Beyond Feedback and Feedforward: Transformative Inquiry

August 15th, 2012

It’s time for a change in our leadership practices. While our view of leadership has seen a shift over the past few decades (from Theory Y to participative to engaged to distributed leadership), the techniques that we teach today’s leaders have been slow to keep up. Feedback is one leadership practice in need of a shift.

What’s inherently wrong with our current conception of feedback?

The traditional approach to feedback looks something like this. I check for timing and receptivity and tell you something about what you did or didn’t do. I might also talk about the impact on me and/or others—and perhaps give you some suggestions for moving forward. Your job in the process is to listen and ask questions (not too many, though, as you might be seen as defensive). Further, if you don’t see the world as I do, you should probably keep that to yourself as well (again so as not to be seen as defensive). Hopefully the whole thing works. You see the genius in my worldview and go on to make yourself a better person as a consequence!

Marshall Goldsmith’s feedforward took us a couple of steps forward. Using a more appreciative approach, you provide background and ask me for suggestions that you could adopt in the future. You, the receiver, take steps to own the process. A great enhancement.

Is there a better way to help make people more aware of, curious about, and potentially interested in exploring and changing their behavior or approach?

A more mindful approach

Our research with mindful leaders highlights a different approach. Rather than trying to tell and sell the other on changing, mindful leaders use a process that allows and asks. The process allows the other to own his or her experience and asks them to contemplate some deep and reflective questions in order to determine what, if anything, they might do.

Here’s how they do it

Provide context. Situate the conversation in time and place (but do not talk about the person’s behavior, i.e. provide your spin on what they did, why they did it or the impact).

Allow the other to describe their world. This step not only informs you of their experience, it allows them to reflect back on the experience as well. It informs both.

– What happened?

Ask about impacts, reactions, and feelings. Take self-reflection from a tactical frame (what did you do?) to an emotional one (what emotions were driving you and/or what was the emotional impact on others?).

– What was driving you—and what do you think caused others to react as they did?

Inquire about the source. This step involves shining a light on what may have been happening or holding up a mirror so that the other can explore what drives his/her behavior.

– At its core, where do you think that behavior or reaction comes from?

Invite the other to be with the source. This step entails questions that enable the person to be with the uncovered assumption(s).

– What would happen if you let go of that   perception/perspective/desire? How might the situation have been different?

Ask the other to consider change. This step provides a segue from deep self-reflection to possible action.

– Is there anything you want to do differently moving forward?

The Transformative Inquiry process above comes with a couple of significant caveats. First, it must be grounded in compassion and a pure desire to help.  Secondly, it’s not about changing or fixing the other. It is about simply providing the other the chance to explore and determine if there is a need for change.

In other words, it takes a tough but tender leader to use Transformative Inquiry; one committed enough to the potential of change to engage the other in conversation—and mindful enough to trust that the process will lead to a positive outcome. If you’re that kind of leader, give it a try!