Why Feedback Is Irresponsible and What To Do Instead: Part One

Photo by Moja Msanii on Unsplash

Providing feedback to peers, subordinates, and even superiors — particularly the 360 Degree view of performance appraisal — became popular as scientists and engineers began to understand how cybernetic systems work in computer applications. The creators of these artificial intelligence systems discovered that feedback loops are critical for correcting and adjusting the performance of control mechanisms, such as thermostats and pressure gauges. Why not use them to improve the performance of people and organizations?

Over the next few weeks I will post a six-part series on the irresponsibility of feedback processes and the six premises on which feedback concepts are based and the fallacies in feedback as a practice.

Metaphorical Mix-up

The metaphor inherent in the idea of feedback was suggestive of work processes that were characteristic of the new participative business cultures. To many business leaders it seemed logical that people could benefit from feedback. However, a misconception occurred in the transfer of the idea from one system to the other. This was the result of insufficient understanding of cybernetic (machine) principles and incorrect assumptions about likenesses between the systems under consideration — mechanical and human.

The fundamental differences between the two systems should be clear. One is that mechanical systems are closed, human systems are open. A closed system imports energy from its environment in a one-way dependency. An open system exchanges energy with the environment in ways that create symbiotic relationships. Machines are not interactive. They stop working when they aren’t given fuel; a car needs gasoline, a furnace requires oil, a lamp needs electricity. Human beings, on the other hand, work in reciprocal maintenance relationships that can be appropriately balanced. These relationships connect systems to one another in living processes that, intentionally or not, affect the survival of each. Married couples, customers and suppliers, citizens and governments, for example, are alive, interdependent, and dynamically interrelated.

The misconception that arose when feedback loops were applied to human systems involved the different ways humans and machines gain and use feedback. Sometimes a mechanism called a “governor” is installed into machinery to make adaptation possible. The governor “senses” the mechanical system’s excursion outside of pre-specified boundaries. For instance, a thermostat senses when heat production exceeds a preset temperature. A governor uses feedback — information about deviation from preset standards — to change the operation of the machinery, bringing it back into conformance.

In the case of human systems and voluntary human behaviors, there are no requirements for information from external governors. Individuals have the capacity to observe for themselves that particular behaviors have gone out of bounds. What values they place on these behaviors and what creative responses they require from themselves are a matter of development. Human responses are far more complex than mechanical adjustments. There are no specifiable good or bad designs in the working of people and organizations.

Also, humans do not have the same clear boundaries with their environments that machines do. In any given instance it isn’t evident who is controlling and affecting what. Further, human thinking and emotion include living entities that must be taken into account. Humans engage in interpreting their environments, sensing the state of other living systems, and observing themselves as they reflect and take action. These processes provide a different capacity for self-management than is available to machinery and other closed systems.

Because these differences between human and mechanical systems are not taken into account, there are many fundamental flaws in the logic that introduces feedback into organizations moving toward increasingly participative workforces and more self-managing teamwork. Here I’ll explore some of the premises behind self-accountability within organizations and the ways feedback can hinder its development. Theories from cybernetic and living systems science will provide some valuable insights by contrast and comparison.

Working With Human Nature Instead of Against It

The creation of organization designs sufficient to the rapidly changing world of industry requires creating a new set of operating processes based on paradigms or premises true to human nature. These new processes must be different from even the current popular models offered by advanced work design. Noted general semanticist Alfred Korzybski has said, “No system [design] which disregards or violates ‘human nature’ can possibly survive.”

The paradigms offered here are based on an understanding of human nature that is primarily developmental in philosophy and drawn from living systems and the sciences of complexity. The story of human behavior from a developmental perspective — one that operates from the potential of people versus the managing of variances and disorder in human behavior — offers a set of interrelated premises that herald new approaches to organization.

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.

In Western culture we have systematically instilled ways of working that erode self-accountability. First our parents, then our teachers, and then our employers/bosses tell us what to do, how we are doing in our performance, what our grade or rank is, or to what degree our behavior is correct. This is feedback from external controllers. Because it is so embedded in our way of operating, it is hard for us to see how pervasive it is and that it works against the creation of self-governing, self-accountable human beings.

Even in machine systems theory, a machine’s governor or self-correcting mechanism is built in, not operating independently from the outside. From inside the system, it identifies differences or changes that exist throughout and signals that the whole system is not operating optimally. In an internally managed, self-correcting manner, this causes changes that return the system to an ideal or optimum state based on defined parameters. Thus feedback from external controllers — parents, teachers, bosses — is not an accurate extrapolation from the cybernetics theory of mechanical feedback loops.

Most organizations assume that humans cannot be self-governing or self-auditing because they cannot be objective about themselves. Even with complex mental functioning and the ability to make choices, humans are assumed to be less able to self-regulate than complex machinery. This is not innately true of us but it often becomes true. Unless developed from childhood, the capacity to be self-reflecting (self-observing and self-remembering) steadily diminishes. This is particularly true when a person’s primary source of reflection is external (from others’ interpretations of our actions) and when feedback focuses on elements that tend to pull us away from what feels intrinsically self-integrating.

A familiar example provides a good understanding of this. Often when a person we respect advises us not to take a particular course of action, our internal sense disagrees. When we take the advice instead of listening to ourselves — however the situation turns out — we lose a sense of integrity with our own course of development. We humans have a strong desire to feel integrity between our values and our behavior, even when it means “learning the hard way.” When we repeatedly act against our own judgment or intuition, following the advice of others, we lose our inner sense of reality. We become indecisive and unsure of ourselves. In extreme cases we may even become mentally ill.

By viewing humans developmentally — as though each one of us is working to unveil our own potential and contribution — it is possible to understand how we use self-reflection to increase self-regulating behavior. Reflecting on the thoughts and emotions that are the impetus for particular behaviors provides us with internally developed feedback. It alerts us to the degree of adherence we are maintaining to our inner selves as we attempt to achieve particular aims. This nature of reflection tells us what behaviors are optimizing and integrating for us.

We sometimes forget that what we think needs changing in another person may not be critical from their perspective. What works for one person does not necessarily work for another. This is a core life exercise in the development of self-accountability — discovering what works for us, what demands higher discipline, what benefits from flexibility, and what will be helpful from others.

The primary sources for alternative management have come from business schools, the consultants who serve industry (many from universities), and the published works of professors and consultants. The majority of this work is based on an underlying philosophy that came to business by way of behavioral psychology. This behavioral approach to business is uniquely American and had its birth and nurturing beginning in the first third of this century. It is also the basis of most of our child rearing theory.

Behaviorism promises to supply both the fundamental laws governing all human activity and the fundamental science of human affairs by which to ensure the control of people (Danziger 1979). Thus in the U.S. behaviorism has become the primary — in fact the only — school or philosophy of human psychological research. While other nations are learning to take a broader perspective on human nature, business here has been spoon fed the singular philosophy of behavior modification, which is now becoming embedded in the new generation of work-team design. The behaviorist model, which works on understanding how to correct behavior that is considered disorderly, offers techniques that tend to work against the core capability of self-accountability.

Originally published at carolsanford.com on July 13, 2011.