“Does My Bum Look Big In This?” – Courage and Convictions

[The park, daughter playing with camera]

Daughter: Daddy! Stand still. I’m taking your picture.

Me: OK.

[Daughter shows me the result]

Me: You’ve made my head look quite big somehow.

Daughter: No. Your head is very fat, Daddy.

“Feedback would happen all the time if…”

This is the challenge posed by the wonderful Helen Amery who conceived and curates the #FeedbackCarnival blogging extravaganza. Modern business commentary sees feedback as predominantly a GOOD THING. How can we learn, develop and grow without it? How can we excel in a vacuum? In this context, it’s no wonder that the people who run businesses or style themselves as leaders, seek to proceduralise feedback, to make it part of the routine of working life. Evangelised as an integral part of coaching and mentoring and modern management manners.

In fact, feedback already happens all of the time. It’s not necessarily vocalised but it sure as hell manifests itself in behaviour. Let’s look at an example from recent history. Governments announce a light-touch regime in the regulation of the financial services sector. Feedback? Collateralized debt obligations and the worst recession in living memory. Or another example, this one from the familiar world of work. The word “trust” included in corporate values in a business where people are micro-managed to within an inch of their lives. Feedback? Fearful, de-motivated and de-moralised staff.

Our traditional notions of feedback in the workplace have been seen for the most part as a top-down process – we tell you what to do and we’ll tell you how we think you did and where we think you need to improve if you fell short. The introduction of 360-degree feedback was intended to open this up, to democratise it. Leaders would receive open and honest feedback on their own performance. For the most part this fails to address a fundamental problem with the giving of an opinion, objective or otherwise. Fear. Leaders asking for feedback are essentially asking “Does my bum look big in this?” In many organisations the honest answer will often be “Yes!” But who is going to say the unsayable? Fearing for their job, most people will keep quiet or paper over the cracks with anodyne answers. Even legitimate whistleblowers who are led to expect protection by published policy, are demonised or made the subject of threats and witch hunts.

In the UK, our political class are about to get the kind of feedback that can shift the entire landscape. The drift by parties of all hues to the centre has seen those seeking high office abandon their convictions and is perhaps ushering in an era of multi-party government. Leaders of conviction win or lose election by landslide. Love them or hate them, Thatcher and Blair were conviction politicians who were elected on a wave of unprecedented support. Over time, as the unstoppable force of their conviction met the immovable object of feedback (the conviction of public opinion) their grip on power weakened. Our workplaces are not democratised to the same degree. We express convictions mildly, if at all. There is no workplace equivalent to the poll tax riots.

But feedback happens nonetheless.

Shrinkage? Feedback.

Attrition? Feedback.

Low productivity? Feedback.

The power in feedback is not in the giving or receiving, it’s in the conviction to learn from it and the courage to do what must be done.


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