Feedback and Human Capacity

No More Feedback — Chapter 6

This chapter is an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work, the first in a series of books on toxic practices in the workplace. Read the introduction and previous chapter here on Medium, and find links to purchase the full book here.

As cybernetic systems in computer applications became better understood (Information Systems degrees, IT, were originally called Cybernetic Systems degrees in most of higher education), so the process of providing feedback to peers, subordinates, and even superiors became popularized in the 360 degree view or performance appraisal. The creators of artificial intelligence systems had discovered the critical importance of feedback loops for correcting and adjusting the performance of mechanical systems. It occurred to them that a similar mechanism — constituted of objective observation, appraisal, and communication — could provide corrections and adjustments to human behavior in business and other settings.

On the face of it, the application of ideas about mechanical systems directly to human behavior seems questionable. Could people not use their common sense to discern that machines and human brains are differently constructed, with different functions and capabilities? It turns out that, in fact, the very way living brains function worked against the likelihood of this insight.

The undeveloped human mind tends to think metaphorically in order to make sense of itself and what goes on around it. The desire to construct mental images of the way things work is part of our genetic makeup (see Ned Hermann’s Whole Brain® Thinking, for example) but the nascent capacity must be developed before we can use it well. Imaging (seeing something in our mind as it actually works) is different from imagination (making up an explanation) because the imagination often seeks to transfer knowledge from what we think we understand already. We extrapolate inappropriately, without examining the nature of what we may not necessarily understand.

For example, we think we can learn how to function well as humans by comparing ourselves metaphorically to a forest or bee hive or ant colony. Or as John Watson did, by studying the behavior of rats in mazes and transferring that whole story to the ways that people work. This is an erroneous extrapolation of the worst kind because a rat in a maze in a laboratory, it goes without saying, is not even approximately a human being at large in a living system. Information garnered from observing rats in highly artificial situations cannot approximate a true view of humans embedded in nature and functioning naturally. The rat-to-human comparison is untrue to both species, transferring only the rat’s thing-ness to the human, a purely physical and therefore false equivalency. Another example of this kind of false equivalency is imagining that a household cleaning product does its work in the same way that a leaf might be said to scrub air and water in a forest.

Feedback Undermines the Three Core Human Capacities

To develop the three human capacities a person must be self-directed. Inner processing is the only way to shift from external to internal locus of control, to broaden one’s scope of considering, and to build personal agency. Only I can examine, interpret, understand, and move forward on what I experience. No one can do that for me. And I must also be self-directed in my effort to acquire the mental skills needed for productive inner processing because, currently in the Western world, fostering them is not part of our upbringing. If fact, it is rare now even in indigenous cultures around the world. Only when people come to see that they are giving away their control to others can they begin to break the cycle.

Yet feedback, by definition, is other directed; we all tend toward increased external locus of control and internal considering when we are constantly fed other people’s interpretations of our ideas, emotional expression, and behavior. Feedback also makes us wonder and worry about how others see and value us, which displace our concern for others and cause us to become more and more self-absorbed and self-centered. Our maturation processes reverse themselves, and if they do we become like narcissistic children, emotionally stunted and prone to dramatizing and acting out.

The courage to examine our own shortfalls and successes depends on the practice of personal agency. Feedback, which is experienced as directives from others, effectively weakens agency and fosters hierarchical social organization and a culture of authority. Most of us were constantly given feedback in childhood, but children who are allowed to be independent with safe environments, to take risks and manage their own time, grow up with strong, self-directed agency and are far less affected by peer pressure or likely to need adult correction.

It is also possible to shift children from the tendency for dependence on constant attention and feedback, simply by trusting their capability and using questions to encourage and guide them as they examine their thinking. “How did you make this? How does it work? Why does this work this way? What do you think about that? Could it work better? How? What could you do to make that happen? These are pretty much the same questions that adults with well-developed personal agency ask themselves from moment to moment as they work, raise their children, and participate in governance. The only difference is that they are so deeply ingrained that we no longer hear them, only experience them in the shape and flow of our imaging, feeling, and thinking.

For increasingly full development, all three of the human capacities require us to be self-directed, with significant reduction in our dependence on external influence, input, and direction. Feedback, although it is not the only inappropriately controlling business practice, is the most invasive and thus the most likely to hinder our efforts to be self-governing and make beneficial contributions at all levels of our work.

Closed and Open Systems: How Feedback Entered the Workplace

The metaphor of governance inherent in the general idea of feedback was suggestive of processes in the new participative business cultures. To many business leaders, it seemed a logical extension of this metaphor to assume that people rely on feedback loops similar to those in mechanical systems in order to govern their behavior. They assumed that human behavior in the moment, like machine behavior, was determined by an immediately preceding intervention, received as feedback. Thus, a misconception occurred in the transfer of the idea from the mechanical arena to the human world of business, as the result of insufficient understanding of cybernetic principles and inappropriate assumptions about differences and similarities in the natures of the two systems, machine and human being.

The most fundamental difference between a machine and a human being is that a machine is a closed system and a human is an open system. A closed system cannot function indefinitely without the addition of energy or a refill of fuel from an external source. An open system works through an energy exchange with its greater environment in a way that creates a symbiotic relationship. In order to work without running down, a machine is entirely dependent on an outside agent to supply it with fuel: a car needs to be filled with gasoline to move, a furnace requires a pipeline of oil or gas to burn, a lamp must be plugged into an electrical line to glow

Human beings, on the other hand, have the capacity to work reciprocally with their environments to maintain relationships with them. Person and environment connect to one other, willingly or unwillingly, and affect each other’s survival through the interaction that takes place — as in a farmer-soil or customer-supplier exchange, or a marriage. They are interdependent and dynamically interrelated with each other. These interrelations are open systems, in which each fuels the other (or not) by implicit or explicit agreement.

In the application of the feedback metaphor to human systems, a misunderstanding arose when the machine’s necessarily one-sided dependence on external controls was conflated with the human being’s option to act independently of external considerations. In the resulting confusion, human behavior was reduced to the mechanical and a popular notion arose that humans need feedback from outside agents. The science of behaviorism added a final blow, compounding the notion by asserting (without basis) that no internal process for self-regulation exists in humans that can be observed and experimented upon for confirmation. In the eyes of behaviorism, it simply was not the case that humans can be self-observing, self-understanding, and self-directed by internal compasses.

Delving a little more deeply into the function of a mechanical system can shed further light on this misunderstanding. In the closed system of a furnace, to take one example, a mechanism called the “governor” is built in to make adaptation to changing external conditions possible. The governor is a second mechanical system that registers deviations from specified boundaries; that is, it senses and signals that heat production is too high compared to a preset temperature level. The governor uses this feedback to restore the operation of the larger system, the burner, to within the boundary, thereby returning it to conformity with preset standards.

In the case of a human being, complex open system, there is no requirement to be externally informed or to import energy from an external governor in order to stay functionally effective. Humans do not have the same clear boundaries with their environments that machines do. It is not always clear who can control and affect what. Also, rather than mechanical governors, humans have inherent intellectual and emotional capabilities with which to engage and interpret their environments, sense the states of other living systems, and observe their own processes, as they simultaneously reflect and take action. Human intelligence is self-informing and self-adjusting, and thus human actions can be self-governed. Accepting information from without and importing energy are decisions made, deliberately or not, in the context of a reciprocal relationship.

In this way, people have the internal capacity to recognize behavior that has gone out of bounds. The value they place on this and the actions they require of themselves to change what they see, is a matter of their personal development, not of imposed design. Any person, with the right resources, can develop a highly nuanced, complex, realistic, and personalized understanding of what the world is like, how it works, who they are in relationship to it, and the roles they can take on to make it better. For most us, unfortunately, there are not many opportunities or encouragements to develop our core capacities and the capabilities they foster, a situation compounded now by decades of the application of closed-systems theory to humans.

We begin to see that there are many fundamental flaws in the logic that came up with the idea of introducing feedback into businesses (and families and schools, et cetera) as a way to evolve increasingly participative workforces with more self-managing teamwork. The nature of human beings provides a far more sophisticated and qualitatively different capacity for internal self-management than the mechanistic governance available to machines and other closed systems. (And note that, even in the case of the machine, the sensor and the governor are integrated into its system, standing apart from and looking toward the outside environment. Perhaps all along it would have made more sense to attempt to understand machines in living systems terms than to understand living systems as clocks and other machines.)

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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