The Art of the Feedback Loop

Proactive communication as a growth engine

Immediate feedback is a primary vehicle for learning. Remember learning about the Skinner Box in school? Operant conditioning, popularized by BF Skinner, is “a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior.” 

The rat is trained to press a lever to receive positive reinforcement (food) and to avoid negative reinforcement (shock). Despite being an unnatural behavior for rats, they learn to press the lever via the conditioning they receive. It’s the same approach to training a dog: the closer the feedback (treat) is to the behavior (sitting), the more the dog learns to associate sitting with a reward. In this essay, I explore feedback loops: how to provide and receive feedback from credible people in pursuit of new learning opportunities.


What are feedback loops?

A feedback loop is the mechanism used to teach or learn a lesson through communication from a credible person related to a particular behavior. 

A loop is comprised of three elements:

  1. The information the giver is sharing with the recipient
  2. The length of time between the behavior and the feedback
  3. The manner in which the information is presented 

The success or failure of giving and receiving feedback hinges on how well these three elements interplay. 

It’s easiest to explain with an example. Let’s say you’re a new salesperson learning how to cold call for the first time. Your manager sits with you, taking notes on your performance. After thirty minutes together, your manager provides feedback. This creates a loop between the action (calling) and the feedback (insights from the manager). Based on how timely and well-delivered the manager’s feedback is, you make adjustments with the hopes of improving your success rate. Then the process repeats itself as you get better and better at cold calling. 

Each of the three elements that make-up a feedback loop is incredibly important to how well the information is retained and acted upon.

The information the giver is sharing with the recipient

It’s critical to consider the value of the information provided by the giver of the feedback. This is based on the person’s credibility related to the feedback they’re offering and its relevance to the behavior at-hand. If after thirty minutes of listening to your calls, your manager just gives feedback on the color of your shirt, you’re not going to get any better at cold calling. However, if your manager offers details about your tonality, objection handling, and ability to get past the gatekeeper, it’s highly valuable. 

The time between the behavior and the feedback

To be of real value, information must be timely. The less time between the behavior and the feedback, the more powerful the learning opportunity. If after listening to your calls, your manager takes lunch and has two hours of meetings before offering guidance, the depth and relevance of the information will be lessened. In operant conditioning, the reward or punishment must be clearly linked to the behavior for the effects to be recognized. 

The manner in which the information is presented

Nobody enjoys criticism. Sharing with someone how they can improve requires strong communication skills, empathy, and a willingness to have a dialogue with the recipient. To ensure the feedback is considered and internalized, it should be presented as a means to help the person improve rather than to make them feel poorly about themselves. If the manager yells at you in front of your coworkers, you’re far less likely to be receptive to their feedback. In contrast, if there’s a healthy, private discussion, you’ll gain respect for the feedback giver and will do your best to implement the lesson. 


Jost’s Law

You’ve probably heard before that “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” This saying corresponds closely to Jost’s Law, which states, “if two learnt associations are of equal strength but of different durations, then repetition will increase the strength of the older one more than that of the more recent one.” Under times of stress, a person will default to their longer-standing behaviors and habits rather than newer, better ones. 

In 2013, Tiger Woods made a major change to his golf swing in hope of contending for more world titles. As golfers know, making major changes to a swing is challenging and highly risky at the professional level. From Scott Eden at ESPN:

“But now…Woods appears to be on the verge of completing the unthinkable: disassembling, reconstructing and mastering his golf swing for the third time in his career. Not only has no other player ever attempted such a thing, no other player has ever conceived of it — though perhaps a better way of putting it is: No other player would ever want to conceive of it.”

This is Jost’s Law in motion. The reason other players don’t consider making sweeping changes to their form is because it increases the likelihood of blending new and old habits into a messy swing with adverse outcomes. Now, seven years after this article was written, we know that Tiger was able to make a notable comeback in the later stages of his career. He fought Jost’s Law, and as a result, made a huge rally.

For people who can stick to a new habit long enough to override Jost’s Law, the benefits are often enormous. Recognize its impact on your ability to change behavior, and leverage feedback to boost performance. Become a lifestyle engineer. Lifestyle engineering means taking an experimental approach to life by being calculated in the mindset and behaviors that make up your experience. A lifestyle engineer seeks and receives feedback with the intent of growing. 


Whose feedback really matters?

There are three strata of people who will give you feedback throughout your life and career:

  1. Direct members of your tribe
  2. People one degree away from your tribe
  3. The peanut gallery 

How diligent you are about filtering and leveraging feedback from these three channels is critical. It’s the difference between creating good and bad habits. 

Direct members of your tribe

A tribe is the group of people who guide, support, and motivate you to accomplish your goals in alignment with your core personal values. It’s composed of people you specifically curate to help develop your values and goals. Since they’re people you highly value, their feedback is highly valuable.

Professionally, these are the managers and mentors who understand what you’re trying to accomplish, and can mitigate mistakes along the way. Socially, these are your friends and family members who understand your strengths and limitations well enough to reasonably guide your decision-making. 

The mentors and supporters who make up this substrate know you and your objectives more intimately than any other group of people. They have enough knowledge to deliver impactful insights. Seek those insights often and strongly consider their input.  

Personally, I have meaningful conversations with people in my tribe almost daily. From questions via text to long Zoom calls covering a lot of ground, I always weigh big decisions with input from this audience. As an entrepreneur, I have to make big decisions every day. Their knowledge-sharing keeps me on my toes and open to alternate perspectives. 

People one degree away from your tribe

The next layer of feedback givers are the people who know you superficially but don’t make up your direct tribe. These folks are likely well-intentioned, but don’t know you well enough to curate relevant, targeted feedback. 

Socially, these are acquaintances and community members. Professionally, they’re coworkers, customers, and Linkedin connections. They’re familiar with your mission, product offering, and high-level ambition, but are otherwise disconnected from your values and goals. 

Given their close proximity and good intentions, it’s wise to consider input that is offered from your one degree removed counterparts; just take it with a grain of salt. Without full context, their feedback will rarely be as hyper-specific as that of a tribe member.

The peanut gallery

Be forewarned: do not heed the words of the peanut gallery. Negativity is loud and frequent from people watching your story unfold from the sidelines. For most people, it’s easier to criticize someone than to celebrate them. The internet is full of mean-spirited people with crude ideologies who belittle anyone publicly trying to grow. 

When I left Untappd, my mom gave me a framed copy of a famous Teddy Roosevelt quote, often referred to as, The Man in the Arena.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt (1910). 

The lesson is that feedback is irrelevant if the giver doesn’t have experience in the subject or they don’t know you personally. The egos of people who are unable to differentiate the peanut gallery from the tribe inflate and burst on the back of meaningless feedback. Don’t get sucked into the fray.


Conclusion

In pursuing and accepting feedback loops, seek credible sources who understand your values and goals. Allow them to pour knowledge into you. Be humble and patient; however, always remain cognizant of how valuable a person’s insights truly are. If they don’t have experience in the area you want feedback, their information is less credible. 

Ultimately, the decision to change behavior lies with you alone. You can choose whether to accept or reject the feedback. Weighing your decision-making with advice from others can accelerate and smooth your learning curves.


What is Beanie & Blazer?

Beanie & Blazer is a lifestyle engineering company built to align people’s personal values and goals with their habits and behaviors. Our methodology offers our community clarity of purpose, a tribe of mentors and supporters, and reclamation of time in their busy lives. We systematically train people to become high performers.

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References:

https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100025484

https://www.espn.com/golf/story/_/id/8865487/tiger-woods-reinvents-golf-swing-third-career-espn-magazine

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/63389/roosevelts-man-arena

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