How Feedback Kills Motivation

Note: Part 2 of my previous blog is coming but I wanted to get myself on a 2 week cadence for publishing. Turns out writing is harder than I remembered! Hold tight!

The word feedback gets used everywhere in our personal the professional lives. To be sure at some point you have either uttered or heard the phrase “can I give you some feedback?” right before one of you criticizes some aspect of another’s behavior. In our organizations its used under the auspices of helping people along the road of being more self aware workers. The word feedback is defined as the “information about reactions to a product, person’s performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.” (Google, 2017) The nature of feedback in this use case means its intended as an external regulator for an internal process — intended to change the direction or pattern of a behavior.

What we often mitigate are the consequences of feedback. Feedback, put plainly, most often illicits a reaction. We as individuals are told to ignore this reaction and to manage it within ourselves. This implies that really the fault is our own and the observations being offered are done so without judgement. “I am simply offering you my perspective. You can take it or leave it.” But what about the individual giving the feedback? At what point did they take responsibility for their reactivity initiating the feedback process?

But here’s the real kicker: the act of normalizing external reward and consequence structures inherently decreases the value of intrinsic motivation. Why should I self-motivate if really what our organization values is you telling me what to do? So if what we want is our people to motivate themselves and correct their own behavior, how do they do that? And where did feedback come from anyways? Over this and a following blog I will explore both these questions.

Feedback as a word entered into the English lexicon around the early 1900s by way of economics and engineering. It was used to describe process (and resulting noise) that would come from re-circulating an output signal back into an input. We experience this most frequently when a person with a microphone is standing too close to a speaker. Through cybernetics theory it has come to describe the necessary external regulation of a process that would otherwise run out of control.

Many of our organizations were built on and still function in an industrial age machine paradigm. I’m sure if you’ve noticed the preponderance of writers and thinkers using analogies and metaphors that describe the human mind like a computer. It wasn’t long ago that “experts” of a similar ilk were drawing parallels between humans and engines (many in the sports industry still do). Where these analogies and metaphors break down is a difference in 2 different kinds of systems: machines are closed systems, humans are open systems. As Carol Sanford, a business educator, author, and speaker wrote,

“A closed system can not continue to function without importing energy from its environment. An open system works in a energy exchange with its environment in a way that creates a symbiotic relationship.” (Berrett-Kohler)

Sanford goes on to explain that machines need some form of energy to continue to function. Humans however, exist in a “reciprocal maintenance” relationship with the systems and beings around them — dynamic and interrelated on many levels. The analogy of an engine, therefore, reduces the complexity of human interactions to a single premise– without an external governing mechanism humans will run out of control.

As Sanford says in her new book, The Regenerative Business,

“Although feedback can be remarkably useful in mechanical systems, it turns out to be a very poor metaphor when applied to human beings. Giving people information that shuts them down is actually a bad idea.” (Sanford, 2017)

While engines need external regulation, humans instead need to refine and hone internal regulation — through reflection. In the next post I will explore more about how you might do that for yourself.

If you are interested in learning more about how I know this and this kind of thinking come join us at the Regenerative Business Summit September 25th–27th.