Lessons from a feedback funeral

We need to look back before we can move forward.

Last week, I did something I hadn’t done before.

I attended a feedback funeral.

Actually, I officiated at one. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

In case you’re wondering, there was no body. Just a body of regret, remorse and resolve. About two dozen senior leaders hailing from multiple industries and functions gathered with me at the end our day-long workshop on fearless feedback to pay our last respects.

They seemed poised to leave behind the blame and shame that marks so many conversations about work. They felt empowered to move forward with feedforward. And they looked ready to embrace future possibilities instead of dwell on past failures.

But before they could make progress, they needed to make peace. Peace with the past.

I asked each leader to write down a feature of feedback they wanted to bury — for good. They wrote furiously in silence for about a minute. Their resolutions were personal and visceral and came straight from the heart. From the gut. They grew out of painful interactions at work and at home — tensions with bosses, arguments with coworkers, screaming matches with parents, children and partners. They were raw and real, all at once. One by one, attendees walked up to a miniature coffin, no more than 14 inches long, and lay their small, shriveled Post-It notes inside. Pastel shards expressing past hurt and hope slowly filled the coffin until the notes peeked out from all sides. The lid closed, and we buried them. Every last one.

Out of respect for privacy, I won’t share specifics. But here’s a sampling.

First, of feedback regrets:

  • Not speaking hard truths
  • Not caring when truths came out too hard
  • Not accepting feedback with grace
  • Not accepting feedback with grit
  • Not accepting feedback at all

Next, of feedback failures:

  • Talking over another person
  • Treating another other person like a child
  • Sugarcoating the message
  • Sandwiching the message
  • Too much talking
  • Not enough listening

I’ve devoted a good deal of time and energy teaching others to adopt a feedback fix: Partnership over power. Agency over accountability. Relationships over reports. Joy over fear. Those are powerful shifts that produce a more positive feedback mindset and message.

But as this funeral taught me, we can’t move forward unless we look back. The past becomes prologue when we absorb it, affirm it, and then, gently but resolutely, let it go.

The feedback of fear is something we’ve all lived with. But it doesn’t have to define the way we live.

We can’t go back and change the past, but we can always move forward and fix the future.

Here’s to moving forward. And looking back.

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