Feedback mechanisms

My 12-year-old son has been learning to play the electric guitar for several years. The process has not been easy. As we all know, learning something knew is usually difficult and frustrating. This is especially true for a young child who is not yet large enough to physically manage many of the tasks, such as bar chords on the guitar. The chords are hard to learn as an adult, but even harder when your small hands are not well suited for the instrument.

When learning is frustrating, most of us react with task avoidance. We often find other things to do rather than the learning challenge at hand. While these other things may or may not be productive, in and of themselves, we are still procrastinating to avoid the change in behavior called learning. Such was the case with my son and the electric guitar. He had weekly guitar lessons that required him to practice daily. Getting him to practice was like pulling teeth. He always had to be told to practice, often repeatedly. He would never pick up his guitar on his own initiative. As a result, his progress was slow, and this slow progress discouraged him. He created a negative feedback system, and something had to happen to break that pattern.

Over the summer, an opportunity presented itself for him to spend a week in Rock Band Camp. Coupled with this, his cousin gifted him an upgraded guitar that was a vast improvement over his first small learning guitar. He was also growing larger, and the new guitar fit him better and sounded better than what he had known. New guitar aside, he was dreading his first day of rehearsals at Rock Band Camp, as he had never played in front of anyone other than his teacher and immediate family.

His apprehension thankfully turned out to be unwarranted. He discovered that he was actually one of the better musicians in the group. He really enjoyed the remainder of the camp rehearsal sessions, but he was dreading the camp finale. The finale was a live public performance at our local town center – they had to play in front of hundreds of adult strangers. Oh no!

The concert of course went really well. His stage anxiety was like many of the fears we all experience that turn out to be unwarranted. In fact, it has been my experience that the true disasters are those that we don’t anticipate, which we don’t have time to fear. Anyway, after the concert he wanted to join a band so he could continue to play live music with others. These days, we no longer need to tell him to practice – he picks up his guitar on his own initiative multiple times a day. And, as a result, he is getting really, really good as his confidence grows with leaps and bounds.

In concert with these personal events, I have been attending a wonderful series of Leadership Seminars presented by the California Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors Association (CPMCA). The CPMCA is an organization that provides great benefit to those of us who practice design-build here in So Cal. Locally, you may have such an organization. I suggest you seek it out in case you do.

The leadership series of lectures requires that you challenge the way you have been doing things for many years. That is to say, it requires learning and the associated change of behavior, which is never an easy thing to do. It reminds me of when an old electrical engineering associate of mine, named Mark Torre, confronted a seasoned electrician on a technical subject. 

The electrician said, “I’ve been doing it this way for 30 years!” 

To his credit, young Mark replied with, “Well then you’ve been doing it wrong for 30 years.” 

That took a lot of guts for a young 20-year-old engineer. But, Mark has always had a lot of guts.

So, I guess what I have been rambling on about here is this: how do you establish positive feedback systems for both yourself and, where appropriate, your employees? This is one of the biggest challenges for management level individuals. The leadership series I am currently taking includes topics, such as communication, negotiation, group interaction, problem solving, team building, conflict management, group facilitation, speech techniques, and finally, experiential leadership. All of these subjects require change or finesse of behavior in one fashion or another.

There is a quote at the beginning the course description on experiential leadership that I like very much.

“No man can reveal anything not already in the dawning of your own knowledge. The teacher, if he is wise, does not bid you enter the house of his knowledge but leads you to enter the threshold of your own mind.” (Ralph Long) 

Empowering your staff or peers to learn and grow is certainly one of the most positive feedback mechanisms I can think of. Of course, like my son on the guitar, they must reach a point where they want to learn and grow. Otherwise, it’s like pushing a rope. 

If you don’t already know it, there is a wonderful organization called Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) that organizes lectures all over the country. The lectures can be viewed for free at There is one lecture by Simon Sinek, “How great leaders inspire action,” which has been viewed over 20 million times. I encourage you to search it and watch it. It is only about 18 minutes long. 

Ironically, Simon Sinek looks like my brother from another mother. But, that’s not what makes him great (LOL).He has a very interesting feedback theory on what makes great leaders in his “why, how, what” theory of leadership. 

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” Sinek said. 

Be sure to watch.

Timothy Allinson is a senior professional engineer with Murray Co., Mechanical Contractors, in Long Beach, Calif. He holds a bsme from Tufts University and an mba from New York University. He is a professional engineer licensed in both mechanical and fire protection engineering in various states, and is a leed accredited professional. Allinson is a past-president of aspe, both the New York and Orange County Chapters. He can be reached at

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