Feedback and Trust

I want to revisit your discussion on feedback, Frances, because I think the topic often gets lost in the race to do things that feel more important organizationally.

The ability and willingness to communicate honestly is often framed as a soft contribution, nice but not critical in these serious times.  I take the opposite view.  I think feedback is the central act in building organizations since it creates the raw material that matters most:  trust.

Trust is necessary for any task that involves more than one person, which includes most of what an organization does all day (deciding things, making things, selling things). Trust persuades your employees to give you their best ideas and most productive hours.  Trust convinces your customers to believe your brand promises.

Trust gets built when we do what we say we will do. This is a fairly straightforward concept, but somehow gets highly complex in practice.  Calls get dropped.  Guitars get broken. Bonuses go unpaid. Companies who are competing on strong relationships with their stakeholders – think Google, Zappos, Whole Foods — work hard to prevent these violations, big and small.  They understand that trust dies in the space between talk and action.

But here’s the thing — we’re not reliable observers of these gaps in our own behavior. This is where feedback enters the story. We often don’t know when we’re letting our constituents down.  We often don’t know when we’re under-delivering on commitments, spoken or unspoken.  Feedback gives people the chance to address the variance, to close the distance between chatter and truth.

Customers give you this gift when they pick up the phone to “complain.”  A complaint identifies the weakness in the relationship, the place where trust must be built or rebuilt.  Frustrated and articulate customers are the competitive equivalent of Christmas morning, but they’re more likely to be treated like a nuisance or distraction.

The same dynamics play out in all human relationships.  Trust gets eroded every day between reasonable, well-intentioned people, and it can’t be restored unless we talk honestly with each other.   The reason feedback can change lives, as you suggest, is not just because it makes someone else better in a vague sense. Feedback changes lives because it creates the opening for greater integrity in our most important relationships. Feedback builds trust. And trust builds everything else.

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