The Case Against Feedback

If you are a manager or someone who supports people at your work, part of your job is seeking ways to help people succeed and improve your organization. Enabling employees to appreciate their jobs and find their work meaningful may be one of your goals. You may believe feedback is a great tool for employee development. No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness At Work is written to show how feedback actually comes close to doing the exact opposite for most people. There is a far more effective and proven way to get the results you are looking for and it is easier than you might think. But don’t be surprised that you will argue with me from the first word. The following is an excerpt from No More Feedback.

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Why it is hard to question feedback in the workplace

First, we are culturally dependent.

That is, all of us live in a culture interwoven with what social psychologists call “implicit agreements.” To belong and be accepted by our communities, we agree to accept the dominant patterns governing our way of interpreting and making sense of events. These patterns seem right to us; we do not question them. So many people with power and influence tell us these agreements are true, that it is hard to go against the grain and question them. And if we did, we might well be ostracized by groups of people we depend on for our well-being (family, friends, teachers, colleagues, congregations, agencies), which would leave us feeling alone, unstable, unloved, and alienated.

Second, there is no process readily available to most of us for questioning the assumptions and agreements that have shaped us.

Most communities never question or invite individuals to question what they have been taught their whole lives. What everyone thinks and believes is so familiar (and the brain loves what is familiar) that it seems sacrilegious and cynical to question anything. “Better not!” our society seems to say.

Third, like bees seeking nectar, the human brain seeks and adheres to what is familiar.

This statement is related to the idea that all people hate change. For the most part, we have to be taught to value and take charge of discerning and enacting beneficial change. However, we are disadvantaged by the oldest part of the human brain, the function that evolved to issue alerts when we are unsafe, likely to be attacked by a tiger or some other enemy, which is always triggered by what is unfamiliar. At the least hint that something near us has been altered, the fight or flight response kicks in. I define this fear as “the inability to know how to relate to what has changed. “We refer casually to its mental consequences as a “meltdown.”

The trick to changing our behavior is to change what we mistakenly think we are seeing and thinking but this is difficult largely because human brains are extremely effective and tenacious in maintaining the status quo. The good news is that — balancing this rather primitive mechanism of resistance — our brain cells are continually forming new connections and restructuring our perceptions and physiology. This process of neuroplasticity happens thousands of times a day and gives us enormous potential to change, individually and collectively, if only we can find and learn to manage the sources of resistance. But we need help. Speaking of which…

Fourth, most of us do not have access to communities that can effectively support us as we learn to manage change.

We can do this work only with the help of people who accept and regularly initiate change and consider this to be a natural and happy part of life. These people — who I call thinking resources — are most often found in organizations and communities where change is considered normal and valued. Resources help us engage in rigorous questioning and reflection as part of developmental processes that are available to everyone.

Fifth, most of us also do not have access to the necessary technology for addressing these challenges.

In any creative field, people need technologies, vocabularies, frameworks, and ways of engaging in community to develop their highest levels of capability. This is as true of businesspeople as it is of screenwriters, plumbers, and attorneys. No one can succeed without a well-tested and validated technology and the capability to use it.

The developmental alternatives to feedback and other toxic practices are instruments in a larger technology of change. It provides ways of dealing with each of these five limitations, rather than seeking detours around them and causing potentially even worse problems.

But the first question is, “What are we seeking to achieve and what are we using to assess if we are on the right path?”

Three core human capacities

All people have far more potential than they achieve in their short lives. This is partly because we do not know how to properly support human growth and development. In fact, we do not know the foundational capacities that, if fully developed, would give people the extraordinary ability to grow themselves and contribute to the growth of everyone around them. Developing these capacities also would engender more courage and vision.

Because we do not work directly on the underlying capacities necessary to achieve worthwhile aims, we often unintentionally undermine their realization. This is what I mean by toxic practices. These ways of working are lethal to the foundational capacities that make us fully ourselves and provide springboards for great lives, allowing us to achieve our potential and make beneficial contributions to others.

The three core human capacities are locus of control, scope of considering, and source of agency. They are innate in all people but most of our societal roles offer few opportunities to develop them. This leaves many of us with only rudimentary or accidentally developed awareness of them and little readiness to call on them. It also limits the range of our life experiences and our ability to advance into ever more responsible roles in our families, organizations, and communities.

Locus of control speaks to the degree to which we experience and exercise control over our own lives, particularly on the direction of our self-development and our resilience to adversity.

The second leg of the triad, scope of considering, relates to what we take into account in our actions and endeavors, especially in relation to other people and living beings. We may be self-centered and inwardly focused, or we may consider the effects of our actions on other individuals and groups or entire living systems. The difference is between a self-centered focus on oneself alone and a systems-actualizing focus on evolving a larger whole — marriage, family, organization, community, industry, ecosystem, planet — in order to create beneficial changes.

Source of agency refers to where we find authority for our initiative or actions. We may rely almost exclusively on the authority of others to direct us or we may have within us the will to initiate action ourselves and follow through with self-directed efforts. The more we are able to direct ourselves, the better our capability is to connect to larger systems and help actualize them.

On a spectrum

The degree to which any of the three capacities has been developed in given individuals can be roughly located on a spectrum. Locus of control moves from external, seeing our lives as determined by others, to internal, taking accountability for what we exercise in terms of outcomes and level of direction. We are able to go back and forth between external and internal but we have usually settled into a tendency toward one or the other by the time we reach adulthood.

