What Is 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 on Medium, and purchase the full book here.

In terms of human methodologies, feedback is offering to or receiving from others opinions, impressions, and assessments of attitudes and behavior in any form or context. Feedback is based on the ideas that 1) people cannot see themselves clearly and cannot assess the effects of their actions, objectively, and therefore, 2) external observers — assumed to be clear seeing, unprejudiced, and reliably objective — must do this work for them. Feedback is given with the intention to help others change their behaviors in ways that will benefit their work teams and organizations. Its primary goal is to improve performance reviews, teamwork engagements, and people’s ability to align themselves with the business’s strategies and objectives.

With this definition and an understanding of the core human capacities as guides, we are ready to look at the history of feedback with three objectives in mind, to:

  1. See why resourcing the development of the three core capacities may be the most important and generous gift one can give to another person.
  2. Become familiar with some powerful practices that accomplish the outcomes we hope for from feedback but rarely see delivered: improvements in people’s capability to observe and direct themselves, to make bigger contributions to the business and its customers, and to become ever more resilient in the face of criticism and setbacks.
  3. Understand the basis for the argument that innovation is only possible when an entire organization is engaged in Big Promises based on a strategic direction — and that feedback and other limiting practices are the surest way to discourage the development of capacities that makes these promises possible.

The most important objective is the first. Resourcing people’s capability to observe and manage their own behaviors and to source their actions from within themselves is how we develop the three human capacities. This is the most important work we can do for another human being. Further, I hope to make it evident that feedback not only slows down this development, it may also completely derail it — temporarily, which was my experience at San Jose State, or forever, as has sadly been the case for some I have encountered.

My own experience and research show that these effects occur no matter how well feedback is practiced, with no matter how much training and preparation, and with no matter what good intentions (which is also true for any of the other toxic practices). External input from designated others tends to trigger our need to belong, a survival challenge demanded by our brain for survival. This causes us to give it more weight than our own reflections, which further causes us to exert more effort toward others’ ideas about and suggestions for us than toward our own. Over time, we become dependent on input from outside ourselves as the default place to look for confirmation and motivation. This is independent of context: as children in school, in personal and professional relationships we are building and evolving, and in performance or development engagements at work with supervisors and colleagues.

More importantly, feedback undermines and erodes our capacity for self-reflection and self-direction. This is true even of people who loudly proclaim the good feedback does them by providing information they would never have uncovered on their own. This kind of declaration is often motivated by a push from the brain to establish belonging. It is often heartfelt and sincere, but it is not nearly as powerful as the thrill of self-discovery.

The defense of feedback is also the problem of being attached to something that is better than the really bad stuff. By really bad stuff I mean, for example, those encounters with others who tell you exactly what they think of you, evaluating you based only on their privately held thoughts, which seem terribly biased — leaving you at a total disadvantage, with no positive way forward. No one wants this. Feedback conducted according to a process that requires at least some attempt at objectivity, by a group of peers or a supervisor with some stake in keeping you productive, has got to be better. But maybe not. As Nobel Laureate economist Herb Simon says, “Attachment to the better is the enemy of the best.”

In another spin on the bad-better-best case, people developing the capability to really know themselves is limited by the prevailing idea that it is always better to get the real truth about yourself from someone else, someone with an objective eye. The fallout from this belief is that people are discouraged before they even begin the destabilizing but thoroughly rewarding effort to learn about themselves from the only really reliable source — themselves. Every one of us can learn to observe ourselves, reflect on what we see, and develop deep insights into our thinking, feelings, and behaviors. We can do a much better job of finding the truth of ourselves than others can do for us. Doing so develops capabilities that serve us in all of our endeavors and affords us a great sense of fulfillment and personal development.

In a business, developing the capability to be self-observing and self-reflective must be coupled with turning everyone’s minds to the external effects they have on market forces, particularly on their customers and consumers. Those who are responsible for providing new levels of service and products must make direct contact with customers; it does no good to rely on customer feedback. This contact is the source of new ideas and the energy and excitement to deliver them. It fosters strong interest and commitment in evolving customers’ success. And this is true for all other stakeholders — co-creators, stockholders, communities, ecosystems.

As it turns out, the practice of doing others’ thinking for them weakens them by undermining their development of the abilities to be self-observing and self-directed. External input tends to shut down the development and exercise of personal agency, respect and appreciation for the contributions of others, and belief in our responsibility for what goes on around us or happens to us. Feedback poses several specific problems, which we will examine separately and then in terms of their cumulative effects. It is the least likely way of changing other people’s attitudes and behaviors.

But, of course, feedback is widespread and often revered as a best practice, and because there are no universal criteria for best practices, it is easy to make this claim. Nevertheless, it is utilized directly by 90 percent of organizations, under the mistaken belief that it will improve the performance of all workers, whether presented in the form of criticism or praise. As we will see, this is simply not the case. The benefits of feedback are purely mythological.

Let’s pause a moment here to draw a distinction. It is not a question of whether feedback works. It does! The need to belong will drive changes in behavior whether they are in line with people’s intentions or not, as was clear in the story of my personal experience with feedback. The real questions are, “Does feedback encourage and make it possible for all people to develop the three core human capacities — locus of control, scope of considering, and source of agency — which drive all ableness to be in the world and take action? And, do the offerings for change shoot too low — even when they exceed the downright bad and the only fairly decent?” These questions are this current exploration of feedback. Can we see higher possibilities and make the necessary changes in our organizations to realize them?

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

In order to make the changes necessary for a business to serve all of its stakeholders well, it is of utmost importance that its leaders ask themselves some tough questions. For example,

  • In my experience have people seemed slow to change as the result of our feedback processes? Or, have they been changing quickly but apparently without examining what the change might mean for them?
  • Do some people seem never to change much at all?
  • Do people seem distracted or anxious in the periods leading up to feedback sessions, either because they will be called on to give it or because they will receive it?
  • Have I ever suspected that an unexamined judgment (positive or negative) has coalesced around an individual’s behavior and is showing up inappropriately in feedback?
  • Do our feedback processes often leave people feeling isolated?
  • Are people forming cliques to support one another that detract from the team effort?

These sample questions describe only a few of the hundreds of possible experiences that indicate how, despite all good intentions and constant upgrades, a feedback program inevitably will not deliver the benefits expected from it. I first came into contact with an extreme experience in a business context when I was called in as an educator to Weyerhaeuser at a pulping operation in New Bern, North Carolina.

Weyerhaeuser business leaders had initiated a performance-enhancing feedback process, in which managers gave one another feedback along with their supervisors. They had been trained to do this in a way that was more productive and more sensitive than past versions of the program. Feedback sessions for each manager were preceded by written evaluations by the supervisor and the rest of the managers involved, which were aggregated into a summary before being presented. All identifying characteristics of the writers were removed, in order to focus attention on the information delivered, rather than on the individuals who had offered it. This process took place over several months and culminated with a meeting between each manager and their supervisor for the purpose of creating a performance improvement plan based on the aggregated feedback.

There was one manager I remember very well, Jerry, who had been at the facility for fourteen years and was assigned oversight of a part of production. He had seen many general managers come and go, as well as some turnover among his peers. His was a high performing organization in terms of results, but it operated very differently than others in the facility. He was highly participative in the work and encouraged a lot of discussion at team meetings.

Jerry was a skeptic by nature — not because he didn’t trust people, but because he had come to believe that a person’s first thoughts are automatic and not . . . well, not thoughtful. He was not a cynic, but he did question things a lot. He was not argumentative about it, but questioning. Why were things done the way they were? What did this comment from someone really mean? His questions covered everything from accounting forms that he was required to complete to strategic decisions he was expected to implement. He even went so far as to question the initiation of the new feedback process.

Jerry not only questioned everything going on around him; he also saw other ways of understanding and interpreting things and alternate ways for getting them done, and his logic wasn’t always instantly apparent. It seemed to many that he could not accept anything as fixed and decided. He slowed down all meetings where he was present by offering alternative views on each subject discussed, always digging deeper before he agreed to move on.

And yet, the 380 people on his operating team loved him and delivered higher results than any of the similar operations in the New Bern plant or at competing facilities.

You can image what resulted when managers were given the opportunity to give Jerry feedback. The unrehearsed and unanimous consensus was that he should question less and give-in more quickly to the majority view so that things could move forward. This was listed as an objective on his coming year performance improvement form, along with several other suggestions for change, including complaining less (he had never seen his engagements as complaints) and being less negative (he never understood them as negative). Jerry put each of these items on his to-do list. Six months later, he was gone from the plant, and his group’s stellar results exited with him.

I will revisit the story of Jerry’s collision with feedback later and the shocking problem it created for the New Bern management team on which he sat. Although this is a story about one company and facility (I’ll also tell some stories of several others), I see the same downside to feedback over and over, with no real upside to compensate. But before I do that, to ground my critique I’ll give a one-chapter history of the concept.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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