? Or, did the retail chain actually delist our brand, as they threatened to do? Or…??
I’m sure he had a point but I never heard it. My system was busy with more important things: survival. Fight or flight? More about this later.

Today, “feedback” is used to describe one person’s reaction or response to a particular behavior or performance by another person; feedback is understood as “evaluative information” or sometimes “putting down your foot”.

But this is a limited understanding and, as a High-Performance leader, you want more.
You want to have an effect, an increase in performance via a change in behavior. You want to make the most of the concept of feedback that I’ve described in more detail earlier (Natural Performance Feedback):

Feedback is information for the recipient system, e.g. an employee,
useful in amplifying further performance
as she gains and integrates new knowledge, through interaction,
about the results of a given behavior.

Ultimately, you may even dream of your team and its members as a self-regulatory system, able to work with these feedback loops themselves. But let’s save “High Performance Teams” for another discussion.

The point of feedback then is not only to be clear in message, but also to make sure the message is actually received. So, we need access to the other person’s brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex and the “thinking brain”.
We only get this access when the faster brain systems are at ease – when the reptile brain’s fight or flight is not provoked, and the mammalian brain’s needs are met. What we need is trust. Trust lets the alarm system rest, and triggers the right “brain juice” needed for a constructive intraction.

What does this mean for your feedback efforts?
Your signals – like my boss’ – may trigger either trust, or distrust. You want trust; thus, the thinking brain can be part of your conversation, and learning can occur. “Signals” means what you say (words – they are rarely neutral), how you say it (tonality) and what you look like when you do (body language including facial expression). We understand a message through this “full package”, and words – even carefully chosen – are often the smallest part of the package.

NOTE: effective feedback is not about being nice. It is about making sure your message is actually received and integrated, and the recipient system has to be in an open state for optimal effectiveness.


Here are 3 ways to build trust in a feedback situation:

1. Check in with yourself and your intention
The single most important thing you can do is to check in with yourself: Am I OK with this feedback situation, and with the person in front of me? Is my intention good? This will affect your signals, like tonality and many facial muscle movements. If you cannot answer yes to the following questions, your signals will – whether conscious or not – trigger distrust:
a. Am I open and curious about this person / dialogue?
b. Do I want to understand him?
c. Do I trust the other person?
d. Can we collaborate on this?

2. Ask high-quality open questions
Assuming you’re managing yourself to inspire trust, you can proceed to open questions – to which you do not already have the answer. Discovery questions, asked from a state of true curiosity, give us humans a feeling of being heard which in turn allows us to relax, access our thinking brain, and engage. My boss’ favorite question was, “So! – what?!” and although it may look like an open question, “What do you think this might lead to?” is a much higher-quality question. Increase the quality of your questions and you increase trust – and performance.

3. Manage the frames
Be aware of how you set up, or introduce, the feedback you intend to give. What do you say first? “This is impossible!” is a different frame than “Considering our value of Ownership, I’d like to share with you how I heard you react during review – “. Frames can be implicit or explicit and you’ve got many possibilities to enhance effectiveness of the feedback conversation by considering the physical frames in place (where do you give feedback – in a crowded elevator? From behind your desk? Not likely to work well…) as well as the psychological ones (does this person already trust me? Does she feel confident with this project?).

My well-meaning and intellectually brilliant boss probably had no idea he could have helped me learn and shift my performance to a higher level simply by changing his signals to allow me to relax and access my thinking brain during our conversations. And so, we missed many opportunities to move towards High Performance in our team…for no good reason, really.