A very uncomfortable business school class taught me how to use feedback effectively

Learning where my peers ranked my influence among the group changed how I thought about feedback.
Learning where my peers ranked my influence among the group changed how I thought about feedback.
Image: REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi
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This is the week you’ve been dreading.

You’re in a room with 12 of your professional peers. You catch a few of their familiar faces. They look at you silently, waiting.

A facilitator nods his head: proceed.

Your task? Wordlessly move your peers to form an “influence line.” On the left: the most influential. On the right: the least. And somewhere in between? You. You must rank yourself within the line, too.

Enter: Unease. Your stomach twists into knots. Your mind races. You rehash the 100 different worst case scenarios that could befall your professional relationships and reputation as a result of your actions. How will your close friend react to being ranked 4th? Your frenemy to being ranked 11th?

Finally, you step forward. With great discomfort and awkwardness, you form your line and take your place within it. Then, you wait.

You feel the effects of ranking and being ranked. Time crawls, your heart pounds. You question, “What have I just done?!” Finally, the facilitator nods, and you breathe a moment of relief.

You find your seat. And you prepare yourself for the next person’s turn.

The Influence Line

Ah, the Influence Line exercise. If you actually imagined the faces of some of your peers—and considered how you might rank them and yourself in a line—you may have noticed a quickening of the chest, a tightening of the jaw, or a shallowing of the breath as you read along. Why is it so uncomfortable to rank our peers and ourselves?

It’s not the ranking that produces discomfort. Rather, it’s the sharing of the ranking that’s anxiety-producing. Taken as a private exercise, you could probably rank your peers without much strife. Yet to share that list, and to make it known, requires revealing true beliefs and owning our choices.

It’s an unusual set up, and that is why it’s so popular.

The Influence Line exercise is part of a longer course designed to explore interpersonal relationships. It’s taught at many institutions, but I encountered it as an MBA student at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

At Stanford GSB, “Interpersonal Dynamics”, or “Touchy Feely,” as it’s more affectionately known by students, is the class to take. According to the GSB’s website, it’s been voted the most popular elective for 45 years running.

The course is built on the premise that self-reflection and introspection—while essential to our own professional and personal development—can only get us so far. To fully know ourselves, we need to know how we’re perceived. And that requires a rare type of honest, in-the-moment feedback that this course and exercises like the Influence Line are designed to elicit.

My own Influence Line memories remain crisp in my mind even 5 years later. I recall the internal conflict of ranking myself: I wanted to rank myself highly, but I feared coming across as too dominant or self-centered. So I settled for an inauthentic compromise (3rd; psychoanalyze as you will). I also struggled where to rank most of my peers. I particularly agonized about how ranking one of my closer friends 4th would negatively impact our relationship. Within the lines of my peers, I vividly remember the joy of being ranked first, as I do the shame of being ranked near the bottom.

The fascinating part? In all cases, I immediately made up stories of why I’d been ranked Nth in so-and-so’s line. I realized this is normally our default mode: in the absence of feedback we make up stories.

Which is why the Influence Line exercise didn’t end with the rankings. Instead, we spent the next several sessions honestly discussing what came up for us during the exercise. The ranking process was simply the catalyst for eliciting unspoken feedback and emotions.

The Influence Line exercise revealed how much I had left unsaid. For example, I realized I had not communicated feedback with a peer I found disagreeable because I feared retribution. The exercise forced me to come to terms with that and to have an honest conversation. It also pointed to a blind spot in my leadership style: I too often left feelings unsaid for fear of disrupting relationships. Thanks to my Influence Line feedback, I learned those feelings were more recognizable than I had thought. Hiding my feelings undermined my authenticity and created distrust—the very outcome I was trying to avoid.

A Gentler Adaptation of the Influence Line

The Influence Line exercise is extreme. It’s unlikely that you will ever find yourself in a similar peer group exercise—and I would advise against trying to recreate it without the support of a trained facilitator. I would, however, challenge any leader to use the following adapted Influence Line thought experiment:

  1. Select 5 to 12 people from your organization or network. Include a mix, not just your closest friends or immediate team mates.
  2. On a piece of paper, rank everyone from ascending to descending influence. Rank yourself, too. Jot down a few notes on why you chose each placement.
  3. Reflect. What themes emerge? Note them. What does that suggest about your definition of influence? Why?
  4. Identify unspoken feedback. What feedback—positive and negative—has been left unsaid? Without mentioning the exercise, what feedback could you share with each person on your list to support their personal growth? How could you best deliver it with full compassion and kindness?
  5. Evaluate yourself. Which assumptions support your perceived level of influence? (E.g., “I’m influential with my team because I’m an authentic, organized and reliable manager.”) How might you explore the validity of those assumptions to further your own development?

To fully know ourselves, we need to know how we’re perceived.

Sharing feedback is not easy; asking for feedback is usually harder. Yet, our growth as leaders comes from uncovering our blind spots, and then with kindness helping others to do the same. Learning comes from stepping out of our comfort zones.