DDI Leadership 480 Podcast: Why Feedback Matters for Leaders ft. Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.

In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, Alexander Schwall, co-founder and Chief Science Officer of Rhabit Analytics, joins us to discuss why feedback matters for leaders, including tips for asking for feedback and not taking it personally, and when it's best to ask for feedback and who to ask.

Beth Almes:                        

Hi, there, leaders. Welcome back to the Leadership 480 podcast. I'm your host Beth Almes and today we're talking about a topic that a lot of us embrace in theory but struggle with in reality, and that's getting feedback.

I've got an expert on feedback here with me today, Alexander Schwall. Alexander is co-founder and Chief Science Officer of Rhabit Analytics, a company that DDI works with to provide continuous feedback to leaders on how they're actually practicing their skills in the workplace. Alex, welcome to the show.

Alexander Schwall:        

Hey, thanks for having me.

Beth Almes:                      

Let's dive right into the heart of this topic. A lot of us know we should ask for and take feedback from others. It's a really good idea. But just how essential is this for leadership? A lot of us hold back a little bit when we're thinking about feedback, not really wanting to know the answer. How much do we need to be making this a priority?

Alexander Schwall:        

I think it's absolutely critical for anybody, for any employee, but particularly for leaders. Leaders have a really complex job and feedback for them is probably more essential than for others. If you just think about what feedback is, feedback is a behavioral blueprint basically. If it's done right, it tells you what in my behavior is working, and what in my behavior is not working.

Leaders and basically all humans are what I would call natural scientists. Natural scientists, what I mean by that is we are all experimenting. We don't think about it much and we probably never notice it, but we are experimenting. We are trying something. If it's working, we're probably going to do it again. We do more of it. If it's not working, we are tinkering. We are tweaking. We are tuning that behavior. Just like a scientist, we are trying to run these little experiments. Unbeknownst to us, but this is trial and error learning that we engage in.

The kicker is no learning happens. If we don't know what the right outcomes are. We need to know what is working, what is not working. For a leader, let's say we put somebody into a leadership position and this person doesn't receive feedback, this is what I would consider like a cruel prank at best. Maybe, just cruel. It's like we are putting somebody into a game, but we don't tell them the rules.

If they win something, if they win this game, they don't know why they won it. If they lose that game, they don't know why they lost it. For leaders, in their super complex roles where they have to be cheerleaders and take care of emotional needs and get work done, of course, and deal with all kinds of issues that are coming their way, them not having feedback, I think, is just absolutely devastating and is an impediment to their learning and to their effectiveness.

Beth Almes:                        

I love that science-based perspective on this. Of looking at it kind of as a, like you said, a behavioral blueprint of what you're doing. I think for so many of us in our world, we're very metrics-driven when it comes to the non-people aspect of, if you're in marketing, you're always looking at how are we doing based on leads and impressions and how things performed. Of if you're an engineer, you get all that feedback. Then, all of a sudden, when it comes to how you're doing it, leading people, it's like, silence.

Alexander Schwall:          

You just have to make assumptions. You have to guess. We worked with a lot of engineers. In the beginning, we thought engineers are maybe the people who are most resistant to the idea of feedback. But what we found out is they are actually the people who like it the most, because what we are giving them, going back to this blueprint idea, we're giving them a behavioral spec sheet, a data-sheet of here is what good leadership looks like, and here are the numbers, here's how you are doing on this.

That empowers them to work against that spec right. To make sure, "Okay, am I doing enough of this? Is this meeting the needs of my employees?" So they actually really embraced it and they really like it. We were a little surprised, but this is definitely one of the learnings we took away from this.

Beth Almes:                        

I love that mindset and where you're going with that, because one of the tough things about feedback, as I mentioned, we know we need it, but we don't really want to hear the criticism. We don't really want to change. It's scary to think somebody's going to tell me I'm doing something wrong and I take that really personally. As a leader, how do you get better about opening yourself up to feedback and being okay with the fact that people may say something you don't like?

