Cookies with a Crunch: The Challenge and Joy of Feedback Loops

I grew up very close to my maternal Grandmother, Edith. She taught history, English and French before she retired. Her energy was a quiet force. She taught me about commitment and hard work. Even in her retirement, she was constantly on the go committing to the public library, AAUW, the Historical Society, writing books tracing our genealogy, and her real passion: spending time with her family, particularly her grandchildren. She taught me that a smile, even in the hardest times, is the very best choice. She taught me that the women in our family had “stones at the base of our spines” and that there was not an obstacle that you could put in front of us that we could not overcome.

One of her passions was chocolate. I remember vividly when the research came out about the positive health benefits of chocolate. She was over the moon. She had a saying that “your dessert tube is always open.” In my early teen years, I learned to love baking. Many Saturday mornings, she would come to our home and I would bake her chocolate chip cookies with walnuts. She’d sit with me while I baked and be ready when the first batch came out of the oven. She was always very positive about the cookies. It brought me joy to spend that time with her and that she thought my baking was delicious.

Her modeling of positive feedback loops was something that came full circle with me as I was working with credit unions to develop and grow sales and service cultures. Working with Michael Neill and Associates in two different credit unions, he shared with me that as you look to shape new behavior, you “catch people doing it right.” Celebrate the small wins along the way and show people that you notice the specific behaviors that they are “trying on.” For example, “Sally, I like the way that you just shared with our member how you might save him money. I look forward to hearing that again with the next member you work with today.” 

Why does our approach to creating positive change matter? According to Gallup, only 33% of American workers are engaged. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workforce Survey, “from 2012 to 2016, Gallup tracked movement in the individual 12 elements and found notable improvements in three elements.” (All 12 elements can be found on page 99 of the “State of the American Workforce” Study) One of those was their fourth question, “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.” Lest we believe this is just the “soft stuff,” Gallup shares, “happier workers certainly benefit an organization, but the real goal of employee engagement is improved business outcomes. Engaged employees contribute to the economic health of their company and the nation in ways that other employees do not.” (18) That is worth fighting for.

As you look to manifest positive change with people, encouraging more of what they are doing well, even when it isn’t perfect, is important. It is a delicate balance though. As we grow healthy cultures both at home and at work, we do not want to reward people just for showing up. We want to avoid creating a culture of entitlement. This also means, we have to correct for what doesn’t go well.

In a recent parent-teacher conference with my daughter MacKenzie’s teacher, Tori, she shared that as they work with the first graders to learn about their emotions and how to manage their feelings, they talk about “sizing” their response. They may feel very angry or frustrated and that feeling is okay, but how “big” that reaction is should be tied directly to how “big” the situation is. Earlier this week I spilled coffee on myself as I was heading out the door for work. It was so frustrating, but I thought of Tori’s words and reminded myself, “the size of this isn’t so big. Settle down. It’s coffee.”

Sizing our response to both positive and negative behaviors matters deeply both at home and at work. As we coach our kids or our team members to grow their skills and we see those skills emerging, we want to jump in effusively to encourage more of the actions that will lead to longer term positive change. We don’t want to remain overly effusive if that change stalls out. For example, we’ve recently asked MacKenzie to begin making her bed each morning. On the first day when she did it without being reminded, I was very effusive. I won’t be having a party every time she makes her bed for the rest of her life, but “catching her doing it right” as her behaviors change and become habits is critical to shaping more of that positive change.

Sometimes we have to address the things that aren’t going well also. Tori’s perspective on the size of the issue remains imperative. For example, MacKenzie has a habit of “correcting people” when they make mistakes. Even worse, occasionally she’ll insist on correcting someone on something that is not even wrong. I’ve shared with her my perspective that sometimes being right is less important than being kind. Telling people about very small mistakes is not always helpful and can in fact alienate people from focusing on the bigger issues.

At work this balance is challenging. I am a perfectionist and I can take it hard when mistakes are made. However, as a leader, we can’t see everything. We have to hire great people, create strong strategy, share clear direction and “inspect and validate” the most important things to ensure expectations are being met and standards are being upheld. When they aren’t, that must be addressed.

Our own response to input is imperative as well. I have had to learn to embrace input and negative feedback. It is certainly a journey. Seven years ago, one of my mentors listened to me present. One of my goals in my career at the time was to become a stronger presenter. When I finished I was eager to hear his input. He said, “Tansley, that was poor. If you want to become a stronger speaker, you have to start presenting on topics that you are passionate about. As I listened to you, I realized this is a topic that you don’t care much about and it showed.” I was crushed. I didn’t want to hear what he shared. However, it helped me and it drove me. The clarity of the direction and specificity of the input also helped to shape how I focused my energy towards improvements.

Even with experience to know how productive negative feedback can be, responding without frustration is a challenge. This last weekend, I had time to bake cookies again. I found a new recipe and the experience was joyful. It reminded me of my time with my Grandmother. This recipe included crushed pretzels, so even the act of hammering away at the tough pretzels was cathartic. I took a few cookies in to work the next day and had a colleague tell me how much she enjoyed them and how surprised she was that the pretzels didn’t get soggy as they baked. I felt good. I shared the response from my colleague when I got home and my husband said, “I was going to mention to you that when they first came out of the oven, the oats seemed a little too crunchy, but after they cooled off they turned out really well with a nice crunch on the outside and a soft inner center.” My face said it all. After a long day, I just wanted to feel good about the cookies and even this small bit of feedback made me feel like my efforts were being attacked. I was less than interested in the input, regardless of the fact that it ultimately was positive. My husband quickly emphasized that he’d eaten several of the cookies and really enjoyed them. My fast and negative response shut him down. I reminded myself that throughout life our response is the one thing that we can control and that I need to stay open to input that can make things better. No matter the feedback. No matter the size of the situation.

Creating cultural norms about mistakes, growth, learning and feedback is imperative as well. While we as perfectionists hate to hear it, humans are prone to error. We can assist our colleagues by helping them know the boundaries for failure, how learning can be supported from failure and even creating mechanisms to guard against errors in places when mistakes simply cannot be tolerated.

It takes strength to lead and influence our people and our families. Sometimes even catching people doing it right can feel arduous. Your internal monologue may be screaming, “Seriously, that is so easy, am I really celebrating making the bed?” Receiving negative feedback can feel like a dagger to the heart. You may think, “Wow, doesn’t this person see all that I do and how hard I’ve tried?” I’m challenging myself in all three areas: making strides towards stronger and more regular delivery of positive feedback, sizing and delivering the right and well timed negative input, and finally receiving and welcoming input that can help me improve. I’m actively delivering, sizing and receiving to become the nouns of better mom, wife, leader and baker. Thank goodness for those stones at the base of my spine. Thank you Grandma Edith.


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