The bastardisation of Feedback

I’ve just read an interesting article[i] by Irv Rubin this morning about the need to re-discover the soul of Organisation Development and I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts that struck me.

The first is his reflection about how society as a whole has inadvertently accepted business values as the norm. According to Rubin, every time managers justifies an organizational action or decision with a mea culpa —“but that’s just business!”— they are reinforcing the mindset that ethics have no place in business. Rubin’s thinks that “virtually every organization keeps two sets of personal responsibility accounting books”.  Not only is this disconnect unhealthy, in my view the assumption that making money trumps values is immoral.

The second thing that stood out for me is what Rubin calls, perhaps feedback2too colourfully, the “bastardisation” of feedback. He points to recent research on the brain that confirms that hearing the word feedback “activates the same part of the brain, in virtually identical ways, as being confronted with an ominous looking threat!” He quotes Douglous McGregor