Part 5: Why Feedback is Irresponsible and what to do instead

This is the fifth 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 four premises and number five with its details.


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.

Premise 5: Projection is a Limiter in Feedback Processes

It is imperative to develop processes to overcome the universal tendency to project one’s own thinking onto others by developing in ourselves high levels of the capability for self-reflection, including consciousness in the moment of inner thoughts and emotions.

Most feedback from outside a system creates runaway by maximizing a part or an element at the expense of the whole. In addition, people tend to make judgments and speak based on projections of their own dysfunctional elements rather than reality outside themselves. When groups or individuals provide feedback for other groups or individuals, they tend to collude unknowingly in group projections.

Aesop told a tale about projection in which he described two burdens or two bags that each one of us carries, one on our back and one in front of us. The bag on our back is full of our limitations and defects, what we can’t see. The one in front is all the defects of other people, which are very visible. We can always see the bag in front, others’ shortfalls and failings, but we can’t be certain which bag we’ve got facing which way. Sometimes we switch the bag full of our own limitations to the front and mistake it for the failings of others.

Cognitive psychology understands this practice well and has named it projection. Frequently psychologists seek to understand their clients based on what they describe as the faults they see in others or the changes they think others should make. Many—most!—of our judgments about other people tend to be projections that reveal or own limits and defects—and even our strengths.

Without development, our capability for self-reflection tends to be severely limited, and unfortunately it is difficult to see this in ourselves and to know when we are projecting. Without the ability to know our thoughts and emotions in the moment, to monitor our reactions to others and process out our projections, our feedback to others can damage teams and hinder cross-functional processes. At the very least it can limit our capability to realize our potential and the potential of our organizations.

How is it that good people who would never intentionally deceive themselves find it so difficult to distinguish their projections from reality? Physicist and Nobel laureate David Bohm has provided an explanation for this. Based on his research, he suggests that we need to learn to differentiate between thinking and thought. Thought is made up of ideas that we hold in memory from often repeated or highly emotional experiences. Our thoughts are powerful presences in our minds and mental processing; often they shut out ideas that might help us develop alternative views of current situations. Bohm describes thoughts as highly active participants in the interpretation of events but ones that provide us only with old, preset interpretations. They cannot tell us how things are now, only what was true once upon a time, in historical situations, but not the same as what is happening now. When thoughts have the upper hand, we don’t think. Instead we are thought by our own history.

Bohm also points out that we rarely feel. Rather, we have felts that are part of our recorded history in the same way that thoughts are. Thoughts and felts are stored in our neural networks and they are retriggered whenever anything remotely similar to past experience appears to our minds. Instead of assisting our understanding, they cloud our sensations and perceptions, and limit our ability to respond creatively to what is new and exciting.

This is depressing news, but it’s not the last word on human potential. Moving from thoughts and felts to thinking and feeling is fundamental to developing self-accountability and to understanding the nature of feedback in the form of questions as a source of change.

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