Giving feedback in organisations fit for humans

Bringing humanity back to work — [or why you may want to read this / whom this text speaks to / setting the context]

The authors of “Reinventing start-ups: a practical toolkit for founders and leaders” and “Reinventing scale-ups: radical ideas for growing companies”, Travis Marsh, Susan Basterfield and Brent Lowe, seem to me to have taken on the mission to midwife a new business and organisational paradigm that, in my view, seeks to restore to the working person their fullest humanity and to the concepts of work, employment, entrepreneurship, and business their most expansive and ambitious definitions, that of enabling human flourishing and of abolishing structural and cultural barriers to the expression of human potential. For me, this paradigm brings a truly revolutionary idea: that the last untapped but most transformative, generative, sustainable and powerful energy source is that released by equalising and maximising human freedom in organisational design, practice, life.

The currently dominant paradigms are fundamentally non-human centric: Kafkaesque bureaucracy; World War I militaristic line management of expendable and replaceable ‘cannon fodder’ soldiers/employees; Fordian assembly line and robotic automation with humans as expensive flesh-and-blood appendages to the machines; post-industrial service sectors with McDonaldised human interaction and minimal non-contracts of employment. Human labour is, in all these cases, more or less, a uniform, homogeneous input; a production resource that is bounded, knowable, controllable, predictable, malleable and manageable; an homogeneous, endogenous variable subject to engineering and managerial design, configuration, monitoring, control and combination with non-human material resources in the service of organisational purposes.

The way I see it, if the new paradigm of work and organisations is about anything, it is about putting the person in the centre of organisational design and purpose, and revalourising labour as a full expression of the condition of being a human in the world. Doing so points to the ways that current configurations of work are a source of human suffering, physical and psychological, and to the ways that alternative configurations can be a source of individual and collective flourishing. The new paradigm takes on two fundamental pillars of anti-humanism in work: rationalised control/power of one person over another (coercion), and, rationalised inequality in decision-making (silencing).

Organisations fit for humans and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) — [or NVC as as necessary knowledge in midwifing the new business paradigm]

In “Reinventing start-ups and scale-ups”, the handbooks/toolkits of how the new paradigm may be enacted, Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication is presented briefly as one of the frameworks that may help with ritualising / systematising feedback in organisations, alongside ‘retrospectives’ from Agile, ‘radical candour’ from Google, and ‘feedforward’. My text is addressed to people who may be fascinated by the ideas and practices in these books and who might want to explore in a bit more length the specifics of NVC and of giving feedback in a human, non-coercive, non-silencing, compassionate, nonviolent way within their organisation or collectivity.

The affinity between NVC and the new organisational paradigm, variously described as ‘teal’, ‘self-managing/organising teams’, the ‘future of work’, has been noted by others as well. In the UK, GrantTree’s Open Culture incorporates non-violence, although it appears to me to be more loosely based on NVC. Also, Wellbeing Teams which are self-managing social care teams set up by Helen Sanderson Associates and their collaborators include NVC in their employee value-based induction process. Wellbeing Teams feature as one of the case studies on recruitment in “Reinventing scale-ups”.

NVC occasionally ripples through mainstream business and culture. Examples of this are below. NVC has more of a firm foothold in educational and corrective fields, in my impression.

Business: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recommended Non-Violent Communication to his executives.

Culture: Teen Vogue magazine recommended to its readers lessons from NVC in teenage friendships.

Caveat: I am a new student of NVC and the text will unavoidably reflect the stage of the journey I am on. My text is informed by: the two main books collecting the writing of M. Rosenberg; Lucy Leu’s companion workbook to Rosenberg’s the Language of Life; video and audio recordings of NVC workshops and courses delivered by M. Rosenberg; conversations with and webinars by members of Sociocracy For All, an organisation that combines and promotes both nonviolent communication and sociocracy; and, finally, participation in online NVC practice groups led by Jerry Koch-Gonzalez of New England NVC and Sociocracy For All. All resources I made use of are listed at the end of this text (or I provide links for them throughout the text).

Giving feedback the NVC way

You can learn the detailed ‘mechanics’ of NVC through numerous resources available for free (I recommend the NVC resources made available by Sociocracy For All here), so in this text I will focus on what to me are the most distinctive aspects of NVC relative to how I have experienced feedback in past and current employment.

1. NVC repurposes feedback: it is not about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or doing things ‘rightly or wrongly’ and it is not about another person’s development, improvement, change, education, upskilling etc.

In NVC, communication is not about who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, intellectually or morally. Accordingly, feedback is not about holding a person’s performance or behaviour up to an extrinsic standard and asking and/or helping them achieve it. Further, feedback is not about bringing an employee in line with policies, protocols and management demands. NVC is not about influencing, persuading, controlling or manipulating others. You won’t get what you want from others with NVC unless what you want is to invite others to jointly make each other’s lives better than what they are.

