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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!

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So, what are you working on?

Suppose a coach asks a leader the above question and the leader’s response is along the lines of, “Uh… wait a minute… it’s in my action plan …” Chances are, if a leader can’t even recall what he or she is working on, he or she probably isn’t really working on it. And this is not an unrealistic exchange, in our experience.

Conversely, the most improved leaders in our study, when asked about their action plans many months after developing them, almost invariably remembered exactly what they were working on. They generally cited one or two key focus areas – and when there was more than one area of focus, the multiple areas generally were interrelated. In short, leaders who improve significantly over time tend to focus on one key area for improvement – what we have termed the “central issue”.

Avion Consulting has identified five key questions that leaders or leadership development professionals can ask to help identify a leader’s central issue.

1. Does the Feedback All Point in One Direction? This refers to the leader’s ability to focus his or her improvement efforts on one issue that is central to all of the other feedback. For example, one of our most improved leaders had several seemingly distinct themes in his feedback: He was not being sufficiently strategic for his level; he needed to invest more time in relationship building; he wasn’t managing his time well; and his direct reports felt micro-managed. Upon reflection, the leader concluded that the feedback was all pointing to the same basic issue: The need to empower his people more. Doing so freed up more time for the leader to be strategic, build stronger relationships, manage time more effectively and generally lead more effectively. As this story illustrates, by focusing on the one central issue that almost everything else seems to point towards, a leader can address one key issue in his or her feedback and also indirectly address several other issues that are impacted by the central issue.

2. What is the Common Thread? This refers to a theme that “gathers together” all the different feedback that people may have for the leader and frames it as a single, concise issue that can dramatically improve the impact of the leader. One example from our research is a leader whose common thread was a need to maintain composure, as illustrated by the fact that “Maintaining composure in stressful situations” was one of the lowest-rated survey items in this leader’s 360. However, in the written comments portion of the feedback, the leader’s co-workers rarely used the word composure. Rather, they used words and phrases such as “passion,” “demeanor,” and “wears emotions on his sleeve.” Upon reflection, these words and phrases could be seen as a common thread. “Composure” was the word that seemed to best “gather together” the other developmental feedback that this leader received. Note: It is not uncommon for common threads to explain both strengths and weaknesses, since sometimes the same behavior affects different people differently.

Now, you might be wondering, how is the question “What is the Common Thread?” different from the question “Does the Feedback All Point in One Direction?” The first question asks whether there are a number of issues that point to a single issue (and, even though they may be fundamentally different issues, by focusing on the central issue, the leader can also positively impact the other issues). The second question, on the other hand, gets at whether there is a single issue that is described in a number of different ways, even though it’s all basically the same issue.

3. What Message Becomes Front-of-Mind? When we were asking the leaders in our study to explain their significant improvement, we noticed that a number of them used the phrase “front-of-mind” to describe their central issues (saying, for example, “This was front-of-mind”). This finding has at least two important implications. First, one way of helping a leader isolate his/her central issue is for a leadership coach or other leadership development professional to be carefully listening to the leader in order to determine which messages he or she has in the front of his or her mind after having received feedback. Second, and perhaps more importantly, once a leader has identified his or her central issue, it is important for the leader to proactively and deliberately identify ways to make it more likely that the central issue will remain “front-of-mind.” A number of ways of accomplishing this will be outlined in future articles based on our research.

4. What Blind Spots Get Exposed? Intuitively, one might think that a leader’s central issue will be something that immediately resonates with the leader – perhaps because it is in an area in which the leader has previously received developmental feedback. However, one of the factors that characterized central issues for a number of our most improved leaders is that the central issue was in an area where those leaders were surprised that they were getting the feedback that they needed to become more effective in that area.

For instance, one of our most improved leaders identified collaboration as her central issue, in part because she was surprised by developmental feedback she received in that area. The reason she was surprised was that she had always received positive feedback in this area in the past and actually thought of it as one of her strengths. We find that “blind spots” like this often turn into central issues for leaders precisely because of the surprise they cause. When leaders see a significant gap between their own view and others’ perspective on some aspect of their leadership behavior, there is a common tendency to sit up a pay attention – often turning that issue into a central issue.

5. Can I Really Control This? This question gets at what psychologists refer to as self-efficacy. Simply put, the question here is: To what extent does the leader believe in his or her ability to do what is required to address the central issue? For example, I may have very little self-efficacy when it comes to learning the detailed science behind the drugs in my company’s pipeline if I am a leader within HR. However, I may have a great deal of self-efficacy when it comes to being more strategic about talent planning. For one leader we worked with, they received feedback about the need to be more collaborative with peers and not operate in a silo that excluded others in the organization; once they digested the feedback and understood what was being asked of them, they were enthusiastic about their desire – and ability – to change how they were operating to have a better impact on their peers and be more of an enterprise-focused leader. The key lesson here: discovering how confident a leader is about their ability to tackle a development area can signal whether that issue may be a central issue. If feedback exposes a blind spot and the reaction is to say “I can fix that!,” then the leader may have latched onto an issue that could be a great candidate to serve as a central issue.

To sum up: Leaders often either don’t know what to focus on, they focus on areas that are not especially impactful, or they try to focus on addressing too many issues at once. By answering these five questions, a leader can identify the central issue on which to focus his or her development. According to our research, this is another key to how leaders actually improve.


This post is a preview to some of the insights in the 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!

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How do leaders actually improve?

Q: How do leaders actually improve?

A: [crickets chirping]

Have you ever wondered why some leaders get better and some don’t? It seems that despite all of the books out there on leadership and all of the money organizations spend on developing leaders, that everyone would get better. But we know this just isn’t true! Some leaders improve more than others…so the question kept nagging at us: HOW do leaders actually improve? Over the last two years we have endeavored to add to the field of leadership development by better understanding this issue: how leaders actually improve. Through in-depth interviews with leaders who actually got better, we believe we have some very practical insights that leaders, coaches, and organizations can implement immediately in order to getter better results.

Over the coming months, we will share some of this wisdom in our blog and will keep you posted on the release date of our forthcoming book “How Leaders Improve: A Playbook for Leaders Who Want to Get Better Now” written by Avion Consulting partners John Gates, Ph.D., Jeff Graddy, Ph.D. and Sacha Lindekens, Ph.D. – coming out Fall 2017!

Stay tuned!