Projection Inevitably Limits and Corrupts Feedback Processes (Premise 5)
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.
Individuals without mature inner thoughts and emotions tend to offer feedback based on their dysfunctional worldviews, rather than any reality they see outside of themselves. When groups come together to provide feedback on other groups, they tend to unwittingly collude to offer group projections, shaped by one or more dominant personality or based on confusing jumbles of unreliable opinions. In addition, because of the way our human minds work, most often feedback results in maximization of a part or an element, rather than optimization of the whole, and this inevitably leads to runaway. For this reason, in any situation where reflections on behavior are shared, it is essential to develop processes to overcome the almost universal tendency toward personal projection.
The human tendency toward projection is cogently described in the form of an old Æsop’s fable, which tells how each of us carries two heavy bags, one on our back and one on our front. The one on our back is full of our own limitations and defects, which we cannot see. The one in front, which is highly visible, contains the defects of others. We can always see the shortfalls and failings carried in the bag in front, but we do not always know which bag is where. Sometimes we move the bag on our back around to the front and think that we see the defects of others, when really we are seeing our own.
Frequently people in therapy are asked to describe the faults they see in others or the changes they think others should make, as a way for their psychologists to understand them through their projections. Without development, we tend to have very limited skills of self-reflection, and so it is difficult to see this in ourselves. Self-reflection is one of many people’s least developed capabilities, and this factor may cause feedback to be biased in ways that cause damage in teaming and cross-functional processes, or at the very least, limit the potential we wish to develop in our organizations.
Projection in Feedback Processes
All projection is a defense mechanism, by which individuals attribute characteristics they find unacceptable in themselves to one or more others. Its arising and manifestation are almost completely invisible — usually we can’t be certain that we are actually seeing it when we observe ourselves or others. In one simple example, a husband who is consistently hostile attributes this hostility to his wife and claims that she, rather than he, has an anger management problem.
A general way of understanding how projection affects feedback, offered by a friend of mine, is based on the “Schroedinger’s cat” thought experiment. In 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schroedinger created the experiment to illustrate what he saw as a problem with the application of quantum mechanics to everyday objects. He posited a situation in which a cat was put into a sealed, opaque box with a bowl of poisoned food. An observer was asked to determine — without looking into the box — whether the cat had eaten the food and died or sniffed out the poison, refused to eat the food, and survived.
For my purpose here, the focus of the experiment is on the effect of the question on the mind of the observer. Inevitably, a person without the option to open the box and make a direct observation would begin to construct a possible answer based on information that was not actually available to them, assuming something about the situation that they could not possibly know with certainty. They would tell themselves stories that might be based on notions of probability, generalized knowledge about cat behavior, personal experiences of cats, wishful thinking, or any of myriad other sources of information. Their efforts would very probably be driven by a desire to crack the puzzle in order to appear smart, funny, or otherwise on top of the question. But in fact, the only way to know with certainty whether the cat is alive or dead is to open the box and make a direct observation. An answer based on anything else, even on information seeming to come from within the sealed box and seeming to bear on the question, is only a projection from the mind of the observer.
We do this to people as well. We put them in a box and play out mental experiments that explain their behavior and intentions without anything approaching relevant information, based entirely on ideas already in our own minds. In real-life settings, serious problems arise when we hold tenaciously to ideas formed about whoever is in the box without testing them against direct observation — without engaging others independently of our preconceived and probably unexamined notions about them.
A version of this experiment was conducted as a real-life study of schoolteachers who were given what they were told were their students’ IQ test scores, but which were actually their locker numbers. Children with low locker numbers got very little help, based on the assumption by their teachers that they could not do better than they already were. Teachers quickly judged them as less able, and they persisted in this idea and reported it to others even after they were told of the experiment.
This study and many others like it confirm that projection is a particularly insidious and widespread inner process. It relies on assumptions that we construct based on incomplete or false information and uses them as the filters through which we observe people and assess their behavior. Left in place, it inevitably results in failure to discern what individuals are actually like, what they are capable of, what motivates them.
People without mature thought processes and emotions tend to offer feedback based on their dysfunctional worldviews, rather than any reality they see outside of themselves. Also, when groups come together to provide feedback on other groups, they tend to unwittingly collude to offer group projections. For this reason, in any situation where reflections on behavior are shared, it is essential to develop processes to overcome the almost universal tendency toward personal projection.
Maximization Caused by Feedback
A particular kind of maximization that often results from projection is rarely taken into consideration by organizations that rely on feedback programs. An ongoing effect is created when one person, especially someone with authority, says to another that there is a problem endemic to their nature or behavior. The person who receives this negative suggestion or judgement rarely contextualizes it within the whole of what has been offered to them as feedback. Nor do they simply reject or ignore it. Instead, they ruminate on it, chew on it, build cases to defend themself against it, dramatize it out of all proportion, or use it to beat themself up. This is particularly true if the person received similar suggestions or judgements in childhood and has not resolved them. Psychologists call this the “tape in our head.” It plays in a loop, invading the rest of a person’s life and taking control of their consciousness.
By its nature, feedback based on projection causes maximization by generating this penetrating inner dialogue with a part or element, separated from the totality that was offered. This works directly against optimization of the whole, making a person temporarily oblivious of their world and everything available to them for consideration when it comes to assessing their behavior and its effects on others. The loop can run for days, and this is mental runaway.
Sources and Causes of Projection
How is it that people, who would never intentionally deceive themselves, become convinced that what is not actually in front of them is real and that their observations based on these illusions are valid? David Bohm, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist had a useful explanation for how this happens. He suggested, based on his research, that we need to learn to differentiate between thought and thinking in order to distinguish what is unreal or distorted from what is real and clearly seen. Thoughts are made up of ideas that we hold in memory from past experiences that have been repeated many times or introduced in a highly emotional way. They hold a strong place in our mental processing, so much so that they close out any ideas that might provide other ways of looking at current situations.
Bohm described thought as very active, participating in the interpretation of current events, and at the same time constantly referring back to preset interpretations. Thoughts don’t tell us how things actually are in the present; instead they relate to the current situation based on conclusions that were drawn in the past from situations of a similar nature, projecting the past onto the immediate present. Although we may be expending a great deal of energy and giving our imaginations a good workout, we are not thinking when we busy ourselves in this way with ceaselessly proliferating thoughts.
Similarly, Bohm pointed out, we rarely feel. Rather, we engage in the proliferation of rehashed feelings, views that are part of our recorded history. These thoughts and feelings have been stored in neural networks in our brains and can be retriggered whenever anything remotely similar appears in our field of experience. Without our awareness, from moment to moment our old thoughts and feelings actively interpret our present experiences, closing off any new ideas that might challenge or conflict with them.
If left unresolved, this condition of proliferating thoughts and feelings can result in many negative effects. It is important therefore to know that there are options for us as human beings. Learning to observe and understand the process of shifting from thought to thinking is fundamental to developing self-accountability and the capability to ask Socratic questions that can enable change in ourselves and others.
It is possible to test the idea of projection by making oneself the subject of a simple, three-part experiment. Here is the procedure:
- Think of a person who annoys you. Spend a moment or two calling their image into your mind.
- Write out in some detail what their annoying behaviors are and why they are annoying. Be as specific and detailed as possible in the time you have. This is a way to make your feelings about this person concrete and evident.
- Now make a photocopy of what you have written. Replace this person’s name everywhere it occurs with your own, and if necessary, change the pronouns throughout to match your gender. If you can be really honest with yourself (and it may not be easy), you will find this an eye-opening experience. Note that it may take you a day or two, or longer, to develop the non-judgmental attitude toward yourself that the experiment calls for.
It should be clear by now that it simply is not possible to control for the myriad, complex effects of projection in feedback programs as they are conducted in organizations. This is the primary, practical reason for replacing them with something better.
This has been an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work. Read the next chapter here: