Self-Reflective Capability Is Necessary for Self-Governance (Premise 2)
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.
The ability to be self-correcting or self-governing depends on the capability to be self-reflecting: 1) to see one’s own processes as they play out, 2) to interpret them in terms of what is needed to return to homeostasis (balance and harmony internally and with one’s environment), and 3) to create heterostasis (evolution and change of strata or class).
Returning to cybernetics theory, we find that an internal mechanical governor seeks the information that is appropriate for optimizing the whole of the system and interprets it to determine what is needed for optimization, ignoring all other information. It turns out that human beings have a similar drive to maintain wholeness and not to be diverted into sub-optimization in favor of a part.
Forcing information into a human or machine system, overriding its autonomy, it will cause either oscillation (wavering or vacillating without any ability to choose or proceed independently) or a state of runaway (overcompensation for or maximization of the focus on the isolated piece of information). Oscillation and runaway, when repeated over time, produce increasing distortion and deterioration of the system’s ability to rebalance or optimize. Both result from seeking to maximize the variables that attention is called to, over and above optimizing the overall system, the action sought by mechanical governors and human self-reflection.
A good understanding of this comes from the simple example of inner harmony that I gave above in chapter 9. We humans so consistently want to preserve inner harmony that sometimes the more someone tells us to stop doing something, the more we resist stopping, in spite of the fact that it may hurt us. Sometimes their admonishments even escalate our behavior. One research study found that, at a certain age, primary schoolchildren could no longer correctly interpret whether they were following simple instructions and would defend their incorrect responses even when they were shown photographs of themselves acting out of compliance. However, after only a few weeks of prompting to reflect on the accuracy of their responses to the same instruction, and without any external input, they became increasingly accurate at judging their own success. Although the capability to reflect on and correct our own behavior has been systematically eroded in our culture, it can be regained with practice, and often in a short time.
In a human system, runaway — which results from focusing on a portion of the whole, rather than its entirety, or when elements that are ignored go out of control — cannot be maintained for extended periods of time without tending to cause loss of the ability to return to self-governance and self-correction. This is a familiar concern for anyone who has raised a teenager.
To restore the system from runaway to self-correcting, it is important to reintroduce self-reflection into the situation. This must be done in such a way that the reflection can be used to reoptimize the whole; otherwise, the system’s ability to learn and adapt will be eroded. For example, loss of adaptability is quite common when an autoimmune system is challenged by chemotherapy for cancer. Over time, chemotherapy causes a body’s natural governing systems to lose their ability to determine which antibodies or types of blood cells to release and which to destroy.
In businesses, loss of adaptability results when teams take on a partial focus, such as attempting to regain control of costs following a period of intense focus on quality that has resulted in disharmony and non-alignment. When runaway occurs, the tendency is to attempt to shift the focus of the operating teams as fast as one can to each new runaway area, with the hope of regaining control over the whole system. The result of this approach is that the organization becomes increasingly incapable of regaining its balance and integrity. Such businesses shift from cost to quality and then, when cost gets out of control, back to cost or safety, and from there back to quality or on to the next area of runaway. This method of correcting the imbalance manifests itself as unrelated, segmented goal setting in each of the arenas that were most recently out of control.
The tendency toward runaway is the same in the case of a person who continually receives feedback from external sources. Focus is drawn immediately and intensely to the arena of highest attention from external observers. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, the response is the same. Focus is placed on changing the item that has been highlighted or, at least, mentally replaying the compliment or criticism over and over again. Either way, the person has lost touch with their inner integrity, with that which is needed to ensure their evolution and development as a whole.
DuPont’s New Plan
Once Ed Klinge realized that DuPont needed a new path forward to improve working with people, he created a strategy group and began work with a team to explore what other companies were doing. The team created a set of criteria for including companies on their list that contained the items, “publicly held” and “good financial return,” matching DuPont. They wanted at least five years of testing and vetting any new approach they might take on. And they wanted the organization as a whole to feel good about the results they were getting.
The companies that showed up on their list included Procter and Gamble at Lima, Ohio; Honda America; and a few others. Their first site visit, to Procter and Gamble, was “a real eye-opener,” according to Chad Holliday, who was head of the DuPont strategy group at that time. P&G Lima had placed self-directed organizational members at the foundation of everything they did. They were designing their own way of working from the ground up, not borrowing from any of the new programs that were emerging at the time. This included not taking on the use of feedback that had come from the post-World War II military treasure chest of people management processes.
Based on their new strategy, P&G Lima called themselves a “consciousness-based and will-driven” organization. They were building into their people the capacity to see and manage themselves through conscious awareness of their own actions and the effects they had on others. And as a result, people were self-initiating and self-managing in the context of a compelling, strategic direction. The business was beating their competition on every scorecard, from financial return to shelf space and market-basket return for the distributor. The DuPont folks were very impressed, but also a bit awed.
The cause of their awe were the methods that P&G Lima was using. After almost a decade of feedback programs, sometimes coupled with a set of competencies, P&G companies were all relying primarily on an embedded, ritualized development process to grow their people’s critical thinking skills and personal mastery. There were using organizational frameworks for advancing projects and creating changes to improve marketplace presence and their customers’ lives, and they were operating with mostly independent management. There was lots of tracking, but not of competencies. Instead each employee evaluated their own, self-initiated work in terms of market outcomes and financial effectiveness. Ed described the people at the P&G companies he visited as filled with so much motivation to do great and meaningful work that watching them at it felt like “going to church.” He meant that it was a greatly moving experience, with lots of halleluiahs in praise of P&G’s great changes.
Three of the five companies DuPont visited were using the same methodology, what they called “a developmental approach to change and growth.” They were taking conscious steps to make their people smarter by giving them more space to create. In fact, the delivery of a significant, financially effective endeavor was a condition of employment. Supervisors had shifted from managing people to what they called “resource roles,” serving individuals and teams who were growing their businesses’ revenues by more than 35 percent annually.
At these companies, retention and people’s competence were not a problem; everyone was maturing to the level of top talent. The return on people development was double to triple that of the return on the old people management process. It was way more advantageous to grow people and give them freedom to lead than it had been to manage the behavior of hundreds or thousands of people with feedback and criteria that had no direct ties to market outcomes.
DuPont saw that the developmental organization plan was the one to pursue. Its foundation was to build deep capacity for self-reflection, self-initiation, and self-correction across the entire organization.
This has been an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work. Read the next chapter here: