In sound engineering, feedback – the mostly unintended creation of a self-reinforcing sonic loop, leading to increasingly loud and unpleasant frequencies – is usually the last thing an artist or audience wants to hear.
Yet in business the term carries an entirely different set of associations. It is “the breakfast of champions,” according to Ken Blanchard. Delivering it is apparently a vital leadership skill, according to Cambridge University. And feedback is central to how many organisations operate: for example, the 360-degree appraisal is apparently now used by over 90% of Fortune 500 companies.
It seems clear that the notion of 360-degree feedback was invented with the best of intentions. The process involves a triangulation of performance based on anecdotal perspectives gathered about the individual in question from juniors, seniors and peers. The idea that opinions are heard and respected regardless of the seniority of their contributors is both democratic and egalitarian.
But how accurate is the feedback itself? The Nobel Prize-winning work of Daniel Kahneman and others demonstrates that the overwhelming majority (up to 95%) of our thoughts and feelings occurs in our non-conscious minds. The neural networks that govern those parts of our brains are shaped by a wide range of factors including historic experience, present context, genetics and biochemistry. They conspire to create thought processes that are fast, complex, unique to the individual concerned – and mostly hidden from view.
The stark implication of this is that we all know our own minds far less than we might…well, think we do. So when a person is asked what they feel about someone or something else – and why they feel that way – chances are that they will find it difficult to be accurate in their answers.
Faced with such a situation, the conscious mind will often seek to compensate from the loss of social status that it fears will result from appearing uncertain. It will do this by simply inventing an opinion. Remarkably, the conscious part of the brain doesn’t pull these opinions from nowhere. It will decide what to say based by calibrating how the rest of the tribe in question is behaving, and what appears socially acceptable to them.
This points to another problem with feedback – namely, the fact that human beings demonstrate a tendency to conform to the opinions of others (or what they perceive to be the opinions of others) in order to ensure their own egoic survival. People can and will give positive or negative feedback about someone or something for no other reason than to preserve their status in the tribe.
So, to summarise: people tend to lack clarity about why they think and feel as they do, invent and post-rationalise the ‘opinions’ they proffer, and seek self-preservation and enhancement by conforming to the most personally advantageous viewpoint present in a group. To put it more succinctly: everybody lies. That is why, in almost all organisations, the value of feedback is questionable at best.
So, faced with this reality, what should you do? Here are three coping strategies.
1. Ensure that feedback is ‘outside in’, as well as ‘inside in’
Benchmarking your people, ideas and initiatives using objective, externally sourced data can help to negate internal bias.
Consider what sources of insight and support you might be able to draw on to do this. Could you club together with other, similar businesses to create some performance benchmarks? Could you bring in outside perspectives on your appraisals?
On a related note, experience is also often underrated, especially in many younger businesses. You might want to evaluate how the most experienced players in your category can help you set, or at least inspire, performance standards.
2. Get psychological
Read ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’ for guidance on the twin worlds that compromise the human brain (the non-conscious and the conscious), and how they work together to help human beings make decisions and live their lives.
Beyond that, organisational psychologists can help gather insightful, accurate data that can decode both individual performance drivers and group dynamics. Get to know a few – your nearest University will be a good place to start – and see what they have to teach you.
At the very least, consider what biases might be at work in the feedback you gather, and how you might guard against them.
3. Never listen to unsolicited feedback
The world is full of opinions. Some of them are objective, well-reasoned and cogent. Many of them are not. And bad feedback can ruin ideas, businesses, and even lives.
Flick the off-switch. Stop listening to any feedback that you haven’t directly asked for and aren’t able to appraise for accuracy through the lens of the issues addressed in this article. Of course you should seek insights about your performance, but you should also think carefully about where, when, how and from whom you seek them. As any author will tell you, some narrators are far more reliable than others.
Originally published on Forbes.com