FEEDBACK IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE: From sled dogs on a snow covered mountain to a corporate office meeting, feedback is always there if you look for it by Lucille Maddalena, Ed.D. (guest)

In his book BLINK, Malcolm Gladwell describes thinking that happens at a bit faster rate, as a gut feeling or snap judgment—or the message I send my husband with a certain look across the room. There is a bit of mystery about how we reach these conclusions and impressions: are our reactions inspired by the words or actions of others, or is it some deeper instinct and understanding that we tap into?

Perhaps we can explore the topic of feedback by looking at how we read and react to others. Why are we able to interpret the body movement as small as the wink of an eye to elicit a response? Considering perception-action responses, why did renowned management expert Peter Drucker describe us as “poorly designed machine tool[s]”[1]?

In my article "ON BY"[2], I relate an incident that occurred during my first sled dog race. In that story I described how when at the crucial moment to pass the first team we had caught up to on the trail, I failed to call a command to the dogs to “ON BY.”

We had just come out of a wooded area, into sparkling white snow. The dog’s tails went up and all ears pointed forward: on the trail before us, about a quarter mile ahead just climbing a small hill, was another team. We had caught up the three minutes between each team’s start.

Surprised, pleased and amazed, time seemed to stop [3]. Realizing I must act, I found myself calling out to the driver of the other team with the question “May I pass you”? The startled driver looked at me as though I didn’t have a brain in my head by asking his permission to pass. An embarrassing moment, it was also a learning point. While I was working like a dog, I later realized that my thoughts then were of habits formed in another environment, far away from that snow covered hill. I was mentally not part of the team.

My body continued to work while my brain took its cue from a different world. I had one foot on a sled runner while the other was pushing that sled up the hill, taking the weight of the sled off the dogs to maximize speed. What brought me to my senses, was my lead dog. It occurred in a blink of an eye. We had practiced this: she knew what was needed from me. After my witless question to the other driver, mid-stride, she turned her head for just a moment to catch my eye. We exchanged a glance. Inspired, I called “On By”. She lowered her head and haunches, reaching out for even greater speed, moving forward leading her pack smoothly around the other team to regain the trail.

The moment required only one specific command to take the required action that would benefit the team. On my part, I initially pulled from the wrong well of information: the lead dog required different data. Basic communication occurs when the receiver accepts the message with the meaning intended by the sender. The observation of the receiver’s response is called feedback[4]. A connection occurred on that snow-covered trail between a dog and a person: it was feedback.

The work of Dr. Gerd Gigerenzer [5], may shed some understanding on this experience. A supporter of Gladwell’s who has been able to show how aspects of intuition work and how ordinary people successfully use it in modern life.

Dr. Gigerenzer describes gut reactions as a fast judgment “that comes quickly into a person’s consciousness. The person doesn’t know why they have this feeling. Yet, this is strong enough to make an individual act on it. What a gut instinct is not is a calculation. You do not fully know where it comes from.” “

My research indicates that gut feelings are based on simple rules of thumb, what we psychologists term ‘heuristics.’ These take advantage of certain capacities of the brain that have come down to us through time, experience and evolution. Gut instincts often rely on simple cues in the environment. In most situations, when people use their instincts, they are heeding these cues and ignoring other unnecessary information.”[6]

Dr. Gigerenzer defines intuition as a neurologically based behavior that evolved to ensure that we humans respond quickly when faced with a dilemma[7]. Our reactions, the application of those cues from the past will most likely lead us to make decisions that support our productive and healthy futures.

Offering a clue as to when we are able to acknowledge gut feelings, it is interesting to consider Peter Drucker’s description of the importance of mind and body coordination: “The human being is a very poorly designed machine tool. The human being excels in coordination. He excels in relating perception to action. He works best if the entire human being, muscles, senses, and mind, is engaged in the work.” Drucker addresses the need to be in the moment, to employ all of our faculties, to embrace the task with enthusiasm and commitment.