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Scope of considering is in a sense the opportunity to get perspective on the internal and external events of our lives. When we consider only ourselves (internal considering), every situation we encounter is all about us. The whole world revolves around us. On the other hand, if we are sensitive to others in our world and to other forms of life, we have developed a degree of external considering. As with locus of control, we can be on either end of the spectrum or anywhere between, and we may be more or less able to be where we want all of the time. None of us has constancy in the continuum but each of us has a tendency toward one end of the spectrum or the other.

Source of agency is likewise very fluid but tends to be directed by beliefs we hold about our roles in the world and who has power or influence over us. When we live according to an authoritarian worldview, we often wait for important others to activate, or direct, or stop us. But as we become driven internally and come to believe that the world is ours, we begin to move toward a life devoted to stepping up and making a difference. We develop personal agency, the courage to demand more of ourselves and respond to internal calls that connect us to powerful opportunities. Yet again, like locus of control and scope of considering, this source is not constant but moves on a continuum from self-centered to systems actualizing.

Without conscious development, these three core capacities may stay nascent our entire lives, diminishing us and limiting the contribution we can make. But if we are willing to develop them by ourselves or hand-in-hand with organizations or communities designed to work on such development, we may be astounded by how much we can grow and how fully ourselves we can become. The challenge is to avoid the practices and systems that steer us toward a smaller perspective and set of pursuits.

The dark underbelly of feedback

Feedback from others undermines and erodes these three human capacities. A core way is by hindering our ability to exercise self-reflection and therefore self-direction. This is true even of people who loudly proclaim the good feedback does them by providing information they never would have uncovered on their own. This kind of declaration is often motivated by a push from the brain to establish belonging. It is often heartfelt and sincere but not nearly as powerful as the thrill of self-discovery.

Defense of feedback is also sometimes motivated by attachment to something that is better than the really bad stuff. By “really bad stuff” I mean encounters with others who tell you exactly what they think of you, evaluating you based only on their privately held thoughts, which can seem terribly biased and strand you with no positive way forward.

No one wants this. Feedback has got to be better because it is conducted according to a process that requires at least some attempt at objectivity, by a group of peers or a supervisor with some stake in keeping you productive. But maybe not. As Nobel Laureate economist Herbert A. Simon says, “Attachment to the better is the enemy of the best.”

Bad, better, best

In another twist on the bad-better-best case, the prevailing idea that it is always better to get the real truth about yourself from someone else, someone with an objective eye, has limited people’s ability to independently develop their sense of self. People are discouraged before they even begin the destabilizing yet thoroughly rewarding effort of finding their truth for themselves.

Every one of us can learn to observe ourselves, reflect on what we see, and develop deep insights into our thinking, feelings, and behaviors. We can do a much better job of that than others can do for us. In doing so, we develop capabilities that serve us well in all of our endeavors and afford us a great sense of fulfillment and personal development.

Looking outward

In a business, developing the capability to be self-observing and self-reflective must be coupled with turning everyone’s minds outward to the effects they have on market forces, particularly on their customers and consumers. Those who are responsible for providing new levels of services and products must make direct contact with customers in order to understand their aspirations and what can help them achieve them. For this, it does no good to rely on customer feedback. Only direct contact can be the source of new ideas, and the energy and excitement to deliver them. It fosters strong interest and commitment to customers’ successes. And this is equally true for all other stakeholders, including co-creators, stockholders, communities, and ecosystems.

As it turns out, trying to think for other people weakens them by undermining the development of their own capability to be self-observing and self-directed. External input tends to shut down the growth and exercise of personal agency, respect and appreciation for the contributions of others, and belief in our responsibility for what goes on around us or happens to us. Feedback poses several specific problems, which we will examine separately and then in terms of their cumulative effects; it is the least likely way of positively changing other people’s attitudes and behaviors.

Feedback is widely practiced

Of course, feedback is widespread and often revered as a best practice. There are no universal criteria for best practices. Nevertheless, it is assumed as one and utilized directly by 90% of organizations under the mistaken belief that it will improve the performance of all workers, whether presented in the form of criticism or praise. This is simply not the case. The benefits of feedback are purely mythological.

Let’s pause a moment here to draw a distinction. It is not a question of whether feedback works. It does! The need to belong will drive changes in behavior whether they are in line with the organization or people’s best path or not, as shown. The real questions are: Does feedback encourage and make it possible for all people to develop the three core human capacities — locus of control, scope of considering, and source of agency — which drives our ableness to live fully in the world and take action? Do the changes offered by feedback shoot too low — even when they exceed the downright bad and the only fairly decent? And, can we see higher possibilities and make the necessary changes in our organizations to realize them? I know that we can because I have witnessed businesses and other organizations do it time and again.

For more on the history of feedback and case stories of companies who have replaced feedback with developmental approaches, please visit CarolSanford.com or read No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work.

Carol Sanford is an award-winning business educator, Summit Producer, podcaster, and author. Her books are required business school reading at Stanford and Harvard. For 40 years, Carol has collaborated with clients to develop people to realize their inherent capabilities. Carol’s clients include Fortune 500 companies like Colgate, DuPont, and Seventh Generation.  Google’s Innovation Lab uses her Responsible Business Framework. Learn more at CarolSanford.com and the Business Second Opinion podcast.

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