This is the second part of a series of six reflections on the impact of feedback processes, including 360º feedback on Responsibility behavior. It is based on six premises about human nature that are not well understood. Part One set up the introduction and Premise 1.
Premise 2: Self-governance Depends on the Capability to Self-reflect
The capability to be self-correcting or self-governing depends on the capability to be self-reflecting. Self-reflection is the observation and interpretation of one’s own internal processes for the purpose of restoring or maintaining homeostasis (internal balance and harmony with one’s environment) and creating heterostasis (evolution and change).
Cybernetics theory tells us that mechanical systems seek and interpret information that is appropriate and necessary for optimizing themselves as wholes. They ignore all other information. It turns out that human beings have a similar drive to maintain wholeness and not to be diverted into behaviors that favor only parts of themselves and their living environments. In both humans and machines, nonessential information that is “forced” into the system in ways that prevent it from being disregarded causes oscillation — the inability to choose or proceed independently. Forced, nonessential information may also cause persons or machines to run away, to overcompensate or maximize focus on what is isolated and irrelevant. When repeated over time, oscillation and runaway produce increasing distortion and the deterioration of a system’s ability to rebalance or optimize.
Oscillation and runaway result when a system seeks to maximize variables rather than optimize whole-system functioning. In other words, they result when external influences override mechanical governors or human self-reflecting. For example, sometimes when someone repeatedly tells us not to do something that is hurting us, we refuse to stop doing it. The more they tell us, the more stubborn we become, and we may even escalate the harmful behavior. Anyone who has been the parent of a teenager is familiar with runaway, and it is apparent in even very young children when advice takes the form of apparently essential instruction.
One scientific study I conducted in graduate school found that, by early school age, when children were given simple instructions for an activity and then constantly told whether they were doing it right, they lost their ability to correctly interpret whether they were actually following the instructions. Because they wanted to please adults and to do the activity right, the children claimed they were following the instructions even when they were not. Even after they were shown photos that clearly proved they weren’t, they stuck with their stories and insisted more vehemently that they were right, as they repeated behaviors proscribed by the instructions. However, when the same exercise was repeated several times without evaluation from adults and the children were left to reflect on the accuracy of their responses without external input, they became significantly better at judging their success accurately. The feedback from adults not only prevented self-assessment and trust in their own reflection; it exacerbated the behavior the adults were trying to stop.
In human systems, focusing on a portion of the whole without regard for its entirety or losing sight of elements that are “out of control” can cause diminished capacity. In other words, runaway cannot be maintained for extended periods of time without causing individuals to lose their ability to return to self-governing, self-correcting behaviors on their own.
In cases like this, it is essential to reintroduce self-reflection, using it to optimize the whole again. Otherwise the “learning and adapting ability” of the system is eroded. This loss of adapting is quite common when human auto-immune systems are challenged by chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer. Harsh chemicals — forced into the system and impossible to override — cause the body’s natural governing systems to become unable to determine which antibodies or types of blood cells to release and which to destroy.
When runaway occurs in an organization the tendency is to attempt to shift the focus of operating teams as fast as possible to each new out-of-control area. For example, correcting for changes in quality without regard for the whole operation can result in increases in costs. Correcting for increases in cost can cause changes in safety practices that throw the organization further out of balance. The resulting effect of segmented goal setting can be inability to get the whole back into balance.
Originally published at carolsanford.com on July 18, 2011.