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Jolting feedback for motivating change

Have you ever received a particular piece of feedback that grabbed your attention and acted as a catalyst for change? If you answered yes to this question, your feedback might have contained a “penetrating message.”

At Avion Consulting, we endeavored to uncover the common attributes of penetrating messages and the reasons why they create such a strong impetus for action as part of a study we have been working on for the past two years to learn what actual leaders in actual organizations actually do to improve. The importance of a penetrating message is one of the 10 insights our analysis revealed that helps explain how leaders improve.

Why are penetrating messages so persuasive?
In our research, we found that the most improved leaders keyed in on a penetrating message in their feedback, which “jolted” them to abandon their status quo and embrace new ways of behaving. In a typical 360-degree experience, a leader receives a wide range of feedback. However, only a small portion of the feedback is truly penetrating. That small portion grabs the leader’s attention and serves to focus their efforts over an extended period over time, typically resulting in improvements to the identified leadership opportunity.

For example, one leader we coached received the tough feedback that “although not often observed, when others see the scintilla of humanity within you, they react favorably”. This leader received feedback from 26 colleagues and this one message got the leader to take notice. This message, while jarring, provided the leader with a memorable area to focus on and it motivated consistent long-term action. Furthermore, the feedback was inconsistent with the leader’s intent, which created cognitive dissonance, and provided further incentive to change these perceptions.

Penetrating messages are a catalyst for improvement because they create both the focus and motivation necessary to sustain meaningful behavior change.

What type of feedback tends to be construed as a penetrating message?
There are four attributes common to penetrating messages, each of which are described below.

  • Short Phrase or Colloquialism: The message is a generally well-known phrase or common term (e.g. “tighter rein”, “challenge the status quo”, “creating a team with bench strength”, etc.), thereby enabling them to be memorable and applicable to a broad range of behavior.
  • Emotional Reaction: A penetrating message tends to impact leaders emotionally, not just rationally. This tendency of penetrating messages to trigger an emotional response is true for both positive and critical messages. The impact of emotion on level of commitment is consistent with the results of a study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership examining the effectiveness of nine different influence methods. It revealed that “inspiration” methods, while least frequently used, were the most impactful in gaining commitment and led to zero resistance. Conversely, “rational” persuasion, the most frequently used method, was least likely to result in commitment and more likely to create resistance.
  • Conflicting Feedback: Sometimes a message is particularly penetrating because the leader gets two seemingly conflicting bits of feedback at the same time from different sources (e.g. managers vs. peers). This will often result in a leader asking themselves, “How do I need to think or act differently in order to close the gap between these two perceptions?” Reconciling these different perspectives results in a heightened focus on the feedback.
  • Genuine Introspection: A truly penetrating message results in a leader deeply reflecting on its meaning and implications for change. One of our leaders with a good sense of humor found an especially penetrating message in his feedback. The message was “Not everything is a joke.” This message caused the leader to become reflective, and he concluded that “I tend to use humor when we are in stressful situations, which works for a lot of people, but not everyone.” After some introspection, the leader concluded that his basic style needed an adjustment. He explained it as “Instead of jumping in with humor in a stressful situation in order to lighten the mood, I need to pause and try to take the temperature a bit more.” He concluded that the feedback “got me to reflect on how I am perceived more generally across situations.”

In sum, a penetrating message is characterized by a short phrase that is emotionally-laden. It sometimes helps a leader to work through conflicting feedback, and invariably causes some introspection on the part of the leader, which drives them to action.

While the way in which the message is communicated by the leader’s manager, direct report or coach is critical in influencing the leader’s motivation to act on the feedback, ultimately it is the leader him/herself who decides what is penetrating. The most improved leaders assign significant meaning to a penetrating message, determine “it is not okay”, and take concerted action to change their behavior accordingly.


Stay tuned for more insights on how leaders improve in our forthcoming book: “How Leaders Improve: A Playbook for Leaders Who Want to Improve Now” by John Gates, Ph.D., Jeff Graddy, Ph.D., and Sacha Lindekens, Ph.D., coming Fall 2017!