For some the term actionable intelligence is totally foreign. Others may recognize it from its original military context. It was used as early as the 1960’s to represent a piece of intelligence that was considered current, relevant and accurate enough to warrant immediate action.
It occurred to me that this term has a new and relevant application in our workplace. In fact, it has relevance in any aspect of our lives where we may seek improvement. What we really need, is actionable intelligence on ourselves. We need feedback from others that is reliable enough to guide our personal improvement efforts.
The need for feedback
Some may wonder why they need feedback from others. "After all," one may say, "I'm not getting any complaints."
David Maister, author of Practice What You Preach, once offered an excellent response to this. “In life, the absence of complaints is not a dependable indicator of the absence of opportunities to improve.” Complaints are a Form of feedback and the absence of them may actually be linked to our inability to obtain actionable intelligence.
You might be wondering why you can't just trust your own judgment. How good is your judgment? It is easy to develop blind spots regarding your own performance. It is also very hard to know what you don't know. In some cases, you might even deceive yourself.
Illusions are an interesting aspect of life. Some are perpetrated upon us while others are created totally within us. Often, it's hard to tell the difference. As AnthonyG. Greenwaldput it "The ego is a self-justifying historian, which seeks only that information that agrees with it, rewrites history when it needs to, and does not even see the evidence that threatens it."
When looking at feedback, I like to consider four specific types.
There are two categories. One is general performance which involves things like physical ability, decision making and technical skill. The other is interaction skill which relates to how we impact others and our level of emotional intelligence.
We also can consider the two aspects of feedback. We sometimes get positive feedback which we refer to as praise. The there are times when we get feedback that leans a little more negative and is called criticism.
I have conducted a number of workshop exercises where I pair people up and ask them to get a piece of feedback in each of the four possible types. In most cases, they find that positive feedback in the area of general performance is the easiest to give. This same type stands out as the easiest to take.
By contrast, they find it very difficult to give criticism, especially in the area of human interaction. Often I hear a comment such as “I don’t know them well enough to offer criticism.” Why do we find it easy to offer praise to someone we don’t know but so much more difficult to give criticism? In fact, it appears that this is often true even with those we know quite well.
Truth and Trust
In order for the intelligence to be actionable, it needs to be accurate. We need to get the truth. But given the difficulties we have discussed, how likely is it that we actually get the truth? How often, when we are giving feedback, do we feel compelled to be somewhat less Than candid?
The number one reason for a lack of honesty in giving feedback is the lack of trust. The biggest concern is how we will react. When someone says they don’t want to hurt our feelings or make us angry, they do not trust our ability to take criticism without being hurt or getting angry.
Coupled with this lack of trust is fear. People fear the potential consequences. The consequences they fear could include excuses, arguments, guilt, rejection and even retribution. The level of dishonesty is generally proportional to level of fear.
A common manifestation of this can be seen in a condition often referred to as CEO disease. The higher one grows in their career and position of authority, the more they need accurate feedback and the less likely they are to get it. I have also noted that this follows in many other relationships. The more important the relationship is to the feedback provider, the more cautious they may be.
The good news is that there are things we can do to overcome these fears and build higher levels of trust. It can be helpful to look at what might be causing the lack of trust. Trust is tied to judgment and expectations which are driven by one’s personal paradigm.
One’s paradigms are subject to what I call “the rule of 6 and 60.” Judgments and expectations are based on the sum total of life’s experiences. This includes experiences of 6 minutes ago and 60 years ago. These include experiences the person has had with us as well as those they have had with others.
For example, if someone has a long history of conflict when trying to be open, that person is less likely to be open with you. Similarly, if you have a history of over reacting to feedback, those who have experienced it or heard about it are likely to be less honest when talking with you. Even if historic experiences have been positive, a recent negative reaction can cause a person to be less than trustful, even though it may not have involved you.
Armed with this understanding, we can identify some areas where we might have an impact on the level of trust and consequently on the levels of honesty and openness.
It is important to start by building a reputation for being open to criticism. If you suspect that your reputation is already tarnished, you may need to acknowledge your concern and desire to improve. You can then begin to demonstrate your resolve in one-on-one discussions or in open forums.
Formal approaches tend to stifle honesty. Whenever possible, seek feedback in less formal settings. If a person seems reluctant, you might ask what that person has heard from others. This will take the focus (and potential blame) away from that person. Remember, you don’t need to ask for names, just information.
Sometimes you can put a person more at ease by starting with a self critique and asking for his or her opinion or advice. Through a number of workshop exercises, we have noted that the more specific you can be with a feedback question or request, the more candid and helpful the response will be.
When actually receiving feedback it is important to focus on listening skills. Listen to learn. Don’t argue, defend or explain. Try not to react to what you are hearing. Think of it as gathering information to evaluate later. This can be difficult. I tell people to look at it like running a Google search on you. In our work on emotional intelligence we point out that it is not about “not” having emotion; rather, it is about not allowing the emotion to have you.
You can continue the trust building process with what you do after receiving the feedback. Thank them for their input. You may not like what you hear, but you need to appreciate the effort to be open and honest.
Inform the person of any action you intend to take as a result of the feedback. It is not necessary to act on everything you hear. However, it may be a good idea to find something of value that you can act on. This will show that you value the process. Finally, be sure to follow up with the person over time to get a read on your progress.
Honest, but reliable?
Up to this point, everything I have discussed has been about working toward getting our feedback to be open and honest. I feel this is the most difficult and important part of actionable intelligence. We cannot even consider feedback unless we know it is honest. Moreover, the trust building process is a significant step In itself. Achieving a level of trust that allows open, honest communication is critical to all of our personal and working relationships.
So let’s assume we have reached this pinnacle and folks are giving us candid opinions regarding our general performance and interaction skill. Before we can use the information for improvement, we need to know that it is actionable. It may be an honest opinion and still be inaccurate. How can we tell?
Some have said that a good indicator may be how well the feedback aligns with what we already know. The potential problem with this line of thinking is that most of us are subject to confirmation bias. We tend to seek information that validates the beliefs we already hold. Jonathan Haidt speaks of this in his book, The Righteous Mind. Studies have shown that those with the lowest performance also have the least accurate view of themselves.
The best validation is generally obtained by comparing information from multiple sources. Opinions on general performance may vary from person to person and accuracy tends to improve with sample size. But when evaluating interaction skill, an honest statement of how you impact an individual personally will always be accurate.
The final consideration is what to do with the intelligence we have obtained when we determine it is “actionable.” The answer to this lies in your initial purpose for seeking the information. Are you seeking feedback or validation! No one likes criticism. But we all can benefit from indentifying opportunities for improvement. While it feels great, validation will never give us anything we can actually use to improve.
Analyze the information to determine what is most useful. Then look at what can be most readily acted on at the current time and in your current state. This completes the definition of actionable.
Use it or lose it. If you choose not to act on the intelligence, let it go. Dwelling on things you choose not to change will only undermine your self esteem. This actually hinders growth and stifles improvement.
In the end analysis, only you can uncover the benefits of actionable intelligence.