Feedback – the SHRRRRIIIIIIEEEEKKKKKKKK of Leadership

February 22, 2022 by Birger Nerré

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (The Who)

When the CEF team asked me to share insights on my feedback techniques and experiences, I gladly agreed – fully aware that this might not include discussions about Jimi Hendrix, Gary Moore or Joe Satriani.

I first learned about feedback in my youth the hard way during band practice. This scary swelling tone of the electronic signal of my guitar being looped back and forth with the amplifier: SHRRRRIIIIIIEEEEKKKKKKKK!

Ken Pearsall describes it for Fender as an “uncontrollable, high-pitched, squealing feedback that hurts the ears of everyone in the building. It can be the worst (or best) thing that can happen […] Feedback can help or hinder. Knowing how to manage that is the key. In the end, it’s up to you to decide if it’s an annoyance to be dealt with, or if it’s “all part of the show” (source).

But for this blog, we want to leave the music aside (do we?) and concentrate on the feedback mechanism in management, leadership and cooperation. But we are not going to refer to the gurus of management literature on feedback. Ok, let’s at least mention Peter F. Drucker’s feedback analysis and his book “Managing Oneself” (summary).

High Voltage (AC/DC)

Giving positive feedback is not such a hard job – except that you should make sure you really do it and do not only give feedback on things that have not worked out as they should have. I propose that negative feedback should always be labelled and delivered as constructive feedback.

Successful feedback has one basic requirement: either trust or reputation. While trust usually incorporates that the feedbacker and the feedbackee know each other, reputation works for people that you have not been interacting with before the feedback. For example, if you have heart problems, you will probably search for a surgeon with a good reputation – and you most probably will listen to their diagnosis and act accordingly without having known them before.

Feedback is always subjective. Two different feedbackers can give completely opposite feedback on a certain matter. You should make use of that, though, “I personally do not like that design. It seems old-fashioned to me” instead of “This design is bad and old-fashioned”. By letting the feedbackee know “This is my perception, my interpretation”, you leave room for maneuver. There are far more options for reactions to “I personally do not like” than to “This is bad”, e.g. “I am sorry you do not like it” versus “No, it is not bad”.

Feedback also needs to be credible. “You should try to be on time” only works if the feedbacker is always punctual, too.

When giving feedback, I am always applying the PCQ test: trying to be precise, constructive, and quick.

Precise because I have to make sure that it becomes clear what I really want to address.

Constructive because feedback will make things better (this should not exclude creative destruction; it is completely ok to propose starting from scratch, if you can explain yourself well and the situation is just stuck).

Quick because nobody has much time on their hands and the message gets lost in long monologues.

In the end, make sure that those receiving feedback can go home with a positive feeling that they have learned something that will help them make things better. This does not require ready-made solutions from the feedbacker’s side – food for thought and some guidance is mostly enough.


What have I become, my sweetest friend? (Jonny Cash – Hurt)

The general aim of me giving feedback is to make things better by initiating change. Sounds very easy, a little tougher to really implement it. Let’s concentrate on the question of how to convey the message to somebody that they should do something different(ly) to achieve better results.

Looking back at how my approach to feedback has evolved, two indirect feedbacking experiences come to my mind which are related to sports and art.

The first one is based on reputation. I was the captain of my school’s squash team and, at the same time, the coach of the future generation of squash heroes. Giving them feedback was very straightforward: do not hold the racket like that, watch your balance, run faster, etc. There was no diplomatic approach (imagine how sentences like “you might want to consider trying to move a little faster when on court” might have worked). My reputation made them take my feedback and strive to become better players.

The second and trust-based occasion is about my friend Jea who is a digital artist (that’s her website). Her work has been on exhibition among others at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris and in New York. When she started experimenting with Photoshop in the early days of her career, she would send me her creations for comments shortly before she was planning to publish them online. While others would praise her work, I would usually pick out a very small detail and at least go into discussions with her on why and how this looked like. Keeping in mind that I have no capacities when it comes to editing pictures and photos, this was kind of me giving feedback to a magician on how to improve her magic. Nevertheless, it was her trust in my intention to challenge her for even better results that made her listen and ask for my feedback again.

If you take a quiet moment to think about your past experiences, I am sure you will find similar examples you can reflect and reconnect with.

Mirror mirror on the wall (Blind Guardian)

When it comes to receiving feedback, I try not to comment or react immediately. My analysis always goes like this:

  • What is the occasion? Is it an organized standard process in a safe environment? Is it in public and has not been announced upfront?

  • Who is giving me feedback (my boss, team, friends, colleagues, experts, strangers) and what is the intention for this feedback?

  • Do my feedbackers want to make me better as a leader?

  • Do they have the necessary knowledge and experience that makes their feedback trustworthy?

  • Are the points raised justifiable?

Especially the latter can make taking feedback hard. If I get the feedback to stop shouting at my subordinates so much, I am not inclined to accept it because it is just not true. I feel treated unfairly – and that has the potential to make me react defensive and angry. In those cases, feedback will not be fruitful at all.

If the answers to those questions are all satisfactorily reasonable, though, I really enjoy getting feedback because I want to become better in what I do – always!

In the end* (Linkin Park)

To sum out this short journey: we have covered sports, arts and music. Feedback is common in all three. It is part of the show. It makes things (and people!) better if applied correctly. Why should it be any different in the areas of leadership, management and cooperation?

Disclaimer: Should you have bothered to listen to all the songs hinted at in this blog post, congratulations! You may have realized that some lyrics proclaim the opposite of what good feedback should look like. Do not hurt people intentionally and be sure in the end: feedback matters!

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