In small group work members are often asked to give each other feedback regularly. This is a multi-edged sword: it can enhance observational and communication skills, help people gain insights into the effect of their behavioral choices on others, and help them become aware of unconscious behavior. However, even a multi-edged sword is a sword. Its blade can cut into things. And what this young man shared was that it had cut into his confidence as a leader. What was he to do? Should he stop listening to feedback?
The role of feedback in creative leadership is well-established: we need to know how we are performing, both in terms of content and in how we lead our team. Creative leadership constantly seeks out and integrates feedback. We train people in the art of giving feedback, but is there enough focus on how to receive it? Can creative leadership mean not listening to feedback from time to time? How could you receive feedback in such a way that you benefit from it and don’t feel cut down by it?
My answer that evening was to share two quotes with the young man that gave different messages about receiving feedback. One is from an American president and the other from a silly gangster movie, although people tell me it might be a North-African proverb.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”
Theodore Roosevelt – from his speech ‘Citizenship in a Republic,’ Paris 1910.
Our mission is to help develop the next generation of leaders who will have a societal impact on the world. People who have impact know the difference between the ‘critic’ and ‘the man in the arena’. Therefore, the doer of deeds should probably worry if she is not being criticized. Creative leadership means getting things done, and for that you need to be out there in the arena, to be visible and to know that there will always be people at the sideline who will find something to say about you. So the first part of the answer is: make your brain enjoy the fact that you are receiving feedback. It means that you are in the arena and are getting noticed. Allow that fact by itself to strengthen your drive and creative leadership.
The doer of deeds should probably worry if she is not being criticized.
Of course there is more to it. Just being emboldened by this thought and happily ignoring feedback that comes your way is not the answer. Creative leadership is never about not listening. This is where the second quote – the North-African proverb that pops up in gangster films – adds a different dimension to the answer.
While we don’t recommend punching or name-calling, the willingness to do some saddle shopping is indeed a part of creative leadership. As the quote indicates, that same willingness should come after the ability to detect patterns in feedback. In order to detect patterns you do have to listen, and listening is not always easy. Why is that? What makes it so hard to listen to feedback?
“The first time someone calls you a horse you punch him on the nose, the second time someone calls you a horse you call him a jerk, but the third time someone calls you a horse, well, then perhaps it’s time to go shopping for a saddle.”
The problem with listening to feedback is that it triggers a threat response. The older parts of our brain – the limbic system or mammalian brain – are usually the ones that are activated when we perceive something to be a threat. The possible responses have been categorized into three basic choices: fight, flight or freeze. It is a very physical phenomenon. It’s instinctive, in that it happens without cognitive thought. The body prepares for the fight, flight or freeze choice by releasing extra hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, increasing heart rates and blood pressure, dilating pupils and slowing down other processes such as digestion. Just like an animal, we are physically ready to respond to danger.
Given that it is the animal part of us that is responding, think of the fight reaction as that of a cat that hisses and makes itself big with its hair on end and its back arched. The flight response is like the zebra running from a lion. The freeze response is that of the possum, famous for pretending to be dead when in danger.
Luckily, most of us are human enough when receiving feedback that we undergo verbal versions of these reactions: fighting with words, fleeing by agreeing to everything that is said, and freezing by shutting down and going out of contact.
Why does our mammal brain think it is necessary to get ready for such radical action? It is hard to argue with a zebra getting all worked up and running from a lion, but here we are just talking about feedback on a project or on our behavior. Why do we still think it is a matter of life and death?
According to clinical psychiatrist Elaine Aaron, it has to do with the living conditions of our very distant ancestors. In the period when our brain was formed around 100,000 years ago, most of our ancestors lived in small tribes. Being rejected by your tribe meant certain death, and it was probably considered to be a fate worse than death. Our brains are thus still highly attuned to signs of social rejection and easily consider any signal of rejection to be a threat. Creative leadership requires being aware of one’s own responses to perceived threats and having the ability to consciously choose behavior that will disarm these responses.
Each response has a physical cue that can help you recognize it as soon as it happens. The fight response makes you want eye contact: you want to stare at the other. You sit or stand up straight and you feel lots of energy. The flight response is characterized by rapid and high breathing, lots of smiling, and use of qualifiers such as ‘maybe’ or ‘a little.’ In the freeze response, you feel as though you have lost contact with your own body. You might feel dizziness, your eyes focus on one point and you seek out activities you can do on automatic pilot.
Creative leadership requires the ability to recognize and understand these reactions in others and especially in oneself as a leader. You will not be able to prevent fight-flight-freeze responses completely. The best thing to do is to have strategies ready for receiving feedback that compensate for these threat responses so that you can hear the feedback and learn from it. Let’s look at two effective strategies and the tools to put these into practice in your creative leadership.
