Feedback and Human Self-Regulation
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.
What happens when you treat people and businesses as if they were closed systems and manage them with feedback? The crazy aspect of this is that feedback processes accelerate the false premise that people cannot see into themselves and understand their own behavior. People believe this about themselves because it has been drilled into them for most of their lives. This causes a painful disconnect between what people hear about themselves and how they experience themselves.
A small firm in Silicon Valley, which touts itself as innovative, took on 360 degree feedback and experienced the usual unexpected consequences.
Unexpected Downsides: The Diminishment of Self-Regulation
Casandra, who was the HR manager for the company was an unusually aware person. She paid attention to how people responded to the new programs that were introduced with the help of her department. She formed internal focus groups and also just talked to people a lot about their experiences. Plus, she was a participant in all the programs as they were rolled out. She experienced them as an insider.
Cassandra had read about and done a lot of planning for the 360 degree feedback work introduced to the company in Franklin Covey leadership work. The program was based on Covey’s highly popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, and was founded on great ideas like building trust. What could go wrong? The company rolled out the program over two years to make sure they got it right.
One year in, there were several disturbing signals, which Casandra admits she tried to ignore. Here is what she was noticing:
- People were less connected to business outcomes and becoming more concerned about themselves and how others saw them. This is self-centered internal considering, the opposite of system-actualizing external considering. Internal considering seemed to arise in people whether they were getting overall positive feedback or mostly negative feedback. Casandra thought she had an idea about how to calibrate for this with better goals programs, and so she decided not to worry about it.
- Many employees’ attention seemed to be increasingly focused on fitting in. Casandra had been with the business for seven years, from the time they were a start-up. In the beginning, each person saw themself as responsible for the business and for bringing their unique gifts to the work. Casandra was now noticing that people’s desire to look like others — rather than express their own essences and stand out as unique — was more and more prominent, a competitive way of viewing performance. She told me that she thought this was a leadership problem and was considering the possibility of adding a coaching program on how to bring out the best in each person by improving feedback.
- This unfolding set of downsides was coupled with the introduction of competencies to help make feedback fair and balanced. Managers were taught fair-and-balanced as a core foundation for building trust into the 360 degree process. The idea was to focus everyone on the same measures of success and avoid singling out people, which could feel less like constructive feedback and more like personal criticism.
However, it also quickly seemed clear to Casandra that competencies resulted in genericized behavior, compounding the need to fit in. Individuality was shunned as focus shifted to the competencies and how well people were doing at developing them. Who was best at being fair and balanced; who was falling behind? Trust was to be ensured at any cost; feedback was scary enough without feeling singled out.
Two years later, Casandra admitted that all these downsides were evident within a short period of time, but she felt the unintended consequences would either disappear, be ameliorated with other programs, or be worth it based on the improved performance they expected to result from feedback. By the time it was obvious that the program was failing, the number of add-ons and corrections to the 360 degree feedback process was so large, and they were so intricately interwoven — convoluted, really — that unwinding them seemed impossible. When I arrived as an educator to the company, it seemed like a sticky, tangled web, and it was hard to tell where to snip threads or undo knots. The question became whether to keep adding additional ameliorations and keep the program going or to scrap it and start something else. The problem was that no one had come up with a better idea. The idea of self-directed behavior hadn’t occurred to the company’s leaders, and in fact, what they were doing was making everybody less and less self-regulating, Everyone in the program felt trapped by it.
But, in the way we do, people still tried to do their best on projects and their work. But they weren’t building the capability to regulate themselves, to be self-reflecting, and so to understand how feedback might be useful if the process was redesigned based on their and the business’s true potential. Turnover started to climb a bit, and the organization slowly became politicized. People were talking a lot in not very skillful ways about their own feedback and about the system. Trust eroded and so did individual creativity. This the 180 degree opposite of what had been hoped for when the 360 degree program had been introduced.
Self-Regulation is Human Nature
Part of Casandra’s problem was that she and her company were misunderstanding human nature, including our driving desire to be self-regulating. Machines have no thoughts, and so of course they accept feedback without its diminishing them. Casandra was experiencing firsthand how the transfer of the machine metaphor to human systems sets in motion the disastrous introduction of beliefs and practices that are toxic to human potential and realization. In her case, it was a painful encounter with the foundational misconception that humans need to be controlled and directed with external feedback.
Five Types of System: Machine to Ecosystem
At this juncture, in order to understand why self-regulation is innate to humans, it may be helpful to consider that the term system has many different meanings and describes a variety of ways of working. Computers have become a default association with the word, regardless of the fact that they require human minds to create and direct them. There are five contexts or types to which the term is applied, ranging from mechanical to mental, and beyond mental to ecosystem. They are all valid for their place and use, but they are not transferrable. These contexts, from highest order to lowest, are:
- Complex Adaptive
Mechanical systems are closed systems, with limited access to systems outside of their boundaries and tightly circumscribed ability to exchange energy with them. They are subject to wearing out and running down because of an inability to import or exchange energy in any integral or permanent way. A machine has no ability to import energy in order to organize and rebuild itself or replace deteriorating parts, and it is fully subject to entropy, the second law of thermodynamics.
Further, according to Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, a systems scientist from the world of biology, it is not possible for a closed system to go beyond its initial conditions. The system’s primary objective is to work to reduce entropy or increase stabilization, because this is paramount for its survival. In industry, operators in a production operation are acutely aware of this nature of objective when it comes to their production line. They must keep product within certain tolerances and standards or the product degrades to reduced or no value for the customer. This explains why, for production lines, mechanisms are built and maintained to ensure stable outcomes. Examples include the electronic or mechanical testing equipment that manages the chemical or physical components of base materials as they are transformed at each stage.
The energy in mechanical systems is what John Bennett, a mathematician and scientist, refers to as vital, or life-giving, energy. The material production system, itself, uses materials that are taken from the earth and transformed to give them higher value. Any aware person who has spent time in a production facility has experienced the line’s life-giving quality (or the lack of it), the important role played by material, and the essential roles that people play in work with closed systems. Human energy is required to fuel closed mechanical systems, continuously and repeatedly, with life-giving materials and human energy, and with energy from the various supporting materials and mechanisms that ecosystems and humans also provide.
Cybernetics systems thinking has become synonymous for many people with the term systems thinking, as we saw in an earlier chapter. Much of the development in the cybernetic systems field is a phenomenon of the computer revolution, based on modeling, replicating, or simulating human activity, particularly brain activity. Norbert Wiener, Gregory Bateson, and the core group at the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics were primary contributors to the development of this field. The study of cybernetic systems is essentially the study of the theory of messages or information.
Weiner points out that all information is subject to disorganization in transit, resulting from nature’s tendency to degrade organization and destroy meaning. The objective of cybernetic systems, he said, was to continue to function or operate in the environment as a result of or in spite of the interactions they have with their environments. The operational feature of a cybernetic system, therefore, is primarily a response or control, based on feedback received from the environment. A person, who seeks to establish an automatic heating system, independent of anyone’s effort to continually adjust the temperature, establishes the set point in a feedback system (a thermostat). This regulatory process is the means used to achieve homeostasis and avoid system rundown (caused by overheating runaway).
In business settings, an analogy to the mechanical set point can be seen in the use of customer feedback or employee surveys to determine the climate in their unit’s workplace, especially when they are made a routine and regular part of the business activity. Here, the ordering that is sought is to prevent loss of customers and to ensure a steady state in employee morale.
Complex adaptive systems are built to regulate energy exchange in symbiotic relationships between entities and their environments, in efforts to maintain homeostasis. The work of Ludwig Bertalanffy, Alexander Laszlo, J. C. P. Miller, and other biologists and systems scientists provides a clear picture of complex adaptive systems, often referred to as open systems. There is in practice today a close link between cybernetics and complex adaptive systems thinking because many of the systems concepts developed in the 1960s and 1970s drew on cybernetics in the effort to move toward open systems, particularly in their application to human systems.
Complex adaptive systems and open systems exchange energy with their environments and can change and adapt in ways that go significantly beyond cybernetic systems. Complex adaptive systems are not, however, equivalent to living systems, a confusion that has arisen as the descriptor living systems has become popular in organizational development circles. In fact, the development of living systems theory over the last few decades has moved to encompass qualities and capabilities far beyond those normally ascribed to complex adaptive systems. This development has opened the door to the additional levels in this hierarchy, which suggests that we still have much to understand.
The objective of complex adaptive systems thinking is to create and maintain the effectiveness of a non-living system, such as an agency or business, in relationships with other systems within the context of a continuously dynamic and evolving environment. Because the system and its environment are exchanging energies, they affect one another even without intentionality. At the global industrial level this can be seen in businesses working to build relationships with local governments and to adapt to regional and local preferences. Sensitivity to changes in the relationship is the way most energy is expended. The heterostatic mode is activated when the system determines that laws or principles are being challenged that it considers to be fundamental or inviolable to its capacity to maintain its integrity or its coherence as a being.
Developmental systems thinking turns the mind outward by bringing about an introduction of consciousness (seeing and self-managing our own way of thinking and acting with a purpose as a guide). This thinking enables a person to transform themself into something different than they have been before — a self that is of service to the present and future benefit of others and of greater systems. Another possible term for this level is purposeful systems thinking.
With complex adaptive systems thinking, the mind tends to focus organizations on their own vitality. When the intention is the viability of the greater systems in which people are embedded, it becomes clear that the development of the core human capacities is needed, as well as the development of the capabilities unique to particular individuals.
Because our minds are trained within the context of mechanical metaphors and behaviorist thinking, which has established seemingly tried and true ways of processing phenomena, we aren’t very good at recognizing and understanding developmental systems. Further, this capability can really only be grown to proficiency within a developmental process. In the frameworks of Charles Krone, developmental means, in particular, uncovering the full potential and expression of the unique essence of any entity or system, including necessarily the greater systems within which it is embedded. This uncovering can occur in a home, classroom, laboratory, factory, government office, or global planning meeting — anywhere that living beings engage with one another.
Scientists have published work on developmental thinking, and the world’s great spiritual traditions have, as well. Development requires spiritualizing systems or bringing in a new spirit. In business systems, developmental thinking is the reconceptualization of the business through an exploration of its core value, core process, and core purpose and ways to manifest them uniquely. A business’s people can only discover these interactively, by looking outward, beyond themselves and the business, itself, to the larger systems they collectively serve.
A developmental approach is based on a paradigm that sees every living entity (e.g. person, organization, community, ecosystem, nation) as having a unique essences or being, which is searching for channels and means of expression. This way of seeing the whole can easily become lost if there is a shift back to the internal focus on competitive ventures.
Thinking developmentally, an organization would ask itself what is at its core based on several points of reference. It would value processes that reveal the essences of individuals and find places for them to contribute to its singular direction, which is one that offers greater value to stakeholders from the beginning to the end of its value-adding process. In the business, managers would come to see people as unlimited, in terms of increasing essence expression in their service to greater purposes. Businesses and other organizations rarely accomplish this shift to developmental thinking as a whole because it takes designing and utilizing processes to develop people beyond their current minds.
Because currently there is a big demand in business for ways of developing people, most companies — even when facing the gut wrenching experience of losing their existence — operate as cybernetic or, at best, complex adaptive systems — raising only their levels of reactivity or adaptivity. But if a business or other organization takes on true development and discovers its essence and its unique direction in the world, it can learn to think developmentally about all of its work, focusing on improving everything and every person in order to develop that essence and pursue that purpose.
If we are to free ourselves of the machine and rat metaphors, we will need to return to ways of developing the three core human capacities, nascent in all of us. In this way, we have the potential to create opportunities for people to fully mature and express themselves — to live up to their human potential.
Evolutionary Systems thinking compels organizations to let go of certainty and, in some arenas, to drive toward defined outcomes or purposes. Sometimes it becomes apparent that the field of study or discipline in which creative processes take place must be seeded with a distinct way of thinking and being in order to bring something truly renewing into existence. The purposes supported in developmental systems thinking are ephemeral moments in an evolutionary path. What the leadership of an organization focuses on, beyond these purposes, is increasing its generative potential and ability to evolve purpose and potential. The intention is to make more creativity possible and to raise its level.
When you are working to increase the generative capacity of a field, you know that you can no longer predict the trajectory of the players in the field. Yet what the organization cares about most is this search for a set of generative approaches. This nature of energy is focused on customers, communities, nations, and other stakeholders, wishing for each to raise its capacity to the level of generation. The organization working from evolutionary systems thinking sees its primary purpose as regenerating the field and seeking to harmonize with the direction in which it seems to be unfolding. It is working with what doesn’t yet exist, and thus building intelligence at different levels of systems thinking, itself, becomes critical.
An organization that works regeneratively seeks to source new potential to be generative for the process (the way of working), the producer (worker), and the product (the result of the work). This level might also be called, as I have called it before, regenerative systems thinking because evolution is the primary purpose and work of regeneration.
An example of regeneration might be an Amish farm, which provides a spiritualized context within which family and workers become creative in regard to the quantity and quality of farm output, while simultaneously improving soil health and biological diversity by improving the means of growing and farming overall. Whereas a developmental organization seeks to make improvements based on its essential nature and purpose, the evolutionary system understands that it can only regenerate itself by fostering generative players in the field, who are constantly resourcing themselves from a deeper source of intelligence. In a business setting, this means looking at the entire value-chain within the context of its industry (a next larger system within which it is nested) and beyond (to the systems in which the industry is nested), and at what these serve.
Within the greater Amish community, evolutionary thinking might lead the regenerative Amish farm to advance from working exclusively in the local agricultural industry to working on the processes of eating as a system of its own. This in turn would generate a sense of stewardship for the entire value chain, from seed development to the nutrient quality of produce and its effect on health. An evolutionary process gives a new context to all levels of systems thinking — building a more comprehensive and ecological consciousness of all systems — and thus the farm would return to improving its development process, its complex adaptive reciprocal processes, and its cybernetic systems. It would also build a closed system to safely process what had been called waste into a recycled state of value.
What are the work practices appropriate for self-regulating human beings? How do organizations transition to them, and what are the benefits to be gained from doing so?
The first step is to challenge the premises from which most organizations are currently operating and replace them with more useful ones, based on insights into the nature of the fully developed human brain and its potential to create beneficial effects in the world through clear seeing and self-regulation. We will start here by examining developmental premises that are consistent with human nature, comparing them with the inconsistent premises currently in place in most organizations. These are insidious and often camouflaged, and so it is necessary to make them explicit in order to discern how they are always counterproductive and often extremely harmful.
In part four, we will look at six premises, showing how each in turn applies to the human story of people at work. This will reveal some of the ways in which a developmental approach to changing behavior differs from processes founded in the lower-order worldviews.