Creating a High Feedback Culture

by Amina Knowlan | September 2007

CREATING A HIGH FEEDBACK CULTURE is an essential part of developing a Matrix of communication as the foundation for open, human systems. This environment can be created by developing the capacity between pairs of people to give and receive feedback-to and from each other-in the open, in the group. This practice needs to become a regular part of the vocabulary of any group's interaction. Almost all managers and supervisors receive training in giving effective feedback. Yet in any training or consulting context, giving feedback in the open is consistently the hardest behavior to establish as a norm in the group. In Matrix groups, we are concerned with the practice of giving feedback openly in a group. Think about this. Giving person-to-person feedback-openly-in a group. This is what makes it so challenging to have it actually become a part of the basic vocabulary. Feedback is the royal road to creating an open, resonant human orchestra that is capable of living and working, evolving and growing together. To be able to receive and give feedback about our impact on each other, creates the capacity to play beautiful music together. There is a very simple definition of feedback that I find very useful in its application to human relationships.

Feedback = returning the impact or effect of a behavior back to its source

When I give you feedback, I am sending data back to you, about the impact of your behavior on me. "When you make eye contact with me and smile as you are speaking, the impact for me is that I listen more attentively." In this example, by this simple definition I am the receiver, who is sending data back to you as the sender or the output source about your impact on me.

Definitions from Engineering or Systems Theory

In the language of control theory: feedback returns information from a receptive observer to an influence-able system in order to have a beneficial effect.

From a systems perspective: the consequence of feedback is to facilitate the emergence of a "self" or identity. Ongoing feedback stabilizes its existence.

class="attribute">— From a talk given by Jack Spivak, 2000

"Feedback returns information from a receptive observer...." When applied to communication between people, this implies that the person being affected must be aware enough to notice the impact for him or her. Then this receptive observer (or receiver) must be mindful enough to report — or return a signal to the sender — as data intended for the beneficial effect upon the communication or relationship-about the impact on the receiver. This mindful reporting of data about impact is vastly different than accusations about the other person's behavior that cast responsibility or blame on the other. If I am giving you feedback about the impact of your behavior on me, I am not blaming you, or making you responsible for, that impact. I am offering data about your impact on me, as a way of opening the communication between us and improving our relationship. Feedback might be thought of as a way of "lubricating" the channels of communication between us. If as Desmond Tutu says, "We can only go forward together," then feedback becomes a way of lending each other a hand. If we really grasped this concept that so fundamentally expresses the assumption of interconnectedness, then how could we not want to receive feedback about our impact? Why would we spend so much time defending our intentions rather than just staying curious about our impact? Why would we withhold feedback from someone else?

The second definition from systems theory (above) states that the, "consequence of feedback is to facilitate the emergence of a self or identity. Ongoing feedback stabilizes its existence." A relationship, like an individual, needs feedback to stabilize its existence. We need to know how we are doing with each other. How we are affecting each other. Through the process of ongoing feedback, we navigate the complex territory of learning to be in a relationship that keeps growing and evolving. For any of us to emerge or evolve as individuals, or for our relationships and communities to emerge into higher levels of capacity and consciousness, we must be receiving feedback about our impact. We cannot hope to work creatively with the differences between us, much less deepen our intimacy and connection, if we cannot normalize and even optimize the process of giving and receiving feedback.

One of the greatest obstacles to establishing a norm of giving and asking for feedback in the open is that most people who hear the word feedback, immediately assume that it means criticism. If a child or an employee receives mostly harsh, accusatory or blaming (even shaming) feedback, the openness in that person's own system begins to shut down. They become less and less likely to risk new behaviors. Their performance, whether in school or in the office, may become less and less functional or productive. They may even stop caring about whether they do well. They may even become rebellious. These are familiar unspoken stories. They probably comprise a cultural epidemic. To reverse this trend and literally "re-wire" all our negative and injurious conditioning related to receiving or giving feedback, requires diligent practice and patience. Feedback is not a demand for change. It may be followed by a request for change, but the feedback itself is just data. Conflict, in my experience, is often a hyper-charged backlog of undelivered feedback. By the time we deliver the feedback, there is such a build-up of dissatisfaction that it often comes with an intention and tone that sounds like a demand for change or even a threat. "I'll leave you if you don't change."

The purpose here is to stress the importance of establishing feedback as a norm in the basic language of the life of the group. For this reason we most often talk about it as establishing a culture which is relatively high in giving feedback. This takes commitment and clarity on the part of a group. When we do begin to accomplish this, it has the effect of creating a win-win atmosphere, where everyone is being supported to evolve and grow. It lessens the tone of veiled competition.

The practice of giving and receiving feedback is an essential characteristic of living systems that are sustainable and capable of emerging over time with increasing fullness and satisfaction. Any organism — whether an individual, a relationship or a group — relies on feedback to develop and evolve toward higher functioning. Like any practice aimed at changing consciousness, it takes time, commitment and trust. And, it is one of the most rewarding shifts I personally experience. When someone is willing to give me straightforward, loving feedback, I almost always experience it as a welcome relief. It's an experience of having an ally. It's an expression of their investment in our connection or our work together.

© Knowlan, Amina, reprinted and excerpted from the forthcoming book on Matrix Leadership, August, 2007

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