Brené Brown on Building a Culture of Engaged Feedback in Education, Work, and Family

 

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Image by Samuel Zeller. Via: (Unsplash)

 

A few month ago NPR covers an intriguing story of Robo Grader— an automated grading machine that can grade essays within minutes. This machine has received a numerous responses, positive and negative, from educators across the United States. Some teachers think that this computer will make their work becomes more efficient than before. When they spend less time to grade, they have more time to invest for teaching. On the other hand, some educators are skeptical of its benefits, questioning its ability to detect students’ creativity of expression. One teacher even says that writing, as an art form, should not be judged by algorithm.

As I thought about this article, a question came to mind: Will this machine be able to provide students with feedback for their growth? We should be aware of the distinction between grading and giving feedback to improve. Grading is always done by scribbling numbers on the top of a page. It’s passive and it doesn’t give somebody a chance to reflect and grow. Meanwhile, giving feedback is an act of creating a safe and honest conversation about what to improve and how to improve. The process of giving feedback is more rewarding than grading, and it cannot be automated by machine.

If we want to blossom and learn, we have to be less metric-focused in our evaluation in performance, and choose to create and nurture a culture of engaged feedback in our organizations. This is what Dr. Brené Brown, an eminent story teller and vulnerability researcher, explained in her indispensable 2012 book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transform the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.”

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Image taken from: (Myhighershelf.com)

 

Under the chapter 6 of the book, titled “Disruptive Engagement: Daring to Re-humanize Education and Work,” she writes:

“Today’s organizations are so metric-focused in their evaluation of performance that giving, receiving, and soliciting valuable feedback ironically has become rare. It’s even a rarity in schools where learning depends on feedback, which is infinitely more effective than grades scribbled on the top of a page or computer-generated, standardized test scores.
The problem is straightforward: Without feedback there can be no transformative change. When we don’t talk to the people we’re leading about their strengths and their opportunities for growth, they begin to question their contributions and our commitment. Disengagement follows.”
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Image by Raw Pixel. Via: (Unsplash)

 

From her extensive research data about this topic that she has gathered for more than a decade, Dr. Brown finds two major reasons behind a lack of feedback in any organizations:

“When I asked people why there was such a lack of feedback in their organizations and schools, they used different language, but the two major issues were the same:
1. We’re not comfortable with hard conversations.
2. We don’t know how to give and receive feedback in a way that moves people and processes forward.”

Fostering a culture of engaged feedback is crucial because this is where learning happens. Organizations will not thrive in this is fast-paced age if they are unwilling to construct a culture of an engaged feedback. Dr. Brown suggests that the best way to foster a culture of feedback in our organizations is by normalizing discomfort:

“Right off the bet, I believe that feedback thrives in cultures where the goal is not ‘getting comfortable with hard conversations’ but normalizing discomfort. If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized: ‘We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here — you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it. ‘ This is true at all levels and in all organizations, schools, faith communities, and even families.
The simple and honest process of letting people know that discomfort is normal, it’s going to happen, why it happens, and why it’s important, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame. Periods of discomfort become an expectation and a norm. In fact, most semesters I have students who approach me after class and say, ‘I haven’t been uncomfortable yet. I’m concerned.’ These exchanges often lead to critically important conversations and feedback about their engagement and my teaching. The big challenge for leaders is getting our heads and hearts around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as a part of growth.”

Then what’s the most actionable and effective method of giving a constructive feedback? Dr. Brown encourages people to focus on finding people’s strengths instead of their weaknesses. Though this method seems to dismiss the serious nature of their struggles, shining a light on people’s positive qualities gives us a way to find their potentials. When they are aware of their potentials, they can utilize them to overcome their challenges. As a professor, Dr. Brown has applied this practice to her students:

“I want to emphasize that the strengths perspective is not a tool to simply allow us to put a positive spin on a problem and consider it solved. But by first enabling us to inventory our strengths, it suggests ways we can use those strengths to address the related challenges. One way I teach this perspective to students is by requiring them to give and receive feedback on their classroom presentations. When a student presents, s/he receives feedback from every one of his or her classmates. The students in the audience have to identify three observable strengths and one opportunity for growth. The trick is that they have to use their assessment of the strengths to make a suggestion on how the individual might address the specified opportunity. For example:
Strengths:
a. You captured my interest right away with your emotional personal story.
b. You used examples that are relevant to my life.
c. You concluded with actionable strategies that tied in with our learning in the class.
Opportunity:
Your stories and examples made me feel connected to you and what you were saying, but I sometimes struggled to read the PowerPoint and listen to you at the same time. I didn’t want to miss anything you were saying, but I worried about not following the slides. You might experiment with fewer words on the slides – or maybe even no slides. You had me without them.”
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Image by Nicola Tolin. Via: (Unsplash)

