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Feedback and Power

This is the tenth part in a series on giving and receiving feedback.

Part 1 – How to Make Feedback Fun (Really!)
Part 2 – How to Decide If and When to Give Feedback
Part 3 – Feedback: The First and Most Important Thing to Say
Part 4 – The Difference Between Flattery and Appreciation
Part 5 – How to Deliver Feedback Effectively
Part 6 – Putting Negative Feedback into Perspective
Part 7 – How to Receive Feedback Graciously
Part 8 – Disagreement ≠ Defensiveness
Part 9 – Feedback and Ethnicity

A couple months ago, the Golden State Warriors set the all-time record for most wins in a regular NBA season … in the year after they won the championship!  It’s becoming clear that they’ve got something special going, not just in terms of basketball success but in the culture of motivated leaders they are creating. 

One story that illustrates this perfectly tells of how last year during the NBA Finals, coach Steve Kerr made a major adjustment in strategy upon the suggestion of a video coordinator. A New York Times article describes how Nick U’Ren was watching old video footage and thought that playing the smaller but athletic Andre Iguodala instead of center Andrew Bogut might be a good move.

Kerr listened, agreed, and went with this feedback … and it may have turned the tide in the series, as Iguodala was able to defend LeBron James fairly well.  After the Warriors won the championship, Kerr publicly gave credit to U’Ren for the idea.  The article describes how Warriors player Shaun Livingston reacted to this decision:

I’ve played for nine different organizations, and I’ve never seen anything like that.  This wasn’t even an assistant coach; it was a video coordinator.  And Steve Kerr listened to him, and he did it.  All the bridges are open here.  There’s an open forum of ideas.  A good idea really can come from anywhere.  And that kind of thinking has to start at the top.

Wouldn’t you want to work for an organization or a team like this?

None of this is accidental, of course.  Kerr didn’t have to listen to U’Ren’s thoughts or feedback.  Or he could have claimed credit for the strategy.  But he didn’t, and think about how empowered and motivated that must have made a “lowly” video coordinator feel.  See how players like Livingston took notice of Kerr’s actions, and the impression it made on him.  People see the decisions of leaders, and how and why they make them.  This creates a leadership culture.  Kerr has used his power to create a culture of freedom and empowerment.

In contrast, I’ve seen countless organizations, families, and teams where an oppressive environment has taken over.  Almost invariably, these are places where feedback is rarely (if ever) requested or desired.  Questions like, “How do we need to change and grow?” and “Who do we need to listen to more?” are simply not asked.  When a team member offers critique or feedback, he or she is met with defensiveness and resistance by the leader … and the “voiceless group” of the other team members who don’t speak up for themselves.  After a few experiences like this, the person feels like they’re just being a pain for always bringing up “problems” or “negativity,” and they feel discouraged.  They start to think, “Maybe I really am the problem here.”  Soon they stop offering feedback or opinions at all, because what difference will it really make?  And they now too have become part of the voiceless group.  Power has been used to protect and preserve control.

I’ve experienced it, and I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

A number of years ago, I heard a female television producer talk about a famous movie director who started off with a few brilliant films.  To get this done while he was still relatively unknown, this director had to collaborate and seek a lot of input and feedback along the way.  That’s just what you have to do when you’re starting out.  However, once this man found enough success that he could “call his own shots,” he stopped asking for feedback.  It became all about him and his brilliant vision.  Because this director no longer had to listen or submit to people who could refine his work, or keep him in touch with reality, he got lost in his own world.  As a result, his next few films were unsuccessful and he’s now faded into obscurity.

The television producer shared her observation that the most successful directors continue to solicit feedback and invite correction, even after they have risen to the top in Hollywood.  They use their power to create an environment where people have the voice to influence their movies, rather than shutting down people and their ideas because of fear, control, ego, or insecurity.

Ever since I heard this producer’s perspective, I’ve talked to a number of actors and directors in Hollywood who have helped me understand the real forces behind why bad movies and shows get made.  It’s almost never because of a shortage of good ideas or competent people.  Rather, it’s because of the egos, insecure personalities, and processes that shut down the good ideas or never consult the competent people.  There truly are empires of power and control in the movie industry that decide what and who to let in.  Perhaps the same applies to many other organizations and industries.

When we talk about environments of oppression or freedom, it is true that we’re talking about forces of power and control, right?  Leaders are entrusted by an organization, a family, or a team with the power to make decisions that impact everyone.  Their decisions ‒ even in something seemingly minor like planning a meeting agenda ‒ shape what kinds of topics will be discussed or not, and what kinds of voices will be heard and platformed, or not.  Their degree of openness to input, feedback, and disagreement impacts how much others feel they can contribute.

As leaders, I often think we greatly underestimate our own power.

Feedback is a tool of power, because it involves forces of will and resistance.  When we invite feedback, we hand others the stethoscope or microscope.  We ask them to enter into our space, and we grant them the power to influence us.  It’s an act of trust and vulnerability that requires inner strength and security.

When we shut down feedback, we use our power to resist, counter, or silence people and ideas.  Either way, other leaders see and take note that “this is the way things are done here.”

So what can we do, if we’re stuck in an environment of oppression and control?

If we’re the leader, or the person entrusted with most of the power:

A great first step is to (surprise!) start cultivating an environment where feedback and input is valued.

  • Start a regular feedback check-in time.

At the end of each of your team meetings, allocate 10 minutes for a “feedback check-in” when everybody is asked to offer suggestions on what can be improved for the next meeting or give voice to topics that need more attention.  I just talked to a leader who does this with his team, and it’s been very effective for them.

If we’re not the leader:

It’s challenging but we can’t settle for silence or victimhood.

  • Meet with the leader in person and share vulnerably and openly.

After the next team meeting, ask to meet up with the team leader individually and share with them your desire to be able to give more input and feedback to them and to the team.  Ask specifically what can be done about this, and offer to help if desired or needed.

  • Model feedback yourself in front of the leader and team.

During a meeting, ask the other people on the team for feedback and input.  Show them an experience of what it’s like to be invited in and asked for help, and what it looks like to receive feedback well.  It may catch on and become contagious!  And if it doesn’t, you can be a bit more direct and ask others to try requesting feedback on their projects.

Or you can be more indirect and offer to implement a team process where every project goes through rounds of feedback, for the sake of greater productivity.  Or you can suggest that your team watch a leadership training video on feedback and its applications, or even buy them a book about feedback!  There are a lot of ideas, but the point is that we can influence our environment, even when we’re not the leader or don’t have all the power.  It may take time, but it can be done.

I hope that this series on feedback has been somewhat helpful or encouraging to you.  If so, I’d love to hear from you!  The other week, I received an e-mail from a leader who shared that some of the principles in this series are significantly impacting his relationships, family, and life.  It was one of the most encouraging and meaningful notes I’ve ever received!

And if you have constructive feedback on what could be more helpful in anything I’ve written, or suggestions on what you’d like to read more about, I’d love to hear that as well!

Adrian Pei
Adrian Pei
Adrian's passion is to make leadership connections about topics that matter. His current job is to oversee leadership training and content development for an Asian American ministry organization. Adrian consults, writes, speaks, and designs content. He loves innovating, collaborating, and seeing a project through from start to finish. Adrian graduated with degrees from Stanford University and Fuller Seminary and lives with his family in sunny southern California.


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