NVC posits that the way to make life more wonderful is through mutual enrichment of each other’s lives as equals. Feedback in NVC can only be used to enable people to connect and to naturally, freely and compassionately give to one another. Accordingly, feedback is an opportunity for the feedback-giver to empathically connect with the person they intend to give feedback to, and, secondly, to make clear and specific requests about how the feedback-giver’s needs — not the receiver’s!!! — can be met so that his/her life is enriched and made more wonderful.

NVC posits that people respond with compassionate natural giving to the honestly communicated needs of others. In NVC, we do not want the other person to act out of feelings of guilt, shame, duty, obligation, out of fear of punishment or out of the expectation of reward or praise. We want the other person to give to us joyfully for the sheer happiness and pleasure of making a difference to another person’s life. Equally, we do not want the other person to compromise their own well-being and the fulfilment of their life and their needs in response to our requests.

So, giving feedback to others is an opportunity for you to make honest requests to them about how they can help make life more wonderful for you. Feedback is not about you thinking that you can direct the development or improvement of another person in either an authoritarian or paternalistic manner.

In any case, NVC suggests that you cannot really impose your will on people, even if you wanted to. There is an internal sphere of freedom within humans that is impregnable. You can control people’s environment and force them (e.g. threaten them with punishment e.g. dismissal, withholding wages, disciplinary action) or bribe them (e.g. offer pay rises, bonuses, promotions, a bigger office) into specific actions but you are very likely to pay for doing so later in the future e.g. by the employee choosing to leave for another employer, by demotivating the person, by the person viewing you as an enemy and exercising negative power, by missing out on ‘goodwill’. If you offer feedback in order to reinforce desirable or to attenuate undesirable behaviours, then NVC will not serve your purposes. Finally, requests to others are not hidden demands. They are genuine invitations, and as such the other person, the receiver of feedback, does not need to accept them.

2. NVC does not use labels, positive or negative.

NVC considers ‘static language’ and notions of retributive justice as the foundations of violence. Static language includes all those descriptors that reduce a person to a single attribute, positive or negative, e.g. “he is a cleaner”, “she is a racist”, “he is a communist”, “she is intelligent”, “she is compassionate”. “he is a software engineer”. NVC considers that labels can be burdens on people — (but does not deny the sociological reality of oppression and discrimination e.g. in sexism and racism) — e.g. a person labelled as intelligent and referred to as such, e.g. by a lecturer, may feel that she has no permission to fail as part of her learning. In general, NVC considers that defining, characterising or categorising other people in any way is not conducive to human connection. Accordingly, NVC advises against diagnosing other people, analysing them, evaluating, blaming, criticising, judging, finding deficiencies, inabilities, attributing actions to personality traits or personal histories. Communication that blocks human connection is referred to as ‘life-alienating’. The implication for feedback, positive or constructive/developmental, is that labels will not do the work of fostering genuine collaboration.

3. How to do feedback

3a. Try to observe without judgement. (Warning: virtually impossible)

This is virtually impossible particularly at first and maybe forever. The only realistic possibility at first is to create a delay between automatic perceiving and the initiation of the perception-feeling-reaction chain. You can do this by observing and not speaking or acting immediately or instinctively or in a habitual manner. If you can find the time, make the space at a later time to reflect on what you observed and felt and thought.

NVC requires that feedback to others is based on observations specific to time and context delivered without evaluation, judgement or diagnosis. Saying to another person:

“You are selfish. In team meetings, you dominate with your issues and your opinions.”

is an evaluation, and even more, an accusation which finds wrongness and blame in the other person. However,

“You talk too much in team meetings.”

is also an evaluation, in this case judging the time a person takes to speak as excessive and inappropriate.

An observation would be:

“in the last two meetings, I noticed that you held the floor for more time than anybody else.”

Saying:

“You seldom offer to help your colleagues.”

would also be an evaluation. An observation would be:

“The last four times Andy or I have asked for your help, you told us that you did not have the capacity to take on more work.”

3b. Connect your observations to your feelings. Connect your feelings to your needs. Then, request something clear and specific that will meet your needs and enrich your life, if the other person freely agrees to it.

Once an observation is made, the person giving feedback goes on to communicate the feelings she experienced on that occasion. It is very important to stress that the person giving feedback does not hold the other person responsible for her feelings. She is not saying that the other person’s behaviour caused her feelings. Instead, feelings are linked to the fulfilled (generating positive emotions) or unfulfilled (generating negative emotions) needs of the person talking.

So, in the previous examples, the person might have said:

“In the last two meetings, you held the floor for more time than anyone else. At the time, I felt anxious as I need to know that everyone gets the same opportunities to speak as everyone else / I felt impatient because I needed to know that there will be time to listen to everyone / I felt worried because I needed to know that we would have time to discuss all the items on the agenda in the allotted time.”

NVC requires a developed feelings and needs literacy on the part of the person speaking. They need to be able to identify what they feel and how that connects to their needs. Moreover, they need to be able to admit these feelings to themselves and to express their feelings and needs honestly and without shame. This level of internal awareness is not cultivated or promoted in many societies or social institutions within societies. In families, schools and workplaces people are educated and expected to conform to the standards and expectations set by authority and outside experts. Conformity, compliance and obedience are much more valued in these environments than a feelings and needs literacy.

The consequences of this are particularly accentuated for groups of people experiencing structural social disadvantage and oppression e.g. in the case of women when they are told that their needs do not matter as much as those of the people that the social role reserved for them in the social institution of the family demands that they care for: children, husband, parents. Or in the case of minority ethnic groups, when they are told that their needs for individual and collective recognition, representation, justice, equality, inclusion, power are not real and valid. Educational institutions rarely touch on the topics of self-compassion, self-empathy, the need to sometimes make peace with your internal censor and to patiently and carefully explore the ‘inner world’.

In the NVC discourse, needs can be taken to mean a set of universal, basic human needs such as sustenance (nutritious food, clean air and water, shelter), community, purpose/meaning, autonomy, rest and recreation, empathy/ understanding or Abraham Maslow’s set of needs, or they can mean those things that enrich a person’s life and contribute to their well-being, such as collectively established rules or important values to a person such as social justice.

4. You know you are giving feedback in a nonviolent way, when the other person says no to your requests.

Because feedback is not a top-down command, a peremptory order, the person giving feedback is prepared to listen to the other person’s response. After we have communicated our requests honestly, we are prepared to receive empathically.

How to hear a ‘No’?

NVC advises us to empathize with the other person, to give them our presence and understanding, to actively listen while holding them in positive regard the whole time even if we cognitively disagree with what they are saying. We are asked to hold back all the automatic thoughts and feelings that flood our mental space until we have given some understanding to the other person. We are asked to take the time to be absorbed in other people’s words and worlds, to support their self-expression. NVC advises not to focus on the intellectual side of the other person but the emotional side. This is difficult because in order to be able to give empathy, you must have received empathy so that you know what it feels like. Listeners are invited to sense the needs of others and to treat whether what they are sensing is accurate by checking with the other person. In this way the other person is supported in clarifying their needs. People are quick to hear criticism so it is important to check that they heard our needs without any criticism, analysis, diagnosis or interpretation in them.

NVC asks us to be very careful when an employee whom we formally line-manage accedes to what we ask them to do or to change or to think. If they agree without genuinely wanting to cooperate with us, we will both pay in the end in various ways. This is not to say that genuine cooperation is cost-free. At the end of the day, we may agree to cooperate on something that is detrimental to both. However, the relationship built on genuine cooperation will carry less costs for all those involved. In many ways, it is easier to deal with somebody who objects to our feedback and refuses to take on our suggestions. NVC asks us to view refusals as expressions of needs that are not addressed by what we are suggesting.

5. Before giving feedback, NVC asks that you check what the other person is prepared to receive it.

Feedback is not your right as a line manager to dispense of. NVC asks that we check with the other person whether they are ready to have a feedback session. Having a feedback session is a request extended to the other person and not a demand.

NVC is, in my view, radically egalitarian. People are equal in NVC and this includes the categories and characterisations of people you may find abhorrent and disgusting such as military and state officials convicted of war crimes and people convicted for extreme violence against others. Or to transfer it in a work context, all people are fundamentally equal in a workplace including those whose work is substandard or causes delays or expensive mistakes, or people whose behaviour is uncooperative, disruptive, offensive. NVC does not advocate that crimes or harmful or offensive or damaging behaviour are to be tolerated. It simply emphasises that the humanity of the perpetrators is unreduced even after the commission of harmful or acts. Once their harmful actions are stopped by the protective use of force, perpetrators must be treated in ways appropriate to their full humanity.

Why invest time in NVC?

Three reasons:

1 — NVC will challenge you to consider the really big questions, like: “why are you here in this world?”; “what did you learn in life so far?”.

2 — NVC will challenge you to consider your relationship with your own self and your relationships with others: “what is your inner talk about yourself?”; “what are your habitual ways of thinking about and of talking to others?”

3 — People involved in social change whether in civil society, in business or in public services, people who aim to challenge existing realities and propose their own visions imagining, embodying and enacting new configurations and orderings of humans and things; people who bring new vocabularies, concepts, relationships and practices are more likely to encounter anything within a spectrum of negative reactions: indifference, resistance, judgement, criticism, conflict, attack, ridicule, insult, belittlement, condescension. NVC is of use, as agents of social change, we are interested in remaining compassionate and humane towards ourselves and towards others in the face of such challenges and threats to our identity, status, values and beliefs, and in particular towards those who present us with these challenges and threats.

Resources

Lucy Leu. Nonviolent Communication Companion Workbook. 2nd Ed. A Practical Guide for Individual, Group or Classroom Study

Marshall Rosenberg. 2005. Nonviolent Communication: a language of life (2nd ed.). PuddleDancer Press.

Marshall Rosenberg. 2012. Living Nonviolent Communication: practical tools to connect and communicate skilfully in every situation. Sounds True.

Marshall Rosenberg. Nonviolent Communication Training Course. [Online] Available at: https://youtu.be/O4tUVqsjQ2I (Accessed 27 December 2017).