THE ART OF FEEDBACK
© ThoughtFormz 2005
if you are not failing at something
you are not learning anything new
When most of us were at school failure was seen as something that was negative, should be avoided and often worth punishment. And yet most learning theorists agree that it is only through failure that we really learn – as opposed to just memorising. Failure is useful when it helps us critically appraise our own performance. This is evaluation is an example of feedback. A simple way to think of feedback is experiencing the output of your own performance as a new input.
The concept of feedback was developed by Norbert Wiener, who used the analogy of someone steering a boat: “When the boat deviates from the present course, say to the right, the steersman assesses the deviation and then countersteers by moving the rudder to the left. This decreases the boat's deviation, perhaps even to the point of moving through the correct position and then deviating to the left. At some time during this movement the steersman makes a new assessment of the boat's deviation, countersteers accordingly, assesses the deviation again, and so on. Thus he relies on continual feedback to keep the boat on course, its actual trajectory oscillating around the present direction. The skill of steering a boat consists in keeping these oscillations as smooth as possible.” (Capra 1996:57)
Students of psychology and education are becoming increasingly aware of the vital role that feedback plays in how we learn. All complex systems (like your body, your organisation, your family, your community) change their behaviour or learn through feedback - even if this means weaving in and out of the best path (like Wiener’s boat example) rather than sticking to the best path in any strict way.
Even if you cannot predict the outcome, turning up the volume of feedback will always produce more sustainable results. As long as all the bits are talking to each other, something better will emerge. Feedback can be seen as a flow of information, in the in-between spaces, that constantly invites new responses from all the parts, improving the quality of all relationships within the system and allowing a system to learn how to do more for less effort. Sometimes something completely new and unexpected can arise out of the in-between spaces and take the whole system to another level.
Feedback allows you to make those corrections to your own behaviour that are necessary to lift your performance to another level. But how, and from where, can we get effective, reliable and performance enhancing feedback in the systems in which we live and the organisations in which we work?
Many people respond quite negatively to feedback, irrespective of how well intentioned it might be. Many people resist useful feedback because they fear failure and rejection. They therefore experience critical feedback as a personal attack. People who live in short timeframes experience critical feedback as something that defines them as a failure. By contrast, people who live in long timeframes experience critical feedback as data on how to succeed and grow on their own learning path.
THose who resist feedback are unlikely to change their behaviour when they receive it. This has important implications for the way your organisation deals with performance appraisals and the way it helps members design career paths. Opportunities for feedback are often misappropriated to make people feel worthless and incompetent. For feedback to be effective, organisations have to link feedback and learning and commit to both as core values in their corporate cultures.
One solution is to engage feedback as an ongoing conversation in your organisation, rather than a formal summary of someone’s performance, at a single and arbitrary point in time, with an abstract mark attached to it.
People often fear their appraisals or assessments, whereas they could be looking forward to an opportunity to learn and to grow both themselves and the organisation. This is what Weiner called “reciprocal modification” – the change in me is a change in you. This ongoing “conversation” is what is often referred to as continuous assessment as opposed to summative assessment.
Effective feedback also has implications for top performers. In the old days people who were getting 80% were “better” than everyone else and did not have to try as hard. In the philosophy of Outcomes-Based Education, people should not be measured against each other. Individuals should be measured against their own potential and expectations. If they are getting high marks it does not mean they can rest in the knowledge of their superiority. It means it is time to find a new growing edge, a new challenge on their learning path. If you are not failing at something you are not learning anything new.
Members of your organisation need to be coached in the mechanisms and dynamics of effective feedback and how it relates to their own learning path. They need to begin to see feedback as an opportunity to improve and grow rather than as a personal attack or a defining statement of their identity. It should also help people to experience their lives in long timeframes in which criticism doesn’t define them but is experienced as useful information on a long and fruitful learning path. It should also encourage them to experiment with behavioural changes in a way that is slightly demanding, but is relatively safe, enjoyable, creative and rewarding.
