March 2022

Closing the Feedback Loop

by Bill Blackburn

How many times have you needed something from someone by a specific date and time, given them what you thought was explicit guidance on how you wanted them to do it, and gotten back something very different, or at best only similar to what you really wanted??? Who’s at fault?

From a leadership perspective, we are ultimately accountable for delivering results. So, if the above situation happens, it is our fault. How do we do a better job of making our expectations clear?

I was fortunate to have a career in the Navy as a naval aviator. From the first day of flight school, we were taught that flying is a team effort. In almost all Navy aircraft, you have at least a pilot and a co-pilot, and potentially additional crew members as well. Aviation is, by its very nature, a dangerous profession. Safety is maintained through strict adherence to validated procedures, concise communication, and proficient cockpit coordination. Surprisingly, it is the co-pilot’s responsibility to ensure that the pilot does the right thing (not the other way around).

Strict adherence to time proven procedures captured in detailed manuals and checklists is the only way to safely operate today’s technologically complex aircraft. All Navy helicopters have "dual flight controls" which means either the pilot or the co-pilot can fly the aircraft, but only "one at a time." Whomever is not flying assumes the role of co-pilot and reads the checklists from the time the crew straps into the aircraft, until the aircraft is shutdown. The co-pilot reads the next step of the checklist (i.e. "Ignitors — On") and the pilot "briefs back" the same exact words, as they perform the step. This ensures no steps are missed and all tasks are performed correctly and in precise order.

Most importantly, when the aircrew decides to swap their roles in flight, they rely on very precise terminology. The exchange must be crystal clear so that all understand who is in control of the aircraft. To pass controls, the pilot flying says, "you have the controls." As the other pilot takes control, he or she says, "I have the controls." Finally, the pilot who just relinquished control of the aircraft repeats, "you have the controls" before ultimately removing his or her hands and feet from the controls.

Navy helicopters typically operate day and night from ships at sea, and normally at relatively low altitudes, often at 1,000 feet above the water or less. Nighttime shipboard flying is always challenging. The rolling and pitching of the ship coupled with limited or barely visible horizon can easily cause a condition known as "vertigo." Vertigo is an unexpected sudden spatial disorientation that can cause the pilot to feel like the aircraft is in a sudden turn or descent when, in reality, the aircraft is flying straight and level. An improper response by the pilot can cause disastrous results and loss of life in a matter of seconds if not immediately corrected. At the onset of vertigo, pilots are trained to immediately pass the controls to their co-pilot in the precise way described above, so that the unaffected pilot can safely maneuver the helicopter. That precise "brief back" — "I have control of the aircraft" — has saved many lives and aircraft during more than 80 years of aviation operations at sea.

OK, but you are not flying aircraft to and from ships at night. How does this apply to you? Whenever you have something important that needs to happen in a specific way, by a definite deadline, you may want to incorporate a version of the brief back technique described above. How can you ensure that the listener interpreted what you said, in the way you intended? In our leadership programs we refer to this as the "feedback loop" in any communication process. Typically, we are reluctant to ask someone to repeat back to you what you just said. It can sound demeaning, cause the listener to become defensive, and even sound like you are questioning their intelligence. Clearly that is not your intent.

Often times putting the onus on yourself, can help these delicate conversations. For instance, "I just gave you a lot of detail that is important to our success. I may not have done a good job of explaining my expectations. I could tell you were intently listening, but could you tell me what you heard and how you intend to accomplish what I asked?" Once people see how often things are misinterpreted, or the whole message not being heard correctly, they start to see that using some form of a "brief back" for important communications can save the day, increase effectiveness, and ultimately ensure better results.