How Memorable Feedback is an Effective Catalyst for Leaders to Improve

William S. Burroughs said “When you stop growing you start dying.” It is so easy to let ourselves get complacent and simply go through the motions in the absence of a catalyst for change. Great leaders know that continuous growth is important, it just may take a “jolt” to propel them out of their current status quo so that they can improve.

We all have traits about ourselves that we know could use some improvement, but sometimes it takes hearing it from someone else to motivate us to truly make a change and improve. In fact, from our extensive leadership coaching and research at #AvionConsulting, the leaders we have worked with who improved the most have been motivated to change because they received a penetrating comment or phrase. In this article we will explore the elements of penetrating messages that are most effective.

For example, one individual we coached received the tough feedback that “although not often observed, when others see the scintilla of humanity within you, they react favorably.”  A total of 26 feedback interviews were conducted on this leader’s behalf and were synthesized into a 15-page summary document, and the one message the leader routinely came back to in our coaching was “scintilla of humanity.”  As you can imagine, this message was simultaneously shocking, troubling and offensive to the individual who received it.  However, upon deeper reflection, the recipient acknowledged that there was some truth to it (although he highlighted the very valid reasons why he felt he needed to be so tough and results oriented).  This penetrating message provided the leader with a memorable area to focus on (“show my softer side to others”), and it motivated consistent, long-term action (“I value both people and results, and I need to display my warmth and care for others more regularly”). This leader tended to be a tough, decisive, and results-oriented leader who valued a “zero defect work environment.” He was proud to set high standards for himself and the large department that reported to him.  In fact, multiple feedback providers noted that he was likely the best at his particular functional area in the entire industry.  However, the perception that he was not regularly behaving in a warm or humane manner caused cognitive dissonance for him that resulted in both clarity about what he wanted to change, as well as sufficient internal motivation for him to take meaningful and ongoing action.  In fact, six months after receiving his initial feedback, he received a follow up feedback assessment, and he was very gratified to see that the perceptions that others held of him had changed significantly.  In summary, penetrating messages are predictive of improvement among leaders because they create and reflect both the focus and motivation necessary to sustain meaningful behavior change over an extended period of time.

As we saw this pattern of particular feedback spurring leaders to make a change, we wanted to know what types of feedback are typically the most penetrating. We found that feedback that came as a surprise to the leader is particularly effective. Another factor is the source of the feedback, whether it is from a peer, direct report, manager, or their coach.  These factors, however were not what we found to be what actually characterized a penetrating message.

As we searched for the answer to this missing link, we found four characteristics of penetrating messages that stood out amongst a sea of responses received in a 360 feedback.

Short Phrase or Colloquialism: Often times short phrases pack a big punch and light a fire in a leader to make a change. They are short and are generally well-known phrases, likely thereby enabling them to be memorable and applicable to a broad range of behavior.

For example, one of our most improved leaders said that a penetrating message from his feedback was that he needed to better understand the “nuts and bolts” of what his people did.  The message this leader took from this feedback was that he needed to have a better grasp of the implications of what he might ask a direct report to do in a given situation, and he said that feedback really “rang true.”  In response to this feedback, the leader said, “Now I stop and think:  what are all steps this person is going to have to take to do this?”

Yet another leader said the message that really struck a chord with him involved use of the term “status quo.”  As he put it, “I recall a comment about my department remaining status quo,” and the insight this created for him was that, while he felt he and his team were making improvements in their area, these improvements were not shared more broadly outside the team.  As a result, he said, “The phrase ‘status quo’ led to my action plan regarding showcasing the team and its successes.”  That message apparently really stuck with him and helped him to actually change his approach to ensuring that not only was his team improving the status quo, but that he was making sure that his team was getting the credit they deserved.

Emotional Reaction: A penetrating message, quite simply, creates some sort of emotional reaction.  From our experience and research we have found that emotional appeals are much more effective in promoting change than rational persuasion. One of our most improved leaders offered a perfect example of this, saying, “Some comments about me not being attentive to people and not being in stores as much as I should be hurt my feelings; that message hit home.”  It should be noted that this comment came from a male leader in a company that has possibly the least warm and fuzzy culture any of us has ever worked in.  So, our guess is that this leader is probably not especially prone to talking about having his feelings hurt.  Further, the feedback was not framed in an unusually critical or disrespectful manner.  But it seems like the core message – pay more attention to your people – resonated with this leader on an emotional level, not just a rational level, and likely triggered some cognitive dissonance.

Conflicting Feedback: During our research we found that sometimes a message was particularly penetrating because the leader was getting two seeming conflicting bits of feedback at the same time, each from a different type of co-worker.

Sometimes, the two bits of seemingly contradictory feedback came from one’s manager versus others.  For example, one of our most improved leaders said, “Ronald (name changed) said I needed to be more strategic, which stuck out because others in my feedback said I WAS strategic.”  What this leader said next in the interview was enormously important.  He declared, “That makes you want to go figure out – what is that person not seeing?”  He then added that he and his manager then had a number of conversations about that over course of the (leadership development) program.” The important part here that illustrates one difference between the mindset of leaders who improve significantly and those who don’t is the fact that his initial feedback was not defensive. Rather, his response was to say, “how do I need to think or act differently in order to close the gap here?” As he noted, this penetrating message from his manager caused the leader to wonder why his manager did not see him as strategic when others did.  And it resulted in some great conversations with his manager and, ultimately, significant improvement on the part of the leader getting the feedback. That sort of constructive focus and motivation was a common theme we found across the leaders who got conflicting feedback and who improved.

Genuine Introspection: A fourth factor that we found to be characteristic of a penetrating message was that it created some sort of genuine introspection.  In fact, we believe this factor arguably is most important in distinguishing between messages that are merely noteworthy and those that are truly penetrating.

For example, a human resources leader we worked with has a good sense of humor.  We know he is funny, because one of us served as this leader’s coach, and his intelligent and somewhat dry sense of humor often surfaced in our one-on-one conversations.  When he got his feedback report, though, he found one message to be especially penetrating.  In his words, that message was, “Not everything is a joke.”  That got his attention and it caused him 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, he made a decision that this was a part of his basic style in the workplace that needed at least an adjustment.  And, nearly a year after receiving the feedback, he explained that, “Now, instead of jumping in with humor in a stressful situation in order to lighten the mood, I 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.”

From all of this, we conclude at least two things.  First, one of the keys to significant improvement among leaders is often the communication of a penetrating message – a short phrase that is emotionally-laden, which sometimes helps a leader work through conflicting feedback, but which almost invariably causes some introspection on the part of the leader.  Second, the leaders themselves are the ones who ultimately decide what is penetrating. If you would like to explore further, we expand upon this concept in our best-selling book “How Leaders Improve”

Have you received feedback that had one or more penetrating messages that motivated you to improve as a leader? Has a message you’ve communicated to a fellow colleague prompted them to significantly improve? We look forward to your comments and invite you to join the #AvionConsulting newsletter for further discussion at

July 1, 2019