Part 4 Why Feedback is Irresponsible and what to do instead

This is the fourth is a six part series on the beliefs that lie behind feedback and alternatives to understanding how management practices can be improved. Here are the first three premises.


Premise 1: Self-governing Behavior is Energy Effective

The foundational element in effective human systems is self-correcting, self-managing, self-accountable, self-governing behavior. Energy spent on monitoring and attempting to affect human behavior from the outside, by others, is wasted energy that could be better used to improve the system and its people. In human systems it is critical to continuously increase self-governing capability.

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).

Premise 3:  Developmental Plans Are the Basis for Self-Reflection and Self-Governance

To become self-correcting—individually or as parts of teams—we must operate from development plans that we create for ourselves based on hierarchies of value and influence. Following these plans, we discover ways to express our own uniqueness (first-line work); we learn about ourselves and the joys and problems of working with others (second-line work); we search continuously for opportunities to make contributions to something greater than ourselves (third-line work). We optimize internal balance and maintain the capability to govern ourselves by continuously self-reflecting in order to stay with our plans.

Premise 4: Effective Development Plans are Based on Uniqueness

Effective development plans are based on one’s own uniqueness and on the uniqueness—the essences—of the systems intended to be developed. They include processes for a new form of reflection, not feedback, which builds uniqueness.

Development plans are contracts with one’s self and between one’s self and the organizations and teams that specify the principles and arenas within which one works. Reflection should be based only on these contracts and should come in the form of questions that increase self-reflection and self-governance in service to the aims of the plan established by person for him or herself. These aims are designed to evolve the uniqueness and distinctiveness of co-creators as they discover the contributions they seek to make. Holistic, optimizing reflection comes almost exclusively from within oneself as the result of intrinsic reflections. Feedback from others tends to be maximizing and to invite runaway.

Development plans vastly reduce the probability of runaway and optimize the development of self-reflection and self-governance. When persons or systems work according to plans they, themselves, have designed, they interpret information they gather and convert it into optimizing understanding and utility. The plan offers a whole context within which information can be used as the basis for individual growth and the growth of ultimate beneficiaries (customers and other stakeholders).

Without development plans, information is more likely to be interpreted based on ego needs, which makes optimizing difficult. No part of a living system can truly manage its own behavior without reference to individual participants and beneficiaries, which ensure the vitality and viability of the whole.

Reflection for Others in the Form of Questions

The kind of questioning proposed here is the lost art of the Socratic tradition. This art is frowned upon in much of American culture because it assumes that in order to learn we must first acknowledge that we are ignorant, that we don’t have all the answers. This seems to run counter to developmental measures, which offer many ways to assess the quality and validity of answers. It contradicts the standard pedagogies and popular game shows that reward participants for memorizing answers. Questions are the sources of newness and regeneration and yet we spend 99 percent of our lives acquiring answers and the ability to get more answers. There are almost no processes for learning to develop generative questions ourselves or to assess the quality of others’.

A profound test of the value of questions in human development can be seen in a program developed at the University of Arizona for helping educators deal with “slow” learners. The program worked on developing higher order thinking skills (HOTS) based on use of the Socratic Method, guiding learning by posing questions rather than supplying answers. The focus was on developing children’s capabilities rather than stuffing them with knowledge.

Most of the children who participated in the HOTS program were considered to be remedial or at-risk learners. Their results were remarkable: 10 percent were reclassified as gifted at the end of the first year; 36 percent had earned and retained a position on their schools’ honor rolls. Of four students ranked as the top academic learners in one school, two were HOTS participants who had risen from the bottom of their classes. Participating students gained an average of 15 percent on standardized reading and math tests in one year, which raised them to 67 percent above the national average in reading and 123 percent above the national average in math. Teachers also noted significant improvement in every student’s self-concept. Students reported that they felt increasing confidence in their ability to succeed at levels significantly beyond those they originally felt capable of achieving. After one year a tough inner-city school no longer had any discipline problems with any of its students enrolled in the HOTS program.

Transfer this to a business setting and you can quickly see the power of working from a new assessment model based on open-ended questions designed to guide exploration and discovery. The HOTS statistics would translate to an increase in workforce capability 67-123 percent faster than the competition’s. Half of the major promotions into new, more challenging positions would be people considered unpromotable or “topped out.” Workers formerly considered discipline problems would become fascinated, committed, and self-disciplined contributors.

Thus businesses and teams would be far better served by training in question development or question posing than they are by solely focusing on the communication of established ideas and facts. Posing questions that stimulate both the asker and asked to come up with open-ended answers creates much different environments than questions to which we know the answers (the kinds of questions that parents and teachers routinely ask) or those we ask when we expect others to give us a known answer that we can pass on to others (questions that bosses and employees ask each other). The HOTS program is a powerful model from which businesses could learn a great deal, including primarily the value of questions over answers for the purpose of creating Learning Organizations or Developmental Organizations (Sanford 1993).


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