From “Know-it-alls” to “Learn-it-alls”: How to Revamp the Feedback Loop

Giving constructive feedback is one of the most important aspects of any manager’s job, but it’s also one of the hardest tasks to accomplish well. No one wants to hear about the areas where they’re weak and highlighting those areas can easily put the other person on the defensive.

The key, according to some of the world’s most innovative companies, is to evolve from being a culture of “know-it-alls” to a culture of “learn-it-alls”.

What exactly does that take? Managers need to relearn how they give input; at the same time, employees need to renegotiate their relationship with feedback as well. From a practical perspective, that means a few things:

  • Concentrate on learning over the long term vs. achieving perfection/avoiding mistakes;
  • Cultivate an attitude of openness to the ideas of colleagues (up and down the hierarchy);
  • Embrace not knowing all the answers as fun—as a kind of quest;
  • Experiment in a safe way with new ways of doing things;
  • Be resilient as a group. Get up faster, and rebound.

These rules of thumb are obviously important for technology companies that live and die based on how quickly they can innovate. If you need to roll out new products and grow ASAP, you better have a culture of adaptability! But the rules are also quite useful in more traditional enterprises.

So what’s the hang up?

Here’s the big problem: The psychology and physiology of feedback.

Humans are hard-wired to respond to both threats and rewards. This means that even when we sincerely want to be open, and appear open, to feedback, we’re likely to perceive feedback as a threat, triggering a host of “fight or flight” responses in the brain that prevent us from effectively absorbing the information.

The Solution: Ask for feedback before receiving it.

Asking for feedback creates a “toward” response in the brain. When we actively seek new information instead of waiting for bad news, our bodies are less likely to perceive that negative information as a threat.

But it’s not always possible to wait until someone asks to give feedback. When that’s the case, the person providing feedback should approach the conversation with empathy and deliver feedback clearly and in context.

Teams that develop an innovative strategy based on perspectives can de-conflict feedback sessions. This process shifts the mindset from traditional “giving feedback” to one of “gathering perspectives.” It’s been very successful, and we’ll discuss it in detail in the next post.

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