When Developing Church Chairs Taught a Lesson on Feedback

It wasn’t what we expected. We started a product development cycle to answer a problem that occurs over time in some card pockets on the back of church chairs. We designed three new card pocket prototypes for our church chairs based on feedback we had received from our customers. Once the prototypes were completed we showed them around the factory and reached a consensus about which one our customers would like best.

Then, we schedule some focus groups with area pastors looking for support that we had the right idea. We asked the pastors in our focus group to evaluate each of the card pocket designs and tell us which one they would most like buy and why.
That is when the surprises started. The pastors all gravitated to the one choice we thought was the most boring. When we tabulated the results the product designer challenged the outcome. Did we ask the right questions? Did we tabulate the results accurately? Why did this prototype seem better to the pastors than the two factory favorites?

Feedback is always important in product development. Our customers often give us the best ideas! But this got me thinking about feedback I receive as a leader. How important do I consider this to be? What did our experience with the card pocket teach me about leadership generally? As I thought about it I came up with three feedback pitfalls that I have experienced and seen leaders commit when it comes to feedback.

Pitfall 1: assuming a solution is the same as listening

The card pocket experience illustrates this pitfall in seeking feedback. We set up the focus group as a way to affirm a predisposition rather than explore possibilities. We did not see our bias until it contrasted to unexpected input. Leaders must remain aware of their biases. When leaders ask for feedback that feedback does not render the anticipated results its time to stop and evaluate the biases i.e., the assumptions. Obviously we wanted to know what would sell best but we had inadvertently committed ourselves in the wrong direction – we committed to a particular solution rather than really listening to advice. What is the difference and why is it important to remember not just in product development but also in leadership?

Presumably the request for feedback assumes that the solution has not yet identified. The mistake we made was that we assumed we knew the real problem and had the only commercially viable solution. We owned a solution before we really defined the problem from the customer’s point of view. I see leaders making the same mistake i.e., rushing to a solution before they really hear the problem. Leaders who fail to identify their own biases spend time and energy on actions that little impact or the opposite impact the action intended.

The lesson is to change the focus of attention. Rather than enter conversations seeking to own (define, promote or insist on) a solution leaders should spend more time helping define the problem and the outcome that is preferred. When others are engaged in helping to define the problem then several great solutions will present themselves.
Pitfall 2: equating emotional awkwardness with loss of authority/respect

The internal tension I felt during the focus group was just that – internal. I faced a decision to be defensive or to spend time asking questions to understand why I received the feedback I was getting. The ability to stop in mid-emotion and think about what I wanted to really accomplish has been a hard earned skill. Unidentified biases make it possible to project one emotion on what others are thinking. The result is never pretty. When leaders react defensively or punitively they loose credibility and trust.

The lesson is to embrace the reality that emotionally awkward situations do not need to be avoided. Awkwardness is a sign that new information has risen. When that twinge of embarrassment or anger lurks below the surface ask what internal assumption just got challenged. Then embrace the emotion and ask for more clarification. Step into the process of discovery don’t run from it and don’t react to it in attempts to shut it down.

Pitfall 3: failing to recognize that we all tend to hear selectively and act on belief not facts

Feedback is simply information that helps to determine whether actions are moving closer to an objective or farther away. As Christians we are promised that feedback will be a constant companion to help us move closer to Christ. Jesus said it this way,

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26)

Notice the verbs; teach and remind. The Holy Spirit is in the business of providing feedback. Effective leaders embrace feedback and create a culture in which feedback is encouraged and leveraged to engage actions that grow consistency between their impact and their intention. In other words feedback helps close the gap between behavior and the vision of the organization. So what is it that causes feedback to go awry?

The lesson is that all of us have past experiences, relationships, beliefs and assumptions that serve as filters to what we hear. Chris Argyris calls this the ladder of inference and he describes it in seven steps:

1. All observable data and experience

2. I select “data” from what I observe

3. I add meanings

4. I make assumptions

5. I draw conclusions

6. I adopt beliefs

7. I take action based on beliefs

It is important for individuals and leaders to be aware of this process of inference (assumptions). When providing feedback it is important to listen for the beliefs behind the responses. When listening to feedback it is just as important to stop to think about one’s own beliefs are they supported by the data or do they distort the data?

We listened to the focus group and in the process I think we landed on the right card pocket design for our church chairs. But the greater win may be that we learned something about how we respond to feedback that will make us more effective leaders and better friends in the days ahead.

Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.