The first strategy comes from scriptwriting. Young writers are told to always bring a notebook when they get feedback on a story. Then, right after receiving a comment that triggers a defense response, the writer should break eye contact, lower his or her head and write the comment in the notebook. For starters it gives you a moment to regain your composure and counter the initial fight, flight or freeze reaction, but even more importantly when you’re home the next day and you read it over in the safety of your own living room, you just might find that you agree with the feedback. Either way the feedback is not lost in the rush of blood that your animal brain is causing. So drop your head, break eye contact and write it down!
Interestingly, the lack of eye contact feels good to both sides.
How does this strategy translate to creative leadership working with teams? At THNK we use a feedback tool that we call Flame Throwing. This tool involves a ritual for receiving feedback: the receiver of the feedback stands with his back to those giving him feedback and takes notes while they try and burn down his concept. Interestingly, the lack of eye contact feels good to both sides.
We know that body language is extremely important when we communicate face to face, and that facial expression is the main conveyor of meaning. The lack of eye contact when receiving feedback thus frees us up from checking for threats or rejection. It frees us from having to save face while undergoing feedback. We can stay in our cognitive functioning and absorb the meaning of the feedback, rather than letting the animal part of our brain take over and try to create safety.
Creative leadership also pays attention to giving and receiving positive feedback. We have found that the same principle of not having eye contact can be valuable here as well. We use a tool called Flower Shower, in which two people stand behind each of your shoulders and shower you with positive feedback! Again it is much easier to give and receive this way than when people are face to face. As a facilitator of the process you are often lucky enough to sneak a peak at the faces of the people who are receiving the shower. Some will glow in ways you have not seen them before. When we don’t need defenses, when we can receive unguarded, we display a truly remarkable aspect of our humanity.
The second strategy is to engage our cognitive functioning by giving our brain a categorization task. When we need to divide the incoming feedback into different categories, the meta-task of deciding in which category a particular remark belongs requires using the cognitive part of our brain and thus modifies our animal brain’s instinctive reaction.
THNK participants seek a lot of feedback on their projects by peers, users and experts. They use four quadrants to organize this feedback: what did people like (+), what could be improved (D), what they did not understand (?) and what new ideas are triggered (!).
This allows you to make the feedback more meaningful by capturing it, and gives you the opportunity to detect patterns later on.
Suppose a user blurts out something like: “what’s that red thing for, it looks silly” and you feel a threat response kicking in, be it fight (“it’s a lever you can pull, stupid”), flight (“yes it is a bit silly, we’ll change it”) or freeze (silence). By forcing yourself to categorize it, you can rise above your threat response and ask more questions, such as: “Do you mean it’s not clear what it’s for?” (in the? category) or “Would another color make more sense?”(the ! category)? This allows you to make the feedback more meaningful by capturing it, and gives you the opportunity to detect patterns later on.
The key elements in these two creative leadership strategies for receiving feedback are avoiding face-to-face contact and engaging our cognitive capacities to categorize what we hear. These are both effective ways to override our instinctive brain response and the fight-flight-freeze pattern. How can your turn these into a set of rules to strengthen the feedback practice in your creative leadership?
So, what did the young man from the first paragraph do? He made up three golden rules of receiving feedback: ask for it, direct it and map it.
Actively asking for feedback made him more receptive and also more willing to experiment. He started to try out new creative leadership styles and asked for feedback on their effect. He also asked others which areas of his creative leadership they thought he might experiment with.
When receiving feedback he primed himself to always answer with a question. He could thus direct the feedback to be more specific, more behavioral or more about effects than it was before. By taking charge and specifically directing his feedback, it became more valuable to him. He categorized all feedback, as well as his creative leadership abilities, into the four quadrants.
By tracking the feedback in a notebook he created a map. He made sure he wrote down feedback, especially when he felt an animal reaction coming up. Write it down first, react afterwards. This allowed him to recognize patterns but also to celebrate progress and see his strengths in creative leadership.
Feeling comfortable with both ends of the stick is a key ingredient of creative leadership. Decide three golden rules that work for you and turn them into a practice. If you have your own three golden rules of receiving feedback, we would love to hear from you. Of course any feedback on this article or comments on the role of feedback in creative leadership is also more than welcome.
By Robert Wolfe
Robert has been part of THNK faculty since the beginning of THNK as a leadership coach, storytelling trainer and innovation facilitator. Before he was a management trainer and personal coach in many countries, an improv actor, and he still is a writer of fiction novels for young adults. He specializes in experiential learning and voice dialogue.