Honk the Horn

Recently, while driving, I honked my horn at another driver. It doesn’t really matter when you’re reading this; the previous statement will hold true. We all honk our horns, but this most recent incident made me think a little beeper about honking and how it relates to feedback.

Yes, feedback! Here in the US, horn-honking is generally associated with what we would call negative feedback.


Recently, I was riding in a car with Erik Aliff. He drove down a slight incline, and due to the unrelenting effects of gravity, his car sped up, probably to around 40 MPH. At the bottom of the hill, we both saw a pedestrian rushing across the street. It wasn’t a designated crosswalk; that was another half block further down the road at an intersection with a traffic light.

When Erik saw the pedestrian, he slowed down, and as he passed the person, he honked his horn lightly. In return, we got treated to the pedestrian’s middle finger.

What happened here? What does this have to do with feedback?

First, let’s consider things from the driver’s point of view. Why did he honk his horn? It was to let the pedestrian know that the situation was a little dangerous. Had Erik not seen the pedestrian and slowed down, and possibly even accelerated down the hill, he might have hit the pedestrian, or more likely, seen him at the last moment and swerved to avoid him, potentially crashing elsewhere.

Erik was providing feedback to the pedestrian. “Be careful. I had to slow down to make sure I didn’t hit you.” That feedback came in an ambiguous form, the honking horn, and it clearly got misinterpreted because the pedestrian’s response was an aggressive form of feedbacklash.

The thing is, from the pedestrian’s perspective, this wasn’t a warning. It was an angry rebuke. This is largely a factor of how a car’s horn is used in general in this country. In the United States, horn honks tend to protracted auditory assaults where drivers really lean into them. Where a “beep–beep” would suffice to alert someone, drivers go with a “BEEEEEEEEEP—-BEEEEEEEEP.” It’s not just about letting people know that you’re there or that something dangerous almost happened. It’s generally used to convey your annoyance. There’s a strong sense of “You almost hit me, IDIOT!!”

Something I’ve noticed about drivers in other countries is that they use their horn more gently and quickly (more of the “beep–beep”) but also more proactively. Many European cities feature streets that are very narrow, with blind alleys and corners. When drivers come to such a place, they preemptively honk their horn to alert other potential drivers that they are about to enter the area. They also use their horn proactively when they are merging lanes, again as a proactive “here I come. Give me a little more space please.”

It’s easy to see how the proactive use of the car horn is simply better from a safety perspective. Had Erik used the proactive horn with the pedestrian, it could have prompted that person to cross the street even faster, and it might have been less likely to prompt the middle finger response due to the danger being more evident.

Let’s take a step back to the broader concept of feedback. Too often, we save all of our feedback for the end, whether that’s the end of the event debrief, or after the event in the form of a review. This type of late feedback leaves us feeling like the pedestrian. “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner when it could have made a difference?” And because of this, you feel like the feedback is of the angry variety, like they are honking their horn at you just to tell you how much of an idiot you are.

This seems to come up a lot for L2s going for their Grand Prix Team Lead Certification (TLC). The evaluating burgundy and the L3 shadow spend all day observing the candidate, then do a massive feedback dump after the swiss rounds end. It’s understandable how this dump can be intimidating and upsetting, and prompt a “I wish I had known this earlier.”In fact, this interaction stems from a fundamental feedback mismatch. The burgundy and L3 shadow deliver a staggering amount of evaluation-type feedback on how the candidate did on a wide variety of criteria. The candidate, meanwhile, wants some coaching on how to be a better Team Lead. There’s inevitably some coaching mixed in, but from the candidate’s perspective, you can see how it is too little, too late if they are also being told that they failed their TLC.

And here’s your obligatory sports analogy. Since we are talking about coaching, imagine this in terms of a baseball manager. Their star hitter goes up for his first at bat and strikes out furiously. There’s something wrong with his swing. The manager thinks that the batter should probably stay on his back foot for a little longer, but he doesn’t tell him this. Three at bats later, the batter has struck out three more times and the game ends. At that point, the manager tells the batter. Too little, too late.

The specific case of the TLC introduces an extra element of not wanting to coach the candidate too much. The primary job here is evaluation, but I think that evaluation with the complete absence of coaching is a disservice to the candidate. And, of course, in other situations, there’s no reason not to do quick coaching suggestions rather than wait until later to deliver all the feedback. Honk your horn sooner rather than later and you’ll find that your feedback will be accepted more.

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