Alexander Schwall:          

We think about this a lot. We had conversations with users. We found a group of users who are really into feedback. They're really digging it. They're really loving it. They seek it out. They're curious. They want more and more and more feedback. We have conversations with them.

One thing that we've observed, and this is a key learning for us, is that they are extremely good at stripping out and focusing only on the information in the feedback. What I mean by that is, what is working and what is not working. They filter out and they don't react to whatever approval or disapproval. Interpersonal stuff may be included. They're just looking at the face value. You are not delegating enough things to me. I want to have more responsibility. Whatever the case may be, this could go any direction.

They soak that up. I think this is where companies are, in their responsibilities, to shape and model a culture in which feedback is treated as a piece of information on what is working, what is not working, as opposed to, as an inherent criticism or even praise. But usually, we think about feedback like as this sign of disapproval that there's something wrong with us.

If I observe my boss, or maybe even my boss's boss gracefully and with maybe some emotional detachment, receive feedback and say, "Oh, okay, that's interesting. You guys are telling me I'm not doing enough in this and that area. I can change that." Once you observe that, how this is handled by your models, by the people that are in your organization, that shape the culture in the organization, people will embrace this relatively quickly or more easily to say, "Okay, this is not this big airing of grievances that happens maybe once a year. This is about giving some information on how to make things better."

Beth Almes:                        

I think that's so great, of not taking this personally as people like me or they don't like me or that reaction. Because that's your first, I think, personal reaction to it. If somebody's saying I'm not delegating enough, it means, "Oh, you hate me. You don't like me as a boss."

Alexander Schwall:        

Exactly.

Beth Almes:                      

But separation, it seems like that really works for people to look at the behavior separate from how people are reacting to you as a person.

Alexander Schwall:          

It's not easy. People have to be grownups about it. There's always, you cannot design feedback completely sterile where it's just this information. We certainly try and we get pretty close, but there's always this nagging doubt, "Okay, is there something wrong with me?"

People with maybe thinner skin can take it less well than other people with a little bit of thicker skin. But again, if we set the context of treating this really just as information, as honest information to make people better, that's like a key piece of information, we want to make people better, then it's consumed a little bit more easily, that's for sure.

Beth Almes:                        

So the other part of this too, is not just that you're getting feedback in general, but who you're getting that feedback from. As a leader, how do you start to think about the network of people who are giving you feedback? I'm sure your boss is probably more than happy to give it to you in some cases, but who all do you need to be hearing from?

Alexander Schwall:        

We tell our users to really not overthink that. Include the people that you work with. Include anybody who is in your circle of people that you interact with on a regular basis. This could be five people. This could be 10 people. For some people, it's higher than that. But that is your audience. Those are the consumers, the recipients, your internal clients, so to speak, of your work. And they are qualified. Those are the people to provide feedback to you.

These networks, as we call them, need to be updated. We try to make it very easy to update them on the fly, but it is important to not just rely on your manager or not just rely on your peers, but to have this broad set of people who can just experience you at work.

Beth Almes:                      

How often do we really need to be getting this feedback? In general, we might be thinking about it on an annual basis in terms of performance reviews or as I need to do my annual update or something like that. Are most leaders getting good feedback on a regular basis?

Alexander Schwall:          

You mentioned the annual performance review. That's like the poison dart in the feedback process, and I can tell you why. First of all, leaders don't get feedback. There are oodles of survey data that just show people are not getting the feedback that they want. We sometimes believe that people don't want feedback. People absolutely want feedback. It's absolutely a myth that people don't want feedback. They want the right feedback.

Feedback needs to happen very often for two reasons. The first reason that's the most important reason is if feedback only happens once a year, the poison dart, the annual performance review, it has to be and automatically is a high stakes situation. You have this one chance, once a year to get feedback. Or even worse, you get a once-in-a-lifetime chance, like a 360 in your career where you go through an assessment or a 360, and that is the feedback that you're receiving. So, tremendously high stakes.

If feedback happens all the time, it loses its threat. It becomes something that is usual and common and maybe even mundane. It's not noticed as much. If you have continuous feedback, you are lowering the bar ... you don't have the sweaty palms situation. It's just, okay, a little bit more data. I like the following metaphor.

If an annual performance review is your report card that shows you how you did last semester or last school year. It's like, wow, this is really important. This is really critical. I think of feedback as a compass needle. Something that you have your compass with you in your hand, wherever you go as a leader, and you have this information with you, and if it's continuous, it tells you a little bit more like, "Okay, where do I need to correct course?" Not "Where have I been wrong for a year?" but "What are the things that I need to align a little bit more?" That is the right way of feedback. Frequent feedback is better feedback because it is not like an all-or-nothing.

The second reason is we are all fallible to some degree. We are not machines. We have good weeks, bad weeks. Maybe there's a pandemic that is ruining my week or my months or even a longer time period. Maybe my kids are not well. Maybe I have a lot of stuff going on. If we have feedback that only focuses on a point in time, a classic example is the 360.

If I had a good three months, everything looks great. If I had bad three months, it's not reflective of my true performance, of my sustained real-world performance. This is why we give people continuous feedback that allows them to have this information on an ongoing basis, and put on their scientist hats and try things out, and run these little experiments in their lives. I know this answer is getting a little long here, but I'm really passionate about the idea that feedback has to be continuous and that it cannot be a point in time type of situation.

Beth Almes:                        

That is such a great way to think about that though, as how much less scary it is when it's continuous and always kind of maintained versus like a big issue every once in a while and tied to your performance and tied to your compensation and all those kinds of things.

As you were describing it, it almost reminded me of keeping on track of your budget or anything else you do regularly. If you only looked at your spending every six months or once a year, oh gosh, would that be scary? But if you keep on top of it, not a problem at all, right?

Alexander Schwall:        

Exactly. I mean, going back to your earlier point, leaders are used to metrics. Let's say you're a leader in finance, it would be inconceivable to say, "I'm only getting my PNL once a year. I want that metric all the time."

Why wouldn't I want that same frequency of that metric for my own leadership? Why do I not want a dashboard-type of information on my leadership on a regular basis? Absolutely.

Beth Almes:                      

And I think too, then how you execute on that, of course, correcting a little bit over time. Just like you would as a finance leader, you had a bad month or you had a great month or something like that, that you're course-correcting. You're not trying to radically change your, figure everything out at once.

Alexander Schwall:          

Exactly. We have clients that have tremendous cyclicality in their year. That's like, around the holidays, December, it's all hands on deck. So yeah, maybe your coaching as a leader suffers a little bit in November and December. That's maybe completely okay. That's totally acceptable. The question now is, what happens in January? What happens in February when things calm down a little bit.

Again, we are not machines. We cannot sustain performance always at peak level. That's unreasonable and unfair to leaders. But what we do want to see is, if there is fluctuation, if there are inconsistencies, can we tell a bigger, a more informative story? Is there a narrative around this that helps us all understand what is actually going on with this leader and the leadership behavior?

Beth Almes:                      

One of the things you also said, Alex, earlier was that not only are leaders often afraid to receive feedback, but a lot of times we're afraid to give feedback. We think people don't want it when they really do.

How do you create an environment that people are willing to give you feedback and it's not just like, everyone's like, "I'd love to tell him but he's not going to react well, so forget it"?

Alexander Schwall:          

Oh, man. That is maybe the big question. The key question. How can we make it a usual and a common event that people are giving each other feedback? Because people don't like to give feedback. They don't have time and whatnot. They don't really know how to. But that could all be fixed easily. The biggest one that is the hard one is people don't want to hurt others' feelings. We don't want to get emotionally involved.

We as humans are not solitary animals. We are tribe animals. Evolutionarily, we have to get along with others in order to survive. I'm giving you a really big picture, obviously. But at work, the same things are true. We are trained, we are socialized, and we are set up to get along with others. When we give people negative feedback, we erode that relationship with others. Which is only true if we subscribe to the idea that feedback is about approval and disapproval and not, and this is key, about what is working and what is not working.

Here's the thing that kills me basically. Being this tribe animal, we are really good at observing behaviors. We have to understand. We have to read others. We have to get an idea of who is doing what at the moment. We are very good detectors. We're like seismographs of other people's emotions and behaviors. But we are really bad at giving feedback. We're good at recording, but we are terrible at reporting. The reporting process of the feedback is what we do very poorly because we don't want to erode these relationships.

This is where good feedback programs solve the fundamental problem. They make it easy to report feedback back to the individual. We see a lot of HRIS tools where you can flip a switch and then people have a text box and they can request feedback and give somebody feedback. This never works. I've never seen this done successfully. Because people don't want to erode that relationship.

They're bad at reporting, especially typing something up. But if you give them the tools to make the reporting of the feedback, the giving of the feedback, very easy based on their observations, then you have a winner and then people actually overcome this reluctance to provide feedback. So, we have to make it very easy and psychologically safe for the individual to give that feedback to their leaders in particular.

Beth Almes:                        

When you say making it psychologically safe, I think that's one of the important things. The people who are most probably afraid to give feedback directly report to their bosses. Because they're like, "Okay, I'm going to say this. And even if they say it's anonymous, they're going to know it's me. Then, my bosses kind of hate me and I'm never going to get ..." So there's a lot of risk for...

Alexander Schwall:          

Oh, absolutely.

Beth Almes:                      

... an employee to give feedback to their boss. When you bring up psychological safety, what can you do as the leader to communicate to your team that, "This is okay. I can take it. This is not going to affect how I feel about you or anything like that."

Alexander Schwall:          

The key thing is to make it anonymous. This usually means you can't have written feedback. Written feedback, you know how people talk and what kind of words they use and what kind of style. Even if they cannot, the author of whatever's written, will believe that this is not anonymous so they will self-censor. The information provided is basically garbage because you can't be honest because you're worried about retaliation to your point.

The second thing that I think is absolutely critical, goes back to continuous feedback. Let me contrast two extremes. The first scenario is the traditional 360. Happens once, people give feedback, they have no experience with that, they will self-censor because they probably don't know how their manager, how their boss, will react to whatever negative information they're receiving. This is typically why we see pretty positive results in 360s although we know that people are not that good.

If you do this continuously, and that's the other end of the spectrum, people will maybe give more negative feedback once, twice. When they see that nothing negative happens, that their manager will receive this anonymously and that there's no retaliation, they will start getting more and more comfortable.

Continuous feedback has a really important byproduct and that is, it normalizes feedback for the recipient. But maybe more importantly, it normalizes the process of giving feedback. It's not a big deal. My boss will not rip my head off. My boss will not get a temper tantrum or whatever people may be afraid of this. It's going to be like, "Okay, I'm giving this and maybe nothing is happening in my relationship with this individual." If it is continuous, or normal, as I called it, mundane, and completely usual and common.

That is the key thing. If you build an environment in which feedback is given once a year, and you expect this ludicrous, and just hearing myself say this, you expect your direct reports to be honest in this one time opportunity to give you feedback, I can tell you out of the gate, this data will be very, very restricted in terms of its variance. People will be very positive because they cannot take the risk because they don't have experience with this. They will not know what the repercussions are. It's almost like if you want to design a system that forces people to self-censor, you do it a point in time rarely, this will ensure that they are self-censored.

Beth Almes:                      

What I'm hearing is that as a leader, the better you do this and the more regularly you get feedback from folks, expect it to kind of maybe go down a little bit after the first couple of times or something like that. People are going to initially give you great feedback. Then, as they get more comfortable and more candid, it's going to go down. But don't be alarmed by that, right?

Alexander Schwall:          

Yeah. That's a honeymoon phase with the system, with the feedback process. People are saying, "Oh, let's test the waters a little bit. Okay, nothing bad happens. I can be a little bit more honest." Feedback scores may be dropping, maybe not for everybody, but if there are things that a leader can improve on, this will drop. That is the true baseline. Right now, you have a baseline and now you have something to work against. So feedback on day one is probably going to be pretty just like a 360, but then it kind of burns in and you get a more correct value. That's where the value is.

Beth Almes:                      

I love that mindset shift from, it's not that you're getting worse, it's that you're getting better at building trust so that they're getting more candid with you.

Alexander Schwall:          

Precisely.

Beth Almes:                        

As you get and leverage that candid feedback, you're really getting to the meat of like, "Here's what I need to do better. Here's what people are looking for from me." How can leaders really use that to amplify their own learning, change what they're doing on the job?

Alexander Schwall:        

We see among our users a broad variety, but at the very heart is putting people into the driver's seat of their own development, making sure that they're empowered to make informed decisions, having these metrics, being able to be that natural scientist. That scientist who can understand what is working and what is not working.

As soon as that kicks in, we see some people just using the data and tweaking their behaviors. "Oh, my team tells me I'm not communicating enough with them about what's going on in the company, I can easily fix that. I'll just do more of that. Let's have a team meeting." Those are easy things that managers can do. Much of leadership is actually not that hard. You just need to know and remember that you have to do it.

On the other end of the spectrum, we see leaders who are saying, "Oh, it looks like coaching is something that I don't do well," or delegating or whatever important leadership behavior is they're receiving feedback on. Now, they can reach out and ask for support. The kicker is here, when they're sitting in that coaching seminar, when they're sitting in that training session on coaching, they will be motivated in a very different way than somebody who has just been assigned to do that. "Oh, I think coaching would be good for you. Please do a coaching session."

For them, this now is a way for them to engineer, to tinker their way out of the situation. So the motivation is an entirely different one when you understand that this is potentially a weakness or something that is not working in your leadership.

Beth Almes:                        

So you start to understand, this is something that I'm not doing well and I really need to get better for my job. The last question I'll ask you is one that I ask everyone on the show. But I think it's so interesting, when it comes to, especially around feedback, as we're observing others all the time and their leadership skills, there's something when we've all been led that leads you to say, "Oh, that's exactly what I want to do as a leader." It inspires you versus, or a really bad experience that you observed and you say, "I will never do that." Can you tell me about a moment of leadership that had an impact on your life for good or for bad?

Alexander Schwall:          

I got to give you one where I was on the receiving end of feedback, on the receiving end of good of leadership. The situation was, I was brand new out of grad school. I think it was one of my first client gigs. I was there with a senior consultant. I was a junior consultant with a senior consultant visiting a client. I was brought in because I had an organizational psychology background, and they wanted to talk about maybe a few more technical issues.

I gave them my opinion. I presented, I summarized what I thought would be, is the situation, but I was very vague. I kind of presented pros and cons and I didn't really give them a clear solution of what they should be doing. They wanted a recommendation. I basically told them how complex the situation was. I probably used words that were ingrained in me from grad school to just explore the entire complexity of everything.

On the drive home from that client, this consultant ... I thought this meeting went well, like super good. I thought it was perfect. On the drive back, the consultant gave me a lot of feedback on how what I did was not working. She kind of helped me understand. The feedback doesn't matter but the fact that a person took the time to sit down with me and give me this information at all, was I think absolutely critical for me.

Without that, I would've just kept doing the same nonsense all over again, again and again, with clients thinking that I sound super smart and that what I'm doing is kind of helpful, which it was not. So, getting that feedback from her was just absolutely critical and it set me up for success as a consultant.

Beth Almes:                        

Oh, that's such a great story, I think, to end on, as how much feedback can change the course of a career. If no one ever tells you what you're doing is wrong or not helpful, you never end up knowing.

Alexander Schwall:          

Exactly. It's the cool prank, right? How can you get better if don't know that you're not doing so well.

Beth Almes:                        

Well, thank you so much, Alex. This was incredibly valuable. We appreciate you here on the Leadership 480 podcast. Thank you to our listeners who took part of their 480 minutes to be with us today and remember to make every moment of leadership count.