Those of us who have some relationship with feedback — whether as givers or receivers — probably think of it mainly as a kind of “how’m I doin'” mechanism that allows us to correct undesirable behavior and/or amplify good behavior. And it is certainly that.

But as management guru and leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith notes, there’s a deeper way to look at feedback, a way that drives home its true power: as a real-time connector between a person’s interior world and the “real” world that’s not between his or her ears.

This idea brought me up short when I came across it in a recent article Goldsmith wrote for Talent Management magazine. Feedback, he said, allows us to be “smarter about the connection between our environment and our behavior.”

Hmm, I hmmed. Those who aren’t fully aware of the way their behavior is affected by, and affects, the environment are less likely to thrive, whether the environment is the interior of Alaska during the winter or a multi-layered, nuanced workplace full of talented, prickly, difficult-to-predict individuals. So feedback is a survival mechanism.

In real time
To drive home his point about feedback as a connector, Goldsmith gave the example of the radar-driven speed displays that some local authorities sprinkle around the roads under their jurisdiction. As anyone who has passed one knows, these displays — stationary or portable — work in a way that ordinary speed-limit signs or warnings don’t. If you’re going faster than the posted limit, you automatically take your foot off the gas when you pass such displays. Why?

It’s just feedback — very timely feedback. (Of course, a speed cop roaring out from behind a billboard and whoop-whooping you with his siren amounts to feedback, too, but it comes too late.)

So back to my initial premise: feedback as a real-time connector between the interior and exterior worlds. You’re driving along, listening to a favorite tune on the CD player, or thinking about that luscious dinner your spouse has promised when you get home, and you’re lost in your headspace. So much so that you don’t even notice you’re doing 45 in a 30. That speed display quickly and forcefully reconnects you with the world in which it’s not safe to be going 45mph on this kind of road.

The work world
What’s this got to do with the behavior of managers and employees at work? A lot.

Even the best of employees tend at times to become like that driver tooling along 15 mph over the speed limit; that is to say, they get into a sub-optimal habit — maybe one that enables them to cut a corner or two — of which they’re barely conscious. Management may have posted speed-limit signs, in the form of policies that say don’t do this particular thing, but those policies aren’t there in real time as the person does in fact do the thing.

Thus, the implications for managers become clear: It’s not enough to provide feedback at predetermined times such as an annual performance review. If you want your employees to “survive” — and not jeopardize the survival of others — at work, it’s up to you to be, as near as possible, that radar-driven speed indicator. You take up undesirable behavior, or lagging performance, with the person as soon as you notice it. And you make clear why you’re doing it: because you don’t want them crashing and hurting themselves or co-workers.

(Similarly, real-time positive feedback given to someone who regularly observes the “speed limits” of the workplace helps that individual continue and maybe even build on the good behavior or performance.)

Of course, all of this means that managers need to be observing their direct reports closely enough to know pretty quickly when they’re exceeding the speed limit. Do you? Or do you let yourself get lost in your interior world, such that you fail to see warning signs flashing in the “real world” of your team or department? You may want to think about what some of those warning signs might be, and rededicate yourself to noticing them.

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