Creative ways of providing feedback to people that allows them to critically reflect upon themselves in a light-hearted fashion are vitally important in modern organisations. Some of these ways include:
- Video – Everyone loves a movie, especially if they are the stars. Seeing yourself perform is a very powerful form of feedback. Using video cameras to record meetings and other forms of interaction can help generate this powerful feedback mechanism. Actors and sportsmen routinely view videos of themselves in action to improve their performance. Organisations could use the same approach. Video is probably the only way that we can see ourselves in the way the world (possibly) sees us. A short exposure to this technique leads people into dramatic and productive changes in their behaviour and the way in which they see themselves. A useful idea is to film people talking to their own future selves, expressing their expectations and commitments for the next months and years. They then view the footage months or years later and create a new message for the months to follow.
- Opportunities to express feelings and thoughts through metaphor – The beauty of metaphor is that it is open to interpretation. Using metaphor as a way of expressing feedback is more dynamic than an abstract mark and gives people the feeling of being in control and being able to respond. One way to use metaphors to express and respond to feedback is to facilitate people in a conversation that uses art. An interesting example is engaging in clay modelling or creating collages as individuals or as a team. Individuals express their feelings, their expectations and how they perceive their roles in these representational models. These models are then allowed to interact with each other creating arrangements that represent relationships in the work space. The group can then negotiate how these interactions change the models. These changes can then be translated back into your organisations dynamics and individual experience. This exercise has the power to create fundamental shifts because the metaphorical nature of the exercise has helped people change the experience of their roles and relationships.
- Role play and acting lessons – There are theories of organisational behaviour that suggest that the way we learn roles in an organisation are no different from the way actors learn roles for a film or a play. Some people may find the notion of pretending a little insincere, but we tend to pretend something long before we become it. Participating in role play and even in formal acting classes is an opportunity to pretend in a relatively safe environment – an opportunity to rehearse reality! Acting in this way can provide an unusual feedback opportunity as people are made aware of how they ‘come across’ based on their body language, voice quality, inflection and other factors.
“Human beings are by nature actors, who cannot become something until they have pretended to be it. They are therefore to be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane, who know they are acting, and the mad who don't.”
- attributed to W.H.Auden
How are you providing feedback?
Is it working?
How do you respond to feedback?
Are you growing?
What are the current mechanisms of feedback in your organisation?
How could you evaluate and improve their function?
How does cooperation pay in your organisation?
Are you ready to experiment with new feedback processes?
Feedback can only work to the advantage of an organisation when there are commonly agreed upon values and goals to focus on. Only when the values and goals are established can you focus your energies on process.
Process always takes more time than authoritative orders, but it nurtures intelligent participants instead of puppets. Remember that a focus on process helps us deal with dynamics that are far too complex for simple modelling. As long as all the bits are talking to each other, something better will emerge.
Affirming effective feedback behaviour is not always easy. It becomes almost impossible in a culture of blame. Where employees are trying to outsmart each other and blame each other, feedback mechanisms can easily generate a kind of “big brother” paranoia. This can destroy an organisation. Having said this, every true democracy should offer protection to whistle blowers who have the interests of human health and dignity at heart.
Here are some other tips for increasing the quality of feedback in your organisation.
- Stimulate an interest in learning about learning. Moving to a higher level of feedback requires a curiosity about the processes of consciousness and learning.
- Value failure when it brings new learning.
- Maintain an open system wherever possible. Avoid unnecessary hierarchies and practices of secrecy that prevent information from moving freely through the organisation.
- Encourage sharing and an active interest in what is going on throughout the organisation.
- Improve communication for its own sake. Get the conversation going and keep it going.
- Raise the energy of the whole system. Get people excited about the challenges facing them. Get people committed to changing their performance by allowing them the freedom to change the level of participation in the conversation. If this doesn't happen the organisation can settle into a learning dead-zone of familiarity, predictability and reluctance to change.
- Create “safe” spaces in which feedback can be experienced positively. In other words, there should be “ritual” spaces in which people know that it is OK to express themselves honestly and openly.
- Coach people in how to give, receive and use effective feedback. This cannot be done unless you also nurture a culture that affirms feedback and learning.
- Encourage people to experiment and explore novel ways of providing feedback.
- Humour and playfulness.
As the practice of feedback improves, people will learn how to “read”
complex relationships better and even predict some of the changes that are about to emerge.
Andre Croucamp is an educational media developer and palaeoanthropologist
Steve Banhegyi is a consultant in Organisational Change
Both are partners in thoughtformz.com
Some links for your own research