I watched the Oscars Sunday night, and couldn’t help but think, Detroit all over again. Like the auto industry who failed to respond to consumer demand and imports until it was too late, the film industry is struggling to respond to the changes in how people consume movies and entertainment. And yet, on Sunday night they rolled out a pageant straight out of the Bob Hope, er Borscht Belt era. It was painful to watch. Do they seriously hope this will capture the old Hollywood spirit? Why can’t they read the writing on the wall?

It’s particularly fitting, because today I wanted to write about feedback, in particular, systems of giving and receiving feedback. Much of the literature on the topic of performance management focuses on what performance metrics should be measured, how they should be measured, who should participate in it, and how it should be followed up.  There are thousands of methods and systems, and yet there is a growing consensus that the system is broken. Studies are inconclusive about its merits, whether it works, and even if it results in increased, or decreased performance. Not to mention the fact that people generally hate it.

Midst all of this lies a very basic, often overlooked question: why do we need so much help reading feedback which should be crystal clear to us? The fact is, we live in a steam of feedback. We are cybernetic beings. We constantly monitor the environment for clues, signals, the tiniest bits of information in order to survive. It’s what we do. We scan, receive, interpret and adjust our behavior. We are brilliant at this. So before we even try to figure out how, what or when to evaluate, we should find out how to pick up and relate to the feedback that is already there. Why don’t we read the writing on the wall?

One reason is undoubtedly, we don’t want to see it. One of Sunday night’s skits was especially revealing. Christopher Guest’s mockumentary crew (responsible for such gems as Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind), did a spoof on the irrelevance of focus groups (i.e., consumer feedback) showing a group giving negative feedback to the Wizard of Oz, and critiquing all those classic elements we have come to love and cherish about Dorothy.

This was Hollywood’s albeit unconscious way of telling us: feedback doesn’t matter. We know what’s good, and we’re not that interested in your amateur assessment. To a degree, like with any art, this is true. The artist should follow his or her vision, and not just cater to the consumer. But as the industry struggles, and consumers are going elsewhere for their entertainment pleasure, this skit shows us why.

The muddle about performance reviews gives us an opportunity to go back to the basics, to look at the foundation of communication, the loop of sender – message – receiver and (re)learn how to pick up feedback that’s right in front of us. The most sophisticated system in the world won’t be of any use if these basic communication skills aren’t taught, if we aren’t taught how to send it so that’s received, and how to receive it so that it’s meaningful.

How To Be In The Feedback Loop

1. Relate to all the signals, not just the verbal ones. Information is communicated as much by what is not said as it is by what is said.  Yet we tend to focus on the surface more than the nonverbal signals, including actions and behavior (or lack thereof), tone of voice, gaps in responses, gestures, etc. We often cling to the part of the message that corresponds to what we hope about the other. It’s a classic occurrence in relationships. We get disappointed by someone, yet the signals of disappointment were there all along. We saw them, but made excuses, told ourselves a story (“they’re busy,” “that’s just their way,” etc.) or just didn’t think they were important. Someone is always late to meetings, or doesn’t respond to calls or emails, and then we are shocked – Shocked! – when they fail to be there for us at a critical moment. Even though we saw it coming all along.

Because we missed or ignored the first instances of the behavior, by the time we have feedback to give, or something critical to say, it’s already escalated. We now have to deal with a messier version.

Part of the reading the writing on the wall is to learn how to take our perceptions seriously, and be critically aware of the dissonance between what we want to see about ourselves and others what is actually happening.

2. Close the loop. When giving feedback to others, we often fail to check whether the message landed. We get so focused on what we want to say, we don’t look to see whether and how the information has been received. In an organizational, educational or even parenting context, this is where the gold is: whether or not and how the person relates to the feedback. I call this closing the loop because the full feedback loop is not just about giving feedback, or even receiving feedback, but about giving, receiving, and transforming the feedback. Transforming the feedback means the receiver does something meaningful with it. Do they know what you mean? Do they have their own experience of what you describe? And then what happens? Do they consider it? Explore it? And if they get defensive can you gently but firmly hold the conversation and help them relate to it? Relating to it doesn’t just mean agreeing with you, but making it meaningful for themselves. They may even discover something valuable in the behavior being criticized. The more the feedback becomes something for them to consider and less something coming from you, the greater the chance the feedback will be integrated.

3. Take yourself out of the picture. The giver of feedback has a tough job. Delivering difficult or constructive feedback is one of the least loved tasks for managers, teachers, parents, coaches. But our resistance to doing it is often delivered along with the feedback. Our tone, nonverbal signals, even the timing and style of delivery is laden with unintended, yet disturbing signals of resentment, tension, anger, or just plain stress. Sometimes, when the resistance is great, we “launch ourselves over the edge,” close our eyes, gird our loins and fire away, to get it over with. But resistance adds personality, emotion and relationship to the message, burdening the receiver with a tangled mess of signals to sort through.

4. Put yourself in the picture. If the feedback giver should remove herself, then the receiver should put himself squarely in the middle of the process. I call this centering yourself in the process. Attach your own meaning, purpose and associations to the feedback you are getting and it increases your learning. It’s very important that you imagine or guess into what kind of feedback you will receive. The worst kind of feedback is that which you haven’t already considered. Like an invading virus, your immune system protects against an intruder. So before any conversation, ask yourself, what am I dissatisfied with? What are my goals? What do I imagine the person is going to say, and how and where have I already thought that about myself? Being centered in your own goals and learning process makes the feedback easier to receive because you are in a learning frame of mind. The quicker you explore the feedback for yourself, in your own way, related to your own goals, the less the process gets mired in the relationship with the giver.

These are just some of the ideas I’ve been working on recently in my seminars. I’ll be exploring this further in Portland this coming June, In the Stream of Feedback: Learning for Performance