Feedback is a Gift


Get a feedback loop and listen to it. … When people give you feedback, cherish it and use it.”

Randy Pausch (1960 – 2008) was a Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and a best-selling author, who achieved worldwide fame for his speech The Last Lecture, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and having only a few months to live.

Most people, by now, know the story of Randy Pausch and his Last Lecture.    The book was a best-seller and the video of the lecture itself has been viewed by over 11 million people on YouTube.  The entire lecture is a powerful and moving presentation on achieving your dreams and living a fullfilling life.

Being that I’m in the busines of helping organizations develop leaders, I found the lecture fascinating on another level – namely the insight it provides us into one man’s struggle to achieve his goals, to continually grow and develop as a person and to live a happy life.  The popularity of the book and the lecture lead me to believe that the insights shared by Randy do not apply to him only, and are really fundamental to the human condition.  We can learn from these insights and apply them to leadership development programs at our organizations.

One thing that Randy discusses is the importance of feedback.  During his childhood and into his college days, Randy had little use for feedback.  Like many of us, he didn’t initially see the value in feedback.  But at some point in our lives and careers we hit what Randy calls a “brick wall.”  This is a barrier that temporarily prevents us from achieving our goals.  Randy has a great attitude about these barries; ” Brick walls are there for a reason. They give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”  Well, in order to break through these brick walls, we often need feedback from others to tell us what’s missing or what we need to do differently.  During graduate school, a professor did just that for Randy, helping him to see how his attitude was holding him back.

Through the course of his life, Randy came to appreciate feedback so much so that he would seek out what he called “feedback loops.”  These are processes that give us the feedback and information we need to continually improve and develop as leaders.

Contrast Randy’s attitude and feelings about feedback with what we sometimes encounter with leaders who are receiving 360-feedback.   Through our leadership development practice at RealTime Performance, we deliver thousands of 360-feedback reports every year to companies like Emerson, Nordstrom, FedEx, Chubb and Johnson & Johnson.  Although many leaders do view 360 as a positive excercise, there is always that group of managers who perceive it to be a negative experience right from the start.

These employees mistakenly consider receiving feedback an unpleasant exercise to be avoided if possible and minimized if absolutely necessary.  Successful leaders like Randy understand that feedback is a special gift because it is something we can’t give ourselves.   We can go out and buy ourselves a watch or new clothes, but we can’t give ourselves the knowledge of how we are perceived by others unless we ask.

Furthermore, the people who invest their time to provide us with feedback are often taking on a risk.  When someone delivers feedback, they risk damaging the relationship, especially if the feedback is critical or hits on a touchy subject.  Feedback comes at a price to the feedback-giver as well.  That’s why, feedback truly is a gift.

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