When I think back to how we became involved in dog sledding, I am aware that it was one of several life-changing decisions made very quickly, on-the-spot. I had been offered the use of a fully-trained team of Alaskan Sled dogs from a nationally respected ranch for one season by promising to keep the dogs in good condition. When the opportunity to work with this team for a year I immediately said “yes.” No deliberation, no second thoughts: a true gut reaction.

As an Executive Coach I warned against quick decisions, offering methods to research and form collaborative decisions. Discussion of these topics often addressed personal relationships, both at work and at home, as well as stress factors. The solution to most issues evolve around issues of communications, feedback, messaging, trust, rapport and empathy. Gladwell and Gigerenzer add a new dimension to my understanding of the decision making process, entertaining the value of personal contribution to achieve leadership goals.

It wasn’t until much later after I had accepted the loaned team that what Dr. Gigerenzer describes as ‘reflection and reason’ were considered. It is not surprising that the primary issues confirming the decision were business related:

  1. I was able to assume a leadership role with my own team that worked in my comfort range and preferred running style: somewhat like quarter horses, this breed of sled dogs preferred speed for shorter distances. These could easily be reasons someone would choose new job.

  2. Dogsledding provided a balance to offset the non-physical activity of a typical corporate work day. The activity was conducted in a natural setting, with a familiar breed of dog I had experience training.

Which brings us to Malcom Gladwell’s collection of stories in his book "What the Dog Saw". Intuition, feedback, perception and action, all come to mind when reading Gladwell’s description of the inventors of automatic vegetable choppers and hair dye, or of Cesar Millan, the American "Dog Whisperer" behind the title piece.

From the very small cues sent through the movements we interpret as information in a dog’s behavior, to the major impact of individual and group actions leading to man-made global catastrophes, we respond to the flow of messages we accept with the same vigor as those dogs on a snow covered trail. That is the mystery of a gut reaction, of a response that occurs in the blink of an eye, a look between spouses.

Gladwell’s common theme is his desire to show us the world through the eyes of others – even if the other happens to be a dog. It is up to us to embrace and connect with the information surrounding us, seeking the feedback that has a value to all of us, reminding us that we are more than cogs in a machine, that we have history, evolution and spontaneity on our side. The key is to listen, to observe and to be receptive.

To connect with Lucille:

Dr. Lucille Maddalena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Consultant in Organization Development.

Dr. Lucille Maddalena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Consultant in Organization Development.

Best known for her work supporting Senior Executives during career and business transitions, she guides the alignment of team goals with expectations by bridging interpersonal communication with practical business management. As a key part of global leadership initiatives, she has created coaching models for clients, functioning as Master Coach to identify and manage Leadership Coaches at regional sites. She has guided over 6,000 corporate executives at Fortune 100 firms to successfully advance in their careers during times of organization change.

Visit www.mtmcoach for free downloads of useful articles and publications.

She holds a Doctorate in Education with an interdisciplinary major in Human Communications and Labor Education. Working with Senior Leaders and their teams she is recognized for her commitment to build engagement and trust within all levels of the organization.

[1] Guido Stein, Managing People and Organisations: Peter Drucker's Legacy. (Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2010)
[3] Perception-action as referred to by Drucker is a psychological theory that people perceive their environment and events within it in terms of their ability to act.For example, softball players who are hitting better see the ball as bigger. Tennis players see the ball as moving slower when they successfully return the ball. Furthermore, the perceiver’s intention to act is also critical; while the perceiver’s ability to perform the intended action influences perception, the perceiver’s abilities for unintended actions have little or no effect on perception.
[4] In other words, the part of the receiver’s response communicated back to the sender is called feedback. Actually it is the amount of response of the receiver that reaches to the sender. It enables the sender to evaluate the effectiveness of the message.
[5] Dr. Gigerenzer is director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin known in social science circles for his breakthrough studies on the nature of intuitive thinking.
[7] Business Week