Friday, February 27, 2009

Feedback: accountability that drives change

Which weightloss program is more effective?
A. You purchase pills or food over the Internet or phone and stick to the diet because you don't want to waste the money that you have spent.
B. Every week you meet with two dozen people who are also trying to lose weight and you must stand on a scale in front of all of them and announce your weight.

The answer depends on how much integrity you have. If you are one of those extremely rare people that never cheats or lies to yourself (most of us forgive ourselves immediately and craft very clever personal excuses), then you might find A. to be more effective. However, most people won't make the kind of wholesale personal changes that are required to both diet and lifestyle without significant external motivation. It might be a doctor's warning, but more often the changes are only made once we have a group of people that we care about holding us accountable. The same can be said about office environments where individual performance results are kept private vs. publicly posted on the bulletin board. You probably already know which technique drives the most performance from employees...

That is one of the two main reasons that feedback is such an integral part of personal and professional development. Someone is there to whom you have given explicit permission to give you feedback on how you are doing. In the example above, there is an entire group of people who you have grown close to because of a shared challenge. In the office it is someone whose advice you value and who you genuinely care about and trust. (The other reason that feedback is so critical is because you may be headed down the wrong path and need to make a course correction. You think that you are exhibiting the new skill correctly, but you are not getting the results that you hoped for.)

Once you have chosen some resources and started learning foundational information and skill, you must apply them. Once you start to apply them, you need someone to observe your behaviors or performance and tell you how you are doing. You must chose someone who is in a position to observe you using the skill that you are trying to improve. Then you must ask them to be your accountability coach. Thirdly, you must share your individual development plan with that person so that s/he knows exactly what you are doing and what you hope to accomplish. Finally, you must schedule regular meetings to solicit and get that feedback.

Your accountability coach's greatest challenge will be to help you accurately evaluate your performance. Delivering the type of developmental feedback that promotes an effective assessment of your paradigms is difficult to master and requires strong communication and assessment skills. One of the most effective tools that your accountability coach can use for exploring assumptions, beliefs, and values was created by Chris Argyris and popularly referenced from Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline. The concept called ladders of inference helps your coach get past the "what" and understand the "why" behind actions. Often, the ladders of inference concept is used to point out how faulty assumptions are created. However, effective inquiry can lead someone who is effective at giving feedback backwards from what was observed to what your intentions were. The goal of feedback is to help you identify and break down your own assumptions and open up to the facts that were previously filtered out.

Example (think about your opinion of the series of events that led to a recent election):
1. Something happened
2. You selectively noticed certain aspects of the situation
3. You tuned into that subset of the facts because they have meaning to you
4. That meaning was created because you are predisposed to your own assumptions
5. Those assumptions are based on your personal beliefs
6. You take action on that subset of the facts
Thus, your ladder of inference created a self-fulfilling prophecy by reinforcing what you already believed to be true. If you could break out of this cycle by preventing your beliefs from undermining your observations then you could really learn from your experiences!

Look for future posts on other models that can help an accountability coach move beyond the observable symptoms to the root cause of performance.

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