Flaws in the Theory of Objective Feedback
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.
In addition to the general differences between mechanical functioning and the functioning of living brains, there is a second distinctive challenge with the feedback metaphor in the case of human behavior. Any given machine does not have the ability to image itself and project its distinctive way of working or its own shortfalls onto another machine. The natures of machines, the boundaries between them, and their relationships with one another are fixed, unchangeable except for entropy and the gradual wearing out of their parts.
Humans, on the other hand, can develop the capacity to see their own shortfalls and to become self-observing and self-directed. Unfortunately, as we have seen, this developmental path is not currently well founded in most of our human systems. We also haven’t found ways to really see the truth of others. Equal to our potential for self-awareness, humans have an as yet not fully developed capacity for empathy, objective assessment, and the kind of caring that leads to work on real capacity building, rather than just explaining to others what they need to change about themselves.
The latest research tells us that we are bad at understanding others because we have conditioned biases — and also because we tend to project what are really our own shortfalls onto others. For example, we often tell people that they don’t listen well, when it is we, ourselves, who are bad at listening. We project onto them what we cannot afford to see in ourselves (cannot afford because we don’t have the instruments required to change it). This tendency to be blind to our own nature and to project it onto others is well documented and widely accepted by psychologists, as is the fact that those receiving projections usually fail to notice them.
It goes without saying that feedback processes, even when they are formalized as part of personnel assessments, are not immune to projection. Often givers of feedback project with total confidence onto other people things that are actually only true about themselves, positive or negative, and this is seldom apparent to the givers or to the receivers, or even to third-party witnesses. And in these formal processes — as a result of some of the cognitive biases that we’ll look at in a moment — the persons receiving feedback may take on false information about themselves, observations that do not fit their own situations or behaviors. This natural defense against our own unconscious impulses or qualities (again, both positive and negative), by denying them in ourselves and attributing them to others, is truly deadly to the clarity and objectivity of feedback in performance appraisals, coaching, or any process in which one person is trusted to make objective observations about another and to honestly share what they see.
This is based on the primary assumption (reminding us of the lessons from the machine and behavioral worldviews) that a person is less objective about their own experience than an outsider is able to be. For some reason, we assume that the observer is neutral and can see the truth, whereas the person under observation is clouded by their own biases and interpretation.
It is true that the person watching themself has attachments to their way of viewing events and the meanings and implications they see in them. (And, of course, the same is true for the person watching the person watching themself.) But these biases and attachments can be overcome, or reframed, with the development of a particular set of skills not usually developed in the Western World in modern times — and rare even in other times and places. Developing these skills in ourselves and others is one of the greatest and most urgent opportunities of our day. We will come back them shortly, but first let’s question the idea that outside observers are without bias.
Objectivity’s Limitations: Cognitive Biases
You may assume that if multiple people provide the same input, then you are covered for accuracy. But there are group-projection processes that work strongly against objectivity. In fact, there are several cognitive biases that can sway people collectively toward false conclusions.
A cognitive bias is a type of error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them. The human brain is powerful but subject to limitations, especially when those powers have not been fully developed. Cognitive biases are frequently a result of the brain’s attempt to simplify information processing, often related to social conditioning. They also develop when we are not taught to control the quality of our thinking in diverse situations. Cognitive biases are rules of thumb that help us make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed, but like most mental shortcuts, they undercut the objectivity and thoroughness of our intellects.
When we make judgments and decisions about the world around us, we like to think that we are objective, logical, and capable of taking in and evaluating all of the available information. Unfortunately, the less self-aware we are, the more likely we are to be tripped up by biases, which leads us to make poor decisions and bad judgments.
Most of the common biases that distort our thinking have been identified, and the ways that they distort our perspectives of other people’s behaviors have been described by contemporary psychology. All of them are restraints to high quality observation and the objective interpretation of other people’s behavior and intentions. Here are a few of them:
We tend to believe that we know people and things well enough to discern significant differences in their behaviors over time. In fact, we form and hold ideas about them early on, and usually fail to notice or question changes over time. Especially when what we think we know matches our strongly held views. This bias is one of favoring information that conforms to our existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform.
In today’s world, we move rapidly and need to make quick judgments. Because we are judged by others on our ability to be smart fast, we value our rapid-fire ideation and trust it. However, what we are actually valuing is not accuracy but looking smart by coming up with quick answers. This is placing greater value on speed and quantity than on quality. We give greater credence to information that comes to us quickly than to what occurs to us later, and we tend to overestimate the probability that what we observed in the moment will reoccur. We project our current ideas into the future, and this makes us even less likely to see significant changes.
All of us have heard the sayings, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “You’ll never get another chance to make a first impression.” Both can be true. We do tend to form an impression when we meet someone that changes very little over time. In fact, we tend to mistake an immediate, overall impression for a reliable assessment of a person. This impression then influences how we feel and think about his or her character going forward. This applies especially to physical attractiveness, which further influences how we rate other qualities.