 

As a shame and vulnerability researcher, Dr. Brown implicates that vulnerability is at the heart of the engaged feedback process. People who give and receive feedback have to be willing to feel vulnerable during the process. The common mistake people make in the feedback process, according to Dr. Brown, is we protect ourselves from the vulnerability of receiving and giving feedback. As a result, we are more comfortable with anger than vulnerability. It’s easier to scream at someone who has done a mistake than to sit with him and give valuable feedback on how to improve what needs to be improved. It’s easier to be angry, to think fast on our feet, than to lean into the pain and to locate the origin of the pain. Though anger can be a sign of our deepest hunger for radical change, it’s an useless response mechanism. Anger blocks our chances for growth, and most importantly, it blinds us to the fact that we, humans, are always in connection with each other.

How to Start a Movement by Entrepreneur, Musician, Writer, and a Former Circus Performer, Derek Sivers

 

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Derek Sivers. Via: (sivers.org)

 

Last week, I was thinking a great deal about leadership. I wanted to know what makes someone a leader and why do we seem to over glorify leaders above their followers. I found a few intriguing sources about the topic. One of which that stood out to me was this short TED video, delivered by Derek Sivers, one of the most curious and thoughtful people I know.

The inspiration of this talk comes from a video Sivers has watched about a shirtless dancing guy at a music concert who accidentally creates a massive dancing party. Initially, the shirtless guy dances by himself, loses himself in the music in the midst of a huge crowd. A few seconds later, because of the shirtless guy’s infectious killer dance moves, a guy from the crowd joins him. Now the shirtless dancing guy is not alone. He has a partner to dance with. Their boundless gladness electrifies the rest of the sitting crowd. Until finally everyone leaves their comfortable sitting zone and gets up to dance with them. 

Sivers sees that the video embodies the process of how a movement is created. He says that in the beginning process of creating a movement, the job of a leader is nurturing her first few followers and making them clearly aware about the movement, not about the leader. Meanwhile, the job of the first few followers who want to attract more followers is by teaching people the easiest way to follow the movement.

Towards the end of the talk, Sivers says something that I agree wholeheartedly: “We’re told we all need to be leaders, but that would be really ineffective.” Back when I was in college, I was familiar with this message because that’s what my professors and academic advisors preached. What makes me uncomfortable with this message is we seem to think that followers are unimportant, unlikely to make a profound contribution to their groups. But, the video proves us otherwise. Followers are significant too. Without them, a movement will not exist. Yes, we need leaders who are unafraid to take the initiative to make their visions a reality, but also we are in dire need of followers who have the guts to champion their visions.

Here is the transcript of the TED Talk:

 

“A leader needs the guts to stand alone and look ridiculous. But what he’s doing is so simple, it’s almost instructional. This is key. You must be easy to follow! Now comes the first follower with a crucial role: he publicly shows everyone how to follow. Notice the leader embraces him as an equal, so it’s not about the leader anymore – it’s about them, plural. Notice he’s calling to his friends to join in.
It takes guts to be a first follower! You stand out and brave ridicule yourself. Being a first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership. The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader. If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire.
The second follower is a turning point: it’s proof the first has done well. Now it’s not alone nut, and it’s not two nuts. Three is a crowd and a crowd is news. A movement must be public. Make sure outsiders see more than just the leader. Everyone needs to see the followers, because new followers emulate followers – not the leaders.
Now here comes two more, then three more. Now we’ve got momentum. This is the tipping point! Now we’ve got a movement.
As more people jump in, it’s no longer risky. If they were on the fence before, there’s no reason not to join now. They won’t be ridiculed, they won’t stand out, and they will be part of the in-crowd, if they hurry. Over the next minute you’ll see the rest who prefer to be part of the crowd, because eventually they’d be ridiculed for not joining.
And ladies and gentleman, that is how a movement is made! Let’s recap what we learned:
If you are a version of the shirtless dancing guy, all alone, remember the importance of nurturing your first few followers as equals, making everything clearly about the movement, not you.
-Be public. Be easy to follow!
-But the biggest lesson here – did you catch it?
-Leadership is over glorified.
Yes, it started with the shirtless guy, and he’ll get all the credit, but you saw what really happened: It was the first follower that transformed a lone nut into a leader. There’s no movement without the first follower. We’re told we all need to be leaders, but that would be really ineffective.
The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow. When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.”

Two Prominent Creativity Researchers, Adam Grant and Rex Jung, on What It Means to be Creative

 

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Image by Pierrick Van Troost. Via: (Unsplash)

 

Rex Jung, a scholar who has spent more than a decade studying the nature of creativity, said in an interview with Krista Tippett that one of the best ways to become creative at our chosen field is by doing a lot of practice or getting a lot of experience in that field. Jung wholeheartedly agrees with the notion of 10,000 hours coined by Malcolm Gladwell. Jung says:

“I think there are some strategies to cultivating creativity. In thinking about Dr. Davidson’s work in neuroplasticity, you need to get some stuff in you head, some raw materials, in order to be with which to be creative.
You practice, practice, practice. That 10,000-hour thing is probably right, not 10 years. But it takes a lot of time to change the structure of your brain and there are several studies out there now. You know, the famous juggling study where they have novices who don’t know how to juggle. They image them, then they juggle for three months, they image them again and they see that literally a portion of their brain, a small chunk, but a portion of their brain is beefed up like a muscle in service of that concerted thing that they’re doing with their brain. And that is the thing. The important thing is they’re doing a very new thing in a concerted way. And their brain says, hey, if we’re going to be doing this thing in the environment over and over and over, I’m going to build tissue to do that so that we can do it easier and more efficiently.
So if you’re going to be creative, pick one thing, get a lot of experience in that one thing, and do it over and over and over.”

He also touches on the necessity of down time that can spark one’s creative fire:

“That playfulness is a second aspect where you can have down time basically and play with ideas, whether that’s the long walk or the recess or whatever we talked about. This downtime is incredibly important to allow that raw material to come together in novel and useful ways as transient hypofrontality. This persistence is–perseverance is incredibly important because, once you find a good idea, pushing it forward into the world is going to be difficult and a lot of rejection is usually the matter of course for people who are creative.”

Then Jung goes on to explain that some of the greatest artists in the world achieve mastery because they’re willing to produce a greater volume of work than their peers, which later gave them more variation to shape their work and a higher chance of originality (Dean Keith Simonton of UC Davis wrote a paper about this issue of creative productivity among artists)

“We haven’t touched upon this, but research almost invariably shows that highly creative people put out lots and lots of ideas. And they’re not all brilliant. You have a lot of failures and it’s not the one-hit wonders that win the day. It’s thousands and thousands of ideas. Picasso put out, you know, 20,000 individual pieces of art, and I can guarantee you they’re not all good.”
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Image by Kevin Laminto. Via: (Unsplash)

 

When I heard this conversation, I was instantly reminded of a book titled Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant that I had read exactly a year ago. I think if I could gather Rex Jung and Adam Grant to sit down and discuss the notion of 10,000 hours as a way to hone our creative skill, Grant would have disagreed with Jung. In the book, Grant openly debunks the myth that the notion of 10,000 hours is an important ingredient to create creative geniuses. He writes that while aspiring creators must hone their craft through an intense and continuous practice, too much practice won’t propel them to become revolutionary creators.

Of course, this is intriguing because how is too much practice being perceived as useless? To answer this question, Grant focuses his attention on the lives of child prodigies, a group of people that we always consider who will grow up and make a massive dent in the universe. Although child prodigies never seem to lose their talent and ambition, they, according to Grant, rarely go on to change the world.

This is what Grant says (Emphasis is mine):

“Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games. All along the way, they strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers.
In adulthood, many child prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet ‘only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,’ laments psychologist Ellen Winner. ‘Those who do must make a painful transition’ from a child who ‘learns rapidly and effortlessly in an established domain’ to an adult who ‘ultimately remakes a domain.’ “

Grant continues to write that many child prodigies feel too comfortable with their abilities and achievements that they feel reluctant to question and to challenge the ideas that they have been told. This resistance to reflect on what they have learned is the reason why some child prodigies never make the leap to become revolutionary creators.

He says:

“Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities in ordinary ways, mastering their jobs without questioning defaults and without making waves. In every domain they enter, they play it safe by following the conventional paths to success. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken systems that prevent many patients from affording health care in the first place. They become lawyers who defend clients for violating outdated laws without trying to transform the laws themselves. They become teachers who plan engaging algebra lessons without questioning whether algebra is what their students need to learn. Although we rely on them to keep the world running smoothly, they keep us running on a treadmill.”

Though Grant finds a “hole” in the theory of 10,000 hours, I still think that, just like what Jung believes about the power of practice, it is one of the most necessary ingredients to become excellent at what we aspire to do. When we invest time and energy to hone our skill, we’re fifty steps further than people who are just passively sitting, doing nothing, and still wishing to be creative. Practice still counts and will always give you a firm foundation to help you to become creative. But, another important point to ponder: once we start to feel comfortable with the skill that we have, it’s time to explore other domains/skills/ideas that we have never explored before. The more we step out of our comfort zone, the richer our life experiences will be. Those life experiences that we slowly accumulate over time can stretch our minds and imaginations wider, and this is the best way to get creative.