Escaping the Feedback Loop: When Talking Stops Working




As a leader working towards complex goals, you likely find yourself giving directions, explaining, checking for understanding, setting expectations, and the like. 

You think you’re doing everything right and thus find it incomprehensible when things don’t quite go according to plan. Deadlines are slipping, quality is poor, and you wonder what happened. Your mind naturally goes to insufficiency, either toward yourself, “I didn’t explain myself clearly enough,” or to your team, “They’re not listening to me.”

In both cases, you assume the fix is the same: you need to talk more.  

There are cases where this proves to help the cause, and if you are a chronic under-communicator, this may be you. However, many people find that the more-talking strategy leads them to have the same conversation over and over, and the results remain unchanged.

What might a different strategy look like? What would it look like to shift from changing how you’re talking to changing how you’re listening? 

The first place to explore is listening for signals that the people you manage are in sync with what you’re communicating and listening beyond them telling you what they want you to hear.

At Talentism, we delineate three levels of being ‘in sync’ with your people: Awareness, Understanding, and Alignment. You have awareness if a person hears you say something and can repeat it back to you verbatim. You have understanding if everyone involved is interpreting the thing you say the same way. You only achieve alignment when people’s behavior is consistent with what was discussed.

When it comes to your strategy for achieving your goals, if you said it, you might have awareness sync, as in, the other person heard you, but to ensure understanding, you want to listen to them quite closely because typical power dynamics will cause people to say “Yes I understand” to you even if they’re feeling unsure or shaky.   Do you have any evidence that indicates the two of you are holding the same visualization? If both of you had to explain the plan to a third party, would it sound the same? If not, you do not have understanding sync.

As important as it is to check for understanding, It’s impossible to discern alignment through conversation alone. You only know if you had alignment through the outcomes. How, then, do you short-circuit the Groundhog Day repetition of bad outcomes? You must consider what people are like.  

People, as much as some of us might like to be, are not machines. You cannot gather a group of people, give them instructions, and expect the same outcomes that you would with a group of computers. Oftentimes, under scrutiny, we realize our plan is expecting everyone at their best and does not take into account or anticipate what is likely to happen in the very real crucible of real-life leaders trying to achieve big things. Don’t expect perfection; design for reality. 

Premortem what might happen given what the people involved are like. How do they show up when things get hard and confusing? Where will they need help, and where are they well-positioned to help others? We recommend having an open dialogue about this as part of your planning process.  

It will be tempting to have that discussion and then declare, “Glad we know what we’re like; now we can just not do that!” I urge you not to assume that everyone summoning up willpower to be on their best behavior is the secret to success. If those are the conditions you set up, what’s more likely to happen is that when people inevitably get stuck, they will feel ashamed, and instead of raising the issue, they will hide instead of seeking help.

Instead, consider adjusting your design from the start. Are there any obvious pitfalls or places where you’re setting people up to fail? After you’ve made those adjustments, strategize how people can help each other. Lastly, acknowledge that even with the best preparation, there will still be bumps in the road. Figure out how you will recover quickly. 

The path to innovation is nonlinear. But with planning that anticipates messiness, you can minimize frustrating detours. Align on likely challenges and strategies to prevent and recover from getting stuck. Commit to transparency, removing shame around struggles. You can’t control everything, but you can foster psychological safety to help your team navigate inevitable bumps.

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