This is the tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen and give ourselves credit when good things happen. It is based on lack of development of the three core capacities — locus of control, scope of considering, and source of agency — that results from deficiencies in our current ways of parenting and educating children and from certain other societal processes. According to this bias, when I win a poker hand, it is due to my skill at reading the other players and knowing the odds. When I lose, it is because I was dealt a poor hand. This way of perceiving reality plays into our thinking when we are reviewers in feedback processes. We tend to weigh in our own chances of being benefited or harmed by the effects of our feedback — rather than its usefulness to the person we’re observing — and this self-serving is mostly outside of our awareness or willingness to manage.
This is the tendency to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. When making a decision on what to notice about a person, we may pay attention to whether and how often they agree with us and ignore their ideas, especially when we are envious of them. We may even copy those ideas and take credit for them, without noticing that we are doing so. We tend to cut out of our awareness what is uncomfortable and not to add it into our consideration when we are interpreting observations and experience. This can profoundly bias our overall understanding of others’ behaviors.
We often develop a tendency to believe that a familiar object can work only in the particular way that we’ve seen it work in the past. If we don’t have a hammer, we might never consider that a big wrench can also be used to drive a nail into a wall. We may think that we don’t need certain skills because they are not directly called for in our fields, even though with some reflection we can see that they would benefit us in other ways. For example, writing may not be part of one’s job, but writing can improve thinking.
This bias can extend to people’s functions with organizations. A supervisor may not realize that an assistant has the skills to be in a leadership role. Seeing people as fixed in their skills and character, especially if those fixations are from years before, causes us to judge people based on old ideas, rather than see their potential for evolution. This limits our ability to support the growth of others through the use of a feedback process.
Anchoring is the tendency to rely too heavily on the very first experience or information that comes one’s way, rather than wait for more before forming an opinion. When this bias is at work, the way a person does something for the first time, if it turns out well or badly, will become in their opinion the best or the worst way to do the same thing in the future. When we are opinionated in this way, we can fail to see that the way someone else does the thing may be much more effective than our own best way, and this can rob our feedback of value.
Misinformation received after an event can interfere with a person’s memory of their original experience of the event. This could also be called the “gossip effect.” It is easy to be swayed by what we hear about events or persons from others, even to the point of altering our memories of them. This can lead to the development of conformity in group thinking about a person, following discussion (sometimes indistinguishable from gossip) in preparation for a feedback cycle.
Dozens of other cognitive biases have been identified and described in psychological research, but these eight, specifically, have the power to severely limit the objectivity of reviewers in feedback processes.
The Scourge of Race and Gender Bias
Two biases that cross all other known biases and are invisible to all of us who haven’t experienced them are race and gender. Groups tend to unconsciously collude around these, making it seem that there is consensus in feedback that incorporates them.
Because race and gender bias are hidden even from the persons adversely affected by them, they are more difficult to rout out than cognitive biases. Whole cultures have developed them, based on false assumptions, implicit social agreements, and self-centered conditioning by families, schools, arts, sciences, and religions.
There is abundant, reliable research now on the ways races and genders experience one another and how these internal frames of reference determine our engagements with one another. The high incidence of murder and constant violent abuse by police in African American communities are the effect of racial bias embedded in whole police departments and in city, county, and state governments. Undeserved suspicious attention in all communities paid to people of color who are not in any way behaving in ways that need to be monitored or managed is the result of these biases embedded in whole swathes of populations. Militaries around the world are characterized by an analogous bias toward women and the LGBTQ population. The per capita death-by-violence rate of transwomen-of-color in the United States is higher than that of any other population, and this is the result of a mix of unexamined biases spread throughout the national population.
Racial, gender, and sexual bias began to shift in major ways in the twentieth century, and improvements are slowly increasing, but the basic cultural frameworks remain in place in the minds of older generations. There is no reason to believe organizations have succeeded in excluding the effects of these biases from their feedback programs. They march through every feedback structure and process. Even the best training in how to give feedback fairly does not include developing mindfulness sufficient to observe one’s own biases when evaluating other people’s behavior and performance.
Because those whose observing and thinking are most colored by cognitive, race, and gender biases have little capability to notice them, they are likely to go undetected by them in feedback processes. This makes it almost impossible to account for biases in any explicit way or understand them well enough to identify them when assessing the validity of the feedback. It is rarely effective for a person who has been misperceived, due to another’s bias, to make a complaint. And although this is becoming less so over time, as individuals and societies develop more awareness of the major biases, it is still a major limitation to the efficacy of feedback.
So much for the objective observer giving objective and therefore reliable feedback — or even for covering all the bases by having multiple people review a person. Groups of reviewers are far more likely to fall into group think than they are to get to a truth.
Even so, you might think that you can train people to manage their biases and design systems that can avoid them. You can! and this is wonderful news. But to train or design so that those giving feedback can manage biases is, as we say, “going around your elbow to get to your ass,” or doing it the hard way. Why not instead focus on developing people to see the nature of their own and others’ biases for themselves and skip the feedback from non-biased others?
This has been an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work. Read the next chapter here: