Misunderstanding feedback

‘Giving feedback’ has become so much a part of what is considered good management that we rarely ask ourselves whether it’s effective or question the premise upon which it’s based. I think it’s time we did.

The very idea of ‘feedback’ as a central management practice is drawn from cybernetics. The simplest kind of single-loop cybernetic system is a home thermostat. The thermostat responds to feedback from the room (by measuring the ambient temperature) and turns on heating when required so to warm the air to a comfortable level. When the target is reached, the thermostat turns the heating off. It’s a ‘single-loop’ system because the thermostat can only respond to temperature.

In a double-loop feedback system it’s possible to adjust what’s measured in order to better address the situation. If you’re bringing about the conditions in your room to make it suitable for a dinner party you may need to pay attention to temperature, lighting, the arrangement of furniture, the colour of the table cloth, the number of place settings, the mood and culinary taste of your guests, and the quality of conversation. Single-loop systems such as thermostats can’t do this. But double-loop cybernetic systems allow us in principle to ask ‘what is it that’s important to measure?’. And, of course, human beings are far more suited to this kind of flexibility than thermostats are.

It’s from this way of looking that we get the contemporary idea that feedback – solicited or not – is what’s most helpful or appropriate for someone to learn to do the right thing. But it is based on something of a questionable premise. Thermostats, even very clever ones, and other cybernetic systems don’t have emotions, or cares, or worries. They do not love, or feel fulfilled or frustrated. They do not have available to them multiple ways to interpret what is said. They do not hurt, and they do not feel shame. They do not misunderstand or see things in a different way. They don’t have an internalised inner critic, nor do they have bodies that are conditioned over years by practice to respond and react in particular ways. They are not in relationship. They do not have to trust in order to be able to do what they do. And they do not have a world of commitments, intentions, relationships, hopes and goals into which the latest temperature data lands.

People have all of these.

When we simply assume that spoken or written feedback, even if carefully given, will correct someone’s actions or help them to learn, we assume they are more like a cybernetic system than they are like a person. Sometimes it can certainly be helpful – when the feedback is in a domain that both giver and receiver care about, given in language that makes sense, and when it meets the hopes and aspirations of the receiver with sensitivity and generosity. But many times we find that the very act of giving feedback wounds or confuses or deflates or misunderstands or treats the other person as if they don’t know what they’re doing. We find that the world of the giver is nothing like the world of the receiver. We find that our best effort to construct feedback according to the ‘rules’ mystifyingly doesn’t bring about what we’re intending. And then we get frustrated or disappointed, and try to give the feedback another way, imagining that if we can come up with a clever technique or way of saying it then our feedback will work.

Perhaps a place to start would be to stop thinking about people as if they were glorified thermostats. In order to do this we’d have to soften our ideas of truth in feedback – specifically the idea that the one who knows the truth gives feedback to the one who must be corrected. Secondly, we could start to think how many ways there are to learn how to do something well than being told how someone else sees it. And third, we could wonder how we can share the riches we do see in a way that gives dignity and maintains connection between both parties – starting by knowing when it’s time to request, demonstrate, reflect, inquire together, make new distinctions in language, show someone how to make good observations for themselves, or simply stay out of the way.

Photo Credit: Nick in exsilio via Compfight cc

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