Experiences, Findings, Recommendations

GIVING FEEDBACK by Hans-Josef Jeanrond

In her Article How Leaders Can Get Honest, Productive Feedback” (Harvard Business Review, January 08, 2019) Jennifer Porter offers concrete advice to business leaders on soliciting such feed-back.
While all of her advice is valuable, there are a few more pitfalls for both parties – leaders and feedback-givers – to avoid. They have to do with mindsets and semantic frames.

Here is an anecdote, fully amusing only in hindsight:

One of my former bosses had made it up all the way to become the CEO of the (large) company. By that time, I had become an independent consultant. Knowing his sometimes rather harsh temper, I wrote him what I thought to be an amusingly formulated feedback offer: 

Since in your new role nobody will dare to give you honest feedback, I propose to be “your Savonarola” (alluding to the 15th century repentance preacher) telling you what nobody dares to tell you. Knowing your temper, my role will most probably be short-lived. Hence I will charge a higher than usual daily rate.

That proposal misfired terribly. The addressee felt deeply insulted and would not talk to me for at least two years.
While I first just thought that a joke had gone wrong, as they often do, especially in an international context, I now know that there was more to it.

Feedback, and even a feedback-offer may not at all be welcome except when explicitly asked for – and even not then. Savonarola was hanged and burned!
If you offer it, even offer to collect and transmit it, you may appear pretentious, no matter what you say. “Who are you to tell me …”

The person asking for feedback and the person offering it better think about the semantic frames of the key notions they are trying to get across. I.e. the set of associations triggered by these notions in the mind of the person they are addressing.

In my case, the notion of an ancient repentance preacher, supposedly funny, conveyed the terrible associated message: you do things that are terribly wrong, so wrong that you must not just correct them but repent. Of course, I had not thought about these associations in the semantic frame of my former boss and the – negative – firework of associations set off in his brain by my choice of words.

In his case, his failure to create a “psychologically safe environment”, as Jennifer Porter would put it, in which people could venture to forward proposals, let alone criticism, certainly contributed to his rather short-lived tenure as a CEO of the company.

Increase your chances of avoiding costly communication failures! Let’s talk.
In transformation processes, feedback – and communication in general – can be a mine-field of potential misunderstandings.
Key notions are almost always embedded in very different semantic frames of different stakeholders.
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