The trouble with techniques

This is another post on feedback, following up on Andrew Rixon’s post. (Part one here.)

In his article on the limits of feedback – Does your leadership reduce learning? (pdf), Roger Schwarz looks at feedback in the context of bosses talking to the people who report to them. This feels like the nub of his argument:

Ironically,by trying to control the situation, you contribute to creating the consequences you are trying to avoid. You create misunderstanding because you assume that the situation is as you see it, and you base your actions on untested assumptions about others. If you make negative assumptions about someone’s motives and do not test them, you generate your own mistrust of others and vice versa. This leads people to be wary and cautious in their responses, which you see as defensive. In this way, you create a self-fulfilling process, generating the very consequence you set out to avoid, sealing off the opportunity for learning how your own behavior may be contributing to the team’s reduced effectiveness. All this reduces your team’s ability to learn, its effectiveness, and its quality of work life.

I think essentially he is suggesting leaders are in a status game, reinforced by their positions, in which they easily believe they see the whole, true picture and are insulated from getting other perspectives. Makes sense to me. Schwarz characterises this as a unilalteral control model, and offers an alternative, the mutual learning model, based on rather different values and beliefs.

As a way to rebalance status this seems a good idea. And there are some good principles articulated, such as the value of seeing differences as things to be explored for mutual learning, rather than easily slipping into labelling them as faults to be rectified.

I also have some misgivings, less with the ideas put forward and more with the language used. For instance in this passage:

almost everyone operates without thought or awareness from a set of values and assumptions that create these consequences. This approach is called the “unilateral control model”

This sounds quite categorical. It seems to suggest that we’re like computers whose every decision can be referred to some kind of rational program based on explicit assumptions and values. I’m think that’s a very narrow way to represent the complexities of our minds. For instance, I find it interesting to think about the different kinds of brain, lizard, mammalian and human, all operating in different ways. And that’s just one alternative way of looking at it.

Why I think this matters might be clearer when we look at Schwarz’s alternative model., While quite different from the first, it also seems a rather hygienic view of how we might do things better. Oh just change your model, and bob’s your uncle, your feedback will rock. For me, the stuff about values also smacks of moralising as if it’s a set of bad values that leads to defective behaviour… rather than something simpler like, not really noticing our impact on people (and them colluding by not telling us). (Update: see also Dave Snowden’s latest on the problem with values statements.)

This style of writing is very prevalent in Western, especially American, management. It’s all very reasonable but also feels like it’s not connected with the visceral reality of being a human being – dealing with other human beings who aren’t machines. We may write great spreadsheets but also sit on the loo. The cumulative effect of all this reasonableness is to deny us much of our experience as sentient beings.

People talk a lot about difficult people, or (perhaps more accurately) difficult relationships. The clue is in the title. These experiences are difficult. Because there’s a lot of stuff going on, much of it out of awareness and that can’t be represented in a model of boxes and arrows. People have histories, vast slabs of experiences, joys and pains, successes and failures that colour how they behave and will continue to do so, whatever management technique they learn. Feelings of discomfort, anger, love, contempt etc are natural and inevitable, and will soon leak out of whatever tidy framework we put together.

In my previous post, I quoted Schwarz’s excellent rebuttal of the feedback sandwich. One of the reasons people know they are being “techniqued” is that the stuff of relationships, good or bad, gets signalled unconsciously, regardless of the official protocol.

So I think the alternative Schwarz model provides some useful ways for a group to have some more useful feedback… but at another level I fear it reinforces a kind of la-la land of polite, reasonable sounding managment and hierarchy. This kind of management language feels like it reduces the complexity, joys and frustrations of being human to something tidy and polite. It’s like the Victorians (allegedly) putting doilies on the ankles of their pianos for the evening recital.. then slipping into the stews of the East End at midnight to satisfy their less polite, repressed human cravings.

More to follow on finding ways to embrace our more animal ways of relating in how we talk to each other…

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