Releasing the lion inside: a new paradigm and practice for feedback – Part I

“Be more of a lion”. This was feedback from a senior colleague to one of Stephen’s coaching clients – we’ll call them Kris.  

What should Kris make of this feedback? What should they do or do differently? Perhaps they should compete with the other big beasts, jostle for position, and show them that they can roar. They might also strive to be more like the others, fit in better with the culture of the pride, speak out in a different way so that they get heard and respected. But the overall message was that Kris needs to be different, and, as we explain below, we observe that that subliminal message is problematic in several ways.

We are both coaches and facilitators, working with a broad range of individuals and organisations to help people become better leaders. Too often the core message in the feedback they get is that they need to change, not just learn, or grow. Feedback is often prescriptive, setting out a desired outcome. Or it is judgemental, rejecting the receiver’s preferred approach and asking them to give up or subdue a part of themselves. If that is the message they get, then it may get in the way of growth because it undermines the recipient and invalidates who they are.

Now, we should not be too critical of people who give such feedback, at least they are trying. And they are probably following a process that they have been taught or which their organisation has adopted. However, such training, and organisational guidance on feedback is often restricted to only process and technical skills. We believe that is not enough if feedback is to lead to personal and professional growth.

The benefits of well-handled feedback are significant. It generates understanding, identifies opportunities for growth, and builds trusting relationships. It also helps create the habit of direct conversation, feeds an appetite for improvement, and supports engagement. Above all, it communicates the belief that the receiver has the potential to grow. Beyond the benefits to the receiver, systematic good feedback practice can also impact team cohesion and performance and ultimately contribute to a vibrant organisation focused on excellence.

However, to achieve these benefits, it is not enough simply to get the process right. The context and relationships within which it takes place are highly significant: the feedback paradigm they contain needs to support growth.


A new paradigm for feedback

In this article we identify the dominant development paradigm that informs how feedback is regarded and how it is given in many organizations. And we offer an alternative.

The persistent but sometimes hidden view is that development is about filling gaps or addressing weaknesses and that feedback involves instruction by someone who knows better. It is also regarded as an individual matter, unaffected by the organizational culture. The paradigm is outside-in and individualized.

On the contrary, we find that someone’s personal and professional development happens most effectively if it is based on their self-awareness, sense-making, and adaptation, not someone else’s judgement and instruction. If the feedback giver understands and embraces that development paradigm, it will be reflected in their behaviour, and that in turn will impact the receiver.

The feedback given by one person to another will also have a systemic context. We will argue that if an organization typically accepts that everyone will occasionally fail, that all are learners, and the vulnerability that entails, then the receiver can engage positively even when feedback is critical.

We call this a systemic, inside-out paradigm.


The leader’s opportunity

An inside-out paradigm means that, for a leader, the difference they make goes beyond the specific, perhaps isolated, feedback conversations they have with more junior staff. They can address three aspects of organisational behaviour to create a foundation for giving effective feedback.

First, they can influence the context and environment. How does feedback sit within the system and culture of their organisation? And how do they deal with the general societal factors that can make feedback skewed? The leader can lead and positively affect behaviours and attitudes within the organisation.

Secondly, the leader’s mindset and beliefs will impact the receiver: what is their perspective on human potential? Whatever their stance, it will be evident in how they lead and in the feedback they give.

Thirdly, the relationship between giver and receiver matters. Do they trust and respect each other? Do they have a degree of intimacy or understanding of the other? Both are necessary for open dialogue that leads to growth.

We will explore each of these areas in turn and argue that leaders have an opportunity that goes beyond handling an individual conversation well.


What do we mean by “feedback”?

As a starting point, it’s useful to remind ourselves what feedback is, and what it isn’t. Feedback is:

“Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task etc., which is used as a basis for improvement” (Oxford English Dictionaries)

In other words, feedback is data. It is not instruction, discipline, or challenge. But in human organisations rather than in mechanisms, the system is not isolated. The meaning of the feedback is deeply affected by the culture and systemic behaviour of the organisation within which it takes place.

A particularly impactful part of that system is the relationship between the giver and receiver of feedback: especially when feedback is linked to an individual’s overall performance, development, and potential. It is this latter type that concerns us most here: it offers both the greatest possibility for growth and the greatest risk to the receiver.

If you would like to find out more, follow on to Part 2.