Learning as a leader
Utilizing feedback loops to unearth hidden information
Hello, I’m Suzan. Thank you for reading Suzan’s Fieldnotes — a newsletter exploring leadership, psychology and organizational dynamics through real life stories. I try to make this one of the best emails you get this week. It’s one of my favorite things to write. If you enjoy the content, please like and share it.
“When clouds swim in front of the moon and obscure it’s light completely, those same clouds instantly shine white and cold. When black clouds are mixed in with the white, a delicate chiaroscuro is formed. Behind that pattern of dappling dark, the wan moon is concealed, wreathed with ashen or lilac or pale blue light, full or halved or a shape more slender still, waning to a single sliver.” Han Kang, The White Book
Feedback is essential for growth. The stimulus loop allows us to form neural pathways that guide our actions. There’s a stimulus and a reaction. We start building them young. As a child someone turned off the lights as I was getting out of the bathtub. I slipped, resulting in three stitches underneath my chin. The stimulus was enough to forever change me. Transitioning between the tub and floor equals pain. I prefer showers due to the precarious nature of this liminal zone. I'm extra cautious when I have to use a bathtub which might be why I've never fallen again.
In our career, the landscape is more complicated. There are more variables to consider obscuring the stimulus/response cycle. Adding to this, we must contend with intrapersonal and interpersonal blind spots. These behaviors and mindsets get in the way of our work and relationships with others yet it’s difficult to observe ourselves accurately and objectively. How do you spot something that’s obscured from your view? Luckily we have support structures — role descriptions, managers, formal feedback opportunities, career ladders and the like. These feedback loops are critical levers for skill development and progression allows us to evaluate and adjust shortening the cycle of learning.
When you reach senior leadership, most of those structured loops fall away. You've transitioned to do-it-yourself feedback loops which means you have to work harder to reveal blind spots and find hidden information.
It’s tempting to focus on the logistics of feedback loops. Should I set up an anonymous survey? Should I ask for feedback in a group setting or 1:1s? These options among having an exec coach, a leadership mastermind group and asking for feedback in your 1:1s are all powerful tools. You’ll discover the right mix through experiments.
There are logistics to consider but the intrapersonal and interpersonal bits are trickier. Here’s what I’ve learned about do-it-yourself feedback loops.
Lean into being uncomfortable
It's easy to ask for feedback from those we're around the most, typically other leads or close friends. Unless chosen because they're wildly different, the perspective you get is likely to be limited. They’re more likely to view the world similarly. You have to consciously include people outside your bubble — including demographics like race, gender, ability and the like. Getting perspective from people who differ from you in marked ways isn’t comfortable. They’re likely to have observations that surprise us. For most, being shown a blind spot isn’t easy to digest. It takes being willing to be vulnerable, to feel dumb or embarrassed. This is harder for leads who often must do this publicly. It’s humbling. Leaders have to lean into the discomfort of learning in public. If you don’t, you’ll make repetitive mistakes, cause accidental harm and break trust with the team.
Create holistic loops
This announcement caused a commotion in the tech community. Policies aside, the way these changes were announced are revealing. These leaders pride themselves on working in public which can be a form of feedback loop. However, they shared the new policies without a conversation with those most affected — the team. I’m going to guess they got feedback from other execs at the company and trusted mentors/friends in the industry. It's disheartening that they lacked a feedback loop for the people most affected by the policy changes. Tough decisions are part of the leadership journey. I struggled with it too. There are times when you have to make policies for the sustainability of the business that the team won't like. Still, their observations can reveal hidden information we just can’t see from out seat. Decisions made with incomplete feedback loops can lead to organizational distress. Holistic feedback loops allows us to see multiple points of view. These perspectives may not wholescale switch a decision but they do help you be more informed and guide how you roll out change. This creates more orgnaizational harmony and trust, which happen to be useful in reaching business goals.
Consider feedback carefully
In other words, really listen. It's true the team won't always have full context. Sometimes legal and confidentiality concerns interfere so the feedback might be off the mark. Still, there might be a kernel of truth in there. Look more deeply before dismissing outright. It might not fully address the observer’s concern but you will move closer. While the ship may have already sailed for this decision, their concerns might be relevant for future ones. The other obstacle to really listening is poor delivery or unexpected insights. Hard to hear observations can be pivotal, especially for those in charge. Fight the urge to shut down. Pull apart the information to find that nugget. Lean most into the observations that hurt the most. Those sensitive spots might allow you to transform into the kind of leader you long to be.
What else to read
Struggle to be open to other’s observations? Here’s a few tips.
There's a kernel of truth in every feedback.
Feedback loops can also aid in lessening leader loneliness.
Writer Susan Orlean on handling a bad review.
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.