Human psychology demonstrates that most feedback in business fails basic standards of accuracy and objectivity. It stops short of gaslighting – but only just.
“Would you like feedback on the presentation from last week?” asked the client, a senior marketer from a large FMCG company, with a sepulchral smile.
“As far as we were concerned, it was you guys signing your death warrant.”
As the saying goes, for justice to be effective, the punishment must fit the crime. And as my then agency had singularly failed to accept that the best – indeed only – way to get digital channels working is to treat them precisely like broadcast media, we had seemingly torn a hole in the fabric of the moral universe that could be repaired only by our total obliteration.
The following morning, the client’s personal Twitter feed contained the following immortal statement:
“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”
Outside of running Corporate Punk, I am a musician, producer and sound engineer. (This will be the subject of a future blog, but the short version is that embracing creativity in life as well as business connects the professional and personal in a way that helps the whole become more than the sum of its parts.)
In a sound engineering context, feedback – the mostly unintended creation of a self-reinforcing sonic loop, leading to increasingly loud and usually unpleasant frequencies – is often the last thing an artist or audience wants to hear. (There are exceptions.)
Yet, in business, feedback carries a wholly different set of associations. It is ‘the breakfast of champions’. Managing it is a necessary skill. It is the pain that is necessary for serious professional gain. Indeed, feedback is the engine on which many HR Departments run. The 360-degree appraisal is just one contemporary example of the feedback concept in action. It involves a triangulation of performance based on anecdotal perspectives gathered from around the organisation, and is adopted as best practice by many firms.
So this one word has diametrically opposite overtones, depending on its context. Sonically, feedback is mostly bad, and to be actively avoided. Commercially, feedback is good, and to be embraced (if not always welcomed) as a necessary catalyst of something better.
Which is right?
I am going to argue that in all but very rare and specific circumstances, the definition of feedback applied by the music industry is the more useful one. In almost all businesses, feedback amounts to little more than an endless, escalating loop of meaningless sound, signalling nothing, and posing a serious risk to healthy organisational development. (The following applies to both customer and internal feedback, although given the nature of our work at Corporate Punk we will focus on the internal context).
You are out of your mind
“I know my own mind” is about the most deluded thing that a human being can say. The work of the brilliant Daniel Kahneman and others has conclusively proven that around 95% of our decision-making is non-conscious. We don’t really understand how our brains work – to be sentient is to be aware that thoughts just seem to bubble to the surface of our awareness, through the delivery mechanism of emotions, in all their endless colours.
The fact that you are almost wholly reliant on your non-conscious mind should feel intuitively true – how could you navigate your way through the world without some mental shortcuts in place? Consider a mundane task, like going to the supermarket. Can you imagine having to decode a fruit and veg stand from scratch every time you do your weekly shop? Or having to actively work out whether you like carrots each time you see them? Or, for that matter, re-comprehending what a supermarket actually is and how it functions? If all thought was conscious, how would you get anything done?
The neural processes that govern our non-conscious minds are shaped by historic experience, present context, genetics, biochemistry, and a whole heap of other factors. Each of us is unique in this regard. This lack of uniformity, and the relative opaqueness of our neural processes, means that much of how the mind works remains a mystery. And this really is good news, for it is what makes human beings interesting and beautiful and (amongst other things) capable of creative thought, unlike the robots.
The brutal truth: your mind is a mystery to you. So when you are asked what you think and feel about something, chances are that you will find it hard to be as accurate in your answer as the question merits.
Now consider that all-important feedback request, where what you say can affect an entire career. ‘What do you think of Norman?’ is a question you will probably be able to answer. ‘Why do you think this of Norman?’ will, if you’re honest, be more of a struggle. And ‘how do you think Norman should change in order that your feelings about him change?’ (which is the crux of most feedback requests, however the questions are phrased) is basically impossible to answer with any accuracy. For the fact is that Norman just grinds your f***ing gears, and this goes far beyond just the fact that he chews gum in your meetings (or sends tweets saying that ‘feedback is the breakfast of champions’). Your dislike of him seems to live within you at an almost cellular level, and you don’t really know why.
But you are part of a tribe, and the tribe is asking you what you think about another of its members. Despite the fact that society has moved on in the last few thousand years, the primitive part of your brain has a deep fear of being cast out of the tribe for appearing stupid or not making a useful contribution. This means you feel under pressure to reinforce your status. And status is a relative thing – relative, in this case, to Norman.
So you make something up. Impressively, your conscious mind doesn’t pull these assertions from nowhere. It invents things to say based on a careful calibration of how the rest of the tribe is behaving, and what appears socially acceptable to them.
Here’s the thing: everybody lies, and everybody lies in relation to the social situation they are experiencing at the time. This points to the second problem with ‘feedback’.
Welcome to the local maximum
Wherever and whenever the 360-degree appraisal was invented, the intentions behind it were good. The basic idea is that everyone in an organisation gets to contribute, and that different opinions should be acknowledged and respected, regardless of the seniority of the contributor in question.
But qualitative feedback mechanisms of this sort make two fatal mistakes. The first is the implicit assumption that the tribe’s opinions on what will help or hinder its prosperity are objectively valid. Businesses embracing such approaches are, in effect, saying: ‘We are best placed to decide if Norman is a good General Manager of Things. We have no need to investigate how General Managers of Things are performing elsewhere, or indeed whether the General Manager of Things role remains a good one for an organisation like ours, given the ever-shifting market landscape.’
Mathematicians refer to this as the local maximum. Gathering feedback on everybody relative to everybody else is a great way of establishing a hierarchy (if working to entirely subjective criteria is your thing), but it will not establish how well anybody or anything is performing in absolute terms.
This is a good way to make bad mistakes – either by misunderstanding someone’s role or specific contribution, or to overlook poor performance across a team because you are so busy distributing your staff on a soul-sapping bell curve.
The second assumption is that gathering a range of opinions will create some sense of balance – that by canvassing a number of people a sort of ‘mean average’ opinion will emerge. ‘If we ask a range of people about Norman, common themes will emerge that will help us point him in a beneficial direction’.
Well, let’s consider the following scenario. Norman’s business (Myopia Inc.) is failing because it has recently launched an inferior product. Norman tried, and failed, to stop the Board of Myopia Inc. launching said product, in the process upsetting those who felt that they were on to a good thing. Those responsible are now banding together to reframe the failure they helped to create – as the old saying goes, success has 1,000 fathers, and failure has none. And Norman is on the wrong political side of this debate, knowing (as he does) where the bodies are buried. Pop Quiz! How is the Board of Myopia Inc. going to assess Norman’s performance as General Manager of Things, come review time?
That’s just one instance. Corporate life is littered with groupthink – it doesn’t just occur in situations where challengers or innovators take unpopular stances. Indeed, many organisational cultures could be viewed as a manifestation of groupthink, where a form of collective acceptance about how and why things are done in a certain way nullifies any propensity for creative or critical thought.
Returning to Myopia Inc, faced with a choice, who would you want to keep on-side? And how, as the CEO, would you be able to choose the horses to back with any degree of certainty, if you were relying on entirely self-governing feedback mechanisms?
The modern feedback loop, then: an endless, escalating loop of meaningless sound, signalling nothing, and posing a serious risk to healthy organisational development.
Three things you can do
Start by opening your mind to the fact that the thought processes within your organisation will often be subjective, subject to groupthink, politically charged and/or short term-ist. Now revisit your formal and informal protocols for gathering feedback. Do they feel a bit shaky?
If yes – and if you accept the fact that this may be a business-threatening issue – then here are three things you can do.
1. Ensure that feedback is ‘outside in’, as well as ‘inside in’
Benchmarking your people, ideas and initiatives using objective, externally-sourced information is often useful. What sources of support might you be able to draw on? Experience is also underrated, especially in many younger businesses. Who out there might have a useful perspective? Thinking more generally, could you band together with other, similar businesses (or even friends of yours) to create some performance benchmarks? Even more broadly, what best practice are you drawing on – and what’s your bullshit filter, beyond the fact that it appeared in the HBR?
The smart reader will have spotted that there are some limits here. While often useful, the contributions of consultants, senior advisors and even customers can be notoriously unreliable for the same reasons I explained above. Which leads me to…
2. Get psychological
Read Thinking & Slow for guidance on the two parts of the human brain (non-conscious and conscious), and how they work together to help human beings make decisions and live their lives. In fact, if you do nothing else, read it just because it will open your mind to the fact that you know very little about your own mind. This alone will change how you run your business.
Beyond that, organisational psychologists have invaluable contributions to make in the areas of group psychodynamics, social norming, emotional profiling, and decision-making processes, to name but a few. We have a number of them on the team at Corporate Punk, and the one thing we know is that they’ll always find something surprising. The behaviour of most businesses is rooted in psychological factors that are unknown to their leaders.
3. Follow the recipe for a happy life: never, ever listen to unsolicited feedback
The world is full of opinions. Some of them are objective, well-reasoned and cogent. Most of them are not. Insights can be invaluable. But bad feedback can ruin ideas, businesses, and even lives. And everyone is full of inaccurate and subjective feedback for everyone else (me included).
We are born advisors. We are also, sadly, born liars.
So just switch the world off. Just stop listening to any feedback that you haven’t directly asked for and aren’t able to appraise through the lens of everything else I’ve said in this article. Of course you should seek useful insights, but you should also think carefully about where, when, how and from whom you seek them. This will save you time and save you money. In the meantime, go: live your life, run your business, and be nice to Norman – objectively, he’s doing a better job than your Board members are capable of acknowledging and, like my old agency, he doesn’t deserve a death warrant.