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Feedback Doesn’t Work Unless Leaders Have Empowering Beliefs: Interview with Bill Gardner, MBA

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

Bill, a friend and colleague, served as Director, Global Organization and Leader Development at Advanced Micro Devices for over 18 years before starting Noetic Outcome Consulting, his executive coaching and organization development practice.

Anna: How does your company name–Noetic Outcomes Consulting–inform how you do executive coaching and organization development?

Bill: I first picked the word “noesis” from a website that showed the various branches of philosophy. Each philosophy name was hot-linked to a brief description of the philosophy. “Noesis” description included, “True knowledge is based on academic knowledge tested through experience and completed with intuition (or influence from the gods). For my consulting practice, I wanted to combine my book knowledge & university studies with 35 years of practical experience, and add in my intuition. I did a very American thing and took a Greek noun “noesis” and applied English practice to make it an adjective “noetic” and thought I had created a new word! “Noetic Outcomes Consulting would mean that I could help organizations or executives to reach business solutions based on our combined knowledge, experience and intuition. To be perfectly honest, as a marketing concept the name allows me to explain my distinctive competence when someone asks me what it means. Later I heard from friends that Dan Brown’s historical suspense novels included a discussion of “Noetic Sciences” but I liked it nonetheless.

Anna: Of the many things that pop up in your executive coaching and organization development practice, I know that giving feedback can be a big issue. What are some of the patterns you see?

Bill: There is a very interesting pattern I discovered over the years. While I was teaching for the University of Southern Mississippi, some of my colleagues and I were doing leadership skills training as a side business. Feedback skills was a key topic we taught. We emphasized using behavioral examples, recommending specific steps, avoiding judgmental language, listening, etc. The participants seemed to appreciate the models we taught and took part in the practice exercises. But the more I followed up with the people from our courses, the more I noticed that they rarely applied the skills we taught.

Another content area we taught was Transactional Analysis (TA) in the business context. We helped people see the difference between parent to child communication vs. adult to adult communication. Ideally, you want to respond to your boss as an adult, not as a child. As a boss yourself, your want to relate to your employee as an adult, not as a parent. And of course, that involves a shift for most people.

It wasn’t until I began using the 360 degree feedback tool I use today, called The Leadership Circle, that I understood this phenomenon more clearly, and these knowledge areas came together. Whether feedback is effective or not is all about beliefs and assumptions—what I call your mental “operating system.” What’s fascinating is that the very same feedback skills we were teaching could be applied with different operating systems and have opposite effects!

Anna: Can you describe these different effects feedback can have?

Bill: I could see these contrasting operating systems in action via the The Leadership Circle 360 degree feedback tool. TLC not only lays out the positive or “creative” competencies that effective leaders demonstrate but also describes the “reactive tendencies,” or defensive mechanisms to which leaders resort.

In the creative mode, a leader uses the feedback skills—using behavioral examples, for instance–to help the team member learn and grow. The employee “hears” it this way, and moves forward in his career. In the reactive mode, another leader uses these same skills to control others; therefore, the people he manages remain fearful and their learning is blocked. Different operating systems, different outcomes. We had taught “OS1.0”–the skills of feedback under the old assumption, but “OS 2.0” brings a more empowering set of assumptions.

Anna: From an OD perspective, how is feedback influenced by the company’s culture?

Bill: I think it’s very important. So when I’m asked to work with leaders, I like to work with the senior leadership team first, survey them, and first understand whether the existing culture is more creative or reactive, what they reward and what they espouse. It will be no use introducing creative feedback competencies into a fear-based or reactive culture.

Coming from a creative perspective fits in with an adult-to-adult way of relating. Spreading a parent-to-child feedback culture is regressive, especially in today’s workplace–where the work is more complex and a leader must rely on other adults who are knowledgeable specialists you want contributing and learning optimally. In general, effective feedback should always be generative and collaborative, balance inquiry with advocacy, and create learning for both giver and receiver. If that last sentence is a person’s mental model about feedback, he/she will be more successful than if their mental model is that feedback is about being pedantic, destructive, and unilaterally controlling.

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