Self-Governing Behavior is Energy Effective (Premise 1)
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.
Chapter 9 is the first chapter in part four, which presents six premises from which most organizations are currently operating, in order to suggest more useful replacements.
The foundational element in effective work systems is self-correcting, self-managing, self-accountable, self-governing behavior. Energy spent on monitoring and attempting to alter the behavior of team members or others from the outside is energy wasted, energy that could be better expended on improving the business and the capability of people. The critical element in improving or evolving work systems is to increase the self-governing capability of everyone involved.
Self-regulating behavior is not only more effective, it is entirely achievable when time is devoted to developing people’s capacity for it and creating the work systems that support it.
In most organization, the current premise is that humans cannot be self-managing and must be managed from an external source. This arose, as we saw earlier, from the worldview brought into being with behaviorism. It turns out to be untrue. John Watson was wrong, but his theories are still controlling businesses and workers.
In Western culture we have systematically worked in a way that builds processes with the tendency to erode self-accountability into our families and organizations. First our parents, then our teachers, and then our employers and supervisors tell us what to do, how we are doing in our performance and what our grade or rank is, and to what degree our behavior is correct. They give us feedback. This is so deeply embedded in our way of operating that it is difficult to see how pervasive it is and how extensively external appraisals and directives work against creating self-accountable human beings.
Even in cybernetics systems theory, mechanical and electrical systems operate effectively only through the regulatory control of built-in governors that sense and correct deviations from desirable norms. These non-living governors use information to identify differences or changes that exist throughout the system, which indicates to them whether the system is operating optimally. This allows the system, in an internally managed, “self-correcting” manner, to work to regain an ideal or optimum state based on defined parameters. (Thus, the metaphor drawn from cybernetic theory — because it posits external rather than internal governors — is inaccurate even from the start.)
The assumption in most of our modern organizational settings that people cannot be self-governing or self-auditing is based mainly on the belief that they cannot be objective about themselves. Humans, even with a more complex brain, higher level of mental functioning, and ability to make reasoned choices, are assumed to be less able than machinery to be self-regulating. Unfortunately, this is often proves to be the case for individuals, but it is not innately characteristic of the species. If the ability for self-management is not developed in us from childhood, our capacity to be self-reflecting (self-observing and self-remembering) steadily diminishes. This is particularly true when our primary source of reflection as we grow up is external, from others’ interpretation of our actions, and when this feedback focuses on elements that pull us away from what feels intrinsically self-integrating.
We will look at this idea of self-integration further under premise 2, but here an example drawn from a familiar experience can shed some light. It sometimes happens that when someone I respect urges me to take a particular course of action, I find myself objecting internally. When I don’t listen to myself and go my own way — whether or not I later find it to be appropriate or, as we say, a good learning experience — I lose my sense of integrity with myself, of being my own person. This occurs in my life less and less often, but when it does and I become aware of it, I am vividly reminded of the inner harmony that is fundamental to every person’s course of development. We humans have a strong desire to feel this alignment between our values and our behaviors, even when we have to learn the hard way, by making painful mistakes. To act otherwise, especially to repeatedly follow the good advice of others, is to deny our own inner sense of reality and eventually, in the most extreme cases, to become mentally ill.
When viewing humans developmentally, as if each person is working to unveil their own potential and contribution, it is possible to understand how a person, any person, can use a process of self-reflection to create self-regulating behavior. Reflecting, ourselves, on the thinking and emotions that are our impetus for particular behaviors provides us with internally developed insight and advise. It alerts us to the degree of adherence we are maintaining in our attempts to approximate desired patterns or achieve particular aims.
By this nature of internal reflection, a person can tell what is uniquely optimizing and integrating for them. We forget sometimes that what we think requires changing in another person may not be the critical change needed from their perspective and that what works for one person does not necessarily work for another. This is a core life exercise in the development of self-accountability — discovering what works for us, what demands higher inner discipline, and what benefits from flexibility in our dealings with others and ourselves.
Feedback versus Self-Accountability at DuPont
Initially in DuPont’s corporate engineering group, the introduction of feedback as part of performance reviews was easily accepted. They had been presented with lots of testimonials by the consulting company they hired to guide the process. And after all, engineers design systems based on feedback mechanisms, so it all felt natural and appropriate.
In this case, feedback was to be introduced into an updated version of the manager’s role of providing performance reviews. Ed Klinge was the group’s appointed organizational sponsor, chartered with bringing the them into the twenty-first century with new technologies for performance management. This meant the creation of new documentation, new training, and a new process. This charter became Ed’s new full-time role. It took him about sixty hours a week in the twelve months leading up to full implementation to educate himself and others. But it felt meaningful to him because he wanted to support a function and a company that he deeply believed in.
The training sessions were the most fun. Ed was teaching people how motivation worked, how listening was critical, and that fairness was paramount. He was learning as much as he had in engineering school. He tells one story of a training session at which one young manager asked him a stop-you-in-your-tracks question. Ed was introducing skills for sharing hard feedback on bad or less than stellar behavior. As they the group practiced in pairs, the manager walked over to him and asked, “What if I’m misinterpreting the situation? I see people do that to me and others all the time. Are you going to teach us a way to assess whether we are right?”
Ed admitted that this was not in the lesson but encouraged the manger that he would learn to do it through ongoing experience. The manager’s last comment as he went back to practice was that he hoped he wouldn’t do too much damage while he figured it out.
A second concern was raised by a very experienced manager. He wondered where they were going to get the time to do all of this on top of their regular jobs. Ed’s exchanges with this manager continued for several rounds, and they continued to plan to be ready for the shift and put it all in writing. In the end, the manager asked Ed if the engineers could not just do a better job of hiring the right people instead of trying to “feedback them into excellent performance.”
Indeed, when Ed performed an evaluation of the new review process a year later, the biggest surprise was how much time managers were spending on its processes. It had increased the average manager’s workload by about 7 percent. In addition, the level of anxiety had not decreased from the training sessions when he first introduced it. Answers to the question about how effective managers thought the process was were also surprising.
Ed spend the following years trying to find ways to do feedback better. There must be a way to get it right, he felt, and it took a full ten years before he threw up his hands (metaphorically) and started looking for a better plan. The engineering group stopped all structured feedback processes and gave managers back their time, with no loss in productivity or performance. Then they instituted in feedback’s place a process for building the capability to be self-managing in all of their people, and they revised their business philosophy to one based on self-accountability (as I outline below in part 5). This added a bit of new work, but it was directed to running the business not managing people’s performance. In a short time, it paid for itself with a 35 percent improvement in financial effectiveness, measured as a return on investment from their group. This was far and away a much better use of Ed and his team’s time and creativity.
This has been an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work. Read the next chapter here: