Russell Bishop Blog

#42 – Feedback and the Auto Pilot

Feedback and the Auto Pilot

So here we are, then, on our way to filling each day with more of the life experiences we truly seek, and all the while we bump into reactions from others, criticism from our own selves, and all manner of feedback about how we are being perceived and the results we are producing.

What do you do with all that feedback – especially the negative feedback?

You will no doubt be surprised to learn that my first suggestion is that we turn once again to our friends at! Here are a couple of definitions of feedback found at
“The process by which a system, often biological or ecological, is modulated, controlled, or changed by the product, output, or response it produces”

“The return of information about the result of a process or activity; an evaluative response”

“Knowledge of the results of any behavior, considered as influencing or modifying further performance”

Perhaps the first thing to notice is the absence of the word “criticism” or anything that implies coming up short of the goal. Instead, the focus goes toward process, information and knowledge.

In simple terms, feedback lets me know how I am doing, or at least, how I am perceived. Let’s look at each of these three definitions and see what we can apply to our own lives.

“The process by which a system, often biological or ecological, is modulated, controlled, or changed by the product, output, or response it produces”

This one suggests that feedback plays a role in controlling or changing something based on results being produced. This one is perhaps most easily understood by thinking about an autopilot found on an airplane. When the pilot puts the plan on autopilot, she must first program a couple of basic pieces of information into the autopilot, the most important of which has to do with destination or heading.

With some basic data about destination or heading, the autopilot then keeps checking current position and heading against the coordinates of final destination and heading. Things like wind speed and direction, even air temperature, can move the airplane “off course.” The autopilot detects the change in direction, and applies corrective measures to put the plan back “on course.”

Think about the autopilot as a source of constant feedback with only two possible messages: “on course” or “off course.”

As the plane flies to its destination, the autopilot keeps up a constant stream of feedback that might sound something like: “on course, on course, off course, on course, off course, off course, off course, on course, off course, on course,” etc.

If the airplane took things personally, it might turn around and say something like: “can’t you say something positive instead of gripe, gripe, gripe all the time?” Thank goodness the airplane doesn’t care about the information in terms of labeling it positive or negative. It’s just information.

Remember our earlier definition of information? We said information means “to inform for action.” That’s pretty much what the autopilot is doing nonstop – it tells the guidance systems where it is compared to where it needs to be in order to achieve its destination. The guidance systems then respond to the information in order to keep the plane “on course.”

The information, then, rather than being positive or negative, is simply data that allows the airplane to compare current position with desired outcome and make the kinds of corrections necessary to arrive at the goal.

Enough about airplanes. How does this apply to living my life? Great question!

On the fourth day of the Insight Seminar process, I used to have the group of 150 or so people stand up and form a large circle. Keep in mind that these people have been together for several days now, sharing various kinds of experiences, interacting with one another, and listening to various comments, sharings, questions, etc.

As the group stands facing one another in the circle, I would then ask them to look around the circle and identify the one person they have “most experienced sharing his or her inner beauty.” Now this instruction itself was enough to get some people going pretty good.

Some would be very hesitant to narrow down to one person. Some would want better definitions of inner beauty; some would insist they couldn’t narrow to only one; some would simply freeze.

And that’s before I would then ask them to move toward that person, and wind up standing in such a way that they could see at least some part of that person’s eyes. Now why on earth would I have such a strange, cryptic instruction?

As I would tell everyone present, there are a couple of factors to consider: first, we weren’t asking them to pick the person with the most inner beauty, just the one they had most experienced sharing it. Just because they picked one person, didn’t mean others lacked inner beauty. That’s a big one for some to get over.

Next we would tell them that just because someone picked you, doesn’t mean you have to reciprocate and pick them! Well, that would get another group of folks going – all kinds of issues would arise about being polite, nice or other social graces. We would have to remind people that choosing the person whom you have most experienced sharing his or her inner beauty was not a choice against someone else.

So, after considerable avoidance issues were processed, we would then wind up with knot of people standing around, each looking at someone. Some would have gathered a small crowd, with several having picked them. Others would have picked someone and may not have had anyone pick them.

Then the stakes would go even higher when we asked each person to call the person by name whom they had chosen and then offer feedback in a structured, precise manner. The instruction was to tell the chosen person the following and fill in the blanks: “(Name), the beauty I experience in you is (fill in the blank) and the way I have experienced you sharing it is (fill in the blank).”

That might go something like this: “Fred, the beauty I experience in you is your compassion and caring for others and the way I have experienced you sharing it is when you went to Sally to comfort her after she shared about some challenges she was facing.”

You get the idea – the inner beauty could have been anything, and probably didn’t have anything to do with physical attributes.

Once everyone had a chance to share with their chosen person, we would hear a wide range of experiences people had with the process. Some were touched deeply that someone else would have noticed; others were touched by how deeply they were moved simply by acknowledging the beauty in another. Many found that they had rarely, if ever, experience such profound levels of caring, either in the receiving or giving of such feedback.

For others, there was a very interesting twist to the process. Some would feel badly that they had not been picked. We would then ask those who had not been picked if they would like to stand in front of the group and tell us what their inner beauty was.

Well, if the first part of the exercise were difficult, this one was darn near impossible for some. Think about all the instructions most of us grew up with in terms of “tooting your own horn” and other socially correct ways of being.

What many would learn is that as much as they might like to be acknowledged by others, they might also have spent most of their time in the group hanging back, or being “invisible” in one way or another. Now that’s a great “aha” for some. “I want to be noticed and yet I hide!”

Standing up and “claiming” their inner beauty would be both challenging and immensely rewarding. The more individuals would stand up and tell us about their inner beauty, the more others would feel encouraged to claim their own.

You can imagine the warmth and caring that would begin to build amongst those present.

And then we would have them stand again, looking around the circle to find the person they have most “experienced hiding their inner beauty.” If the first time around was difficult, this one became darn near impossible for some.

We would remind people that we weren’t asking them to pick the person with the least inner beauty; instead, we were asking them to pick someone for whom they had experienced the inner beauty, and yet also experienced the person hiding or withholding the beauty in some way.

As before, we had them pick the person, stand so they could see the person’s eyes, and then deliver their feedback by saying: “(Name), the beauty I experience in you is (fill in the blank) and the way I experience you hiding it is (fill in the blank)”

Many would struggle at first with picking someone, but once we got going, the energy in the room would build into one of profound warmth and caring. Some would be blown away by the perceptive powers of others – “how did you ever see that in me?” Others would be blown away by the power of sharing their observations in such a positive and caring way.

In the first go around, some would be concerned that no one had picked them. This time, of course, having a crowd wasn’t such good news. At first! Then, as person after person would share the inner beauty they experienced, it would become incredibly powerful and touching for both the person receiving the feedback and for the person giving it.

After everyone was done, we would ask for a show of hands: “How many of you were reluctant to share your feed back?” Most hands would go up. “How many of you found positive value in hearing the feedback?” Most hands would go up. “How many of you feel closer to the person who gave you the feedback?” Most hands would go up. “How many of you feel closer to the person to whom you gave the feedback?” Most hands would go up.

What an incredible lesson for just about everyone. Feedback, when withheld, often makes us feel distant from the other; however, when delivered with care and consideration, that same feedback can draw us closer together.

Of even greater interest is the discovery that holding back or hiding, doesn’t work nearly as well as some of us might think. In this instance, not only did others notice the act of hiding or withholding, but also noticed that which was being hidden any way.

One lesson here might be to open up the internal receptors in order to gather more data or feedback from those around us. Another might be to actively solicit the perceptions of others.

By soliciting feedback, we stand a good chance of not only lowering barriers between ourselves and others, but we might also learn something that will help us move another step closer to our preferred outcomes.

Now that we have built a bit of a case for feedback, let me now counter that by point out a fundamental problem with all types of feedback. Feedback tends to focus on the past, on something that has already occurred. More often than not, it takes the recipient back to an event or behavior that cannot be undone. Sure, there may be some lessons about what to do next time; however, the backward looking nature of feedback does not always translate into forward looking change. In fact, it sometimes sparks defensiveness in the other person.

You noticed? I sure recognize the response inside of me!

As we were getting Insight started back in the late 1970’s, my mentor, John-Roger, suggested that we consider the notion of feed forward instead of feed back. Of course, he was suggesting that we consider how to frame the information in a way that it could be used for learning, growth and general improvement.

More recently, Marshall Goldsmith has addressed the issue in his leadership work. If you wanted to learn more about Marshall’s approach to the subject, you might want to go to his website and download his free article, Try Feedforward instead of Feedback.

The principle idea here builds on the idea of focusing on positive outcomes and the application of the “Plus 44″ principle. Feedback is often a minus 6 kind of thing, even when it is positioned as potentially helpful. There is just something about the backward looking view that comes off as critical, while the forward looking stance appears more supportive.

It’s like that autopilot again – it isn’t complaining or criticizing the plane or the pilot, it is just providing information about where you are now compared to where you said you wanted to get, and facilitates making the changes necessary to move you closer to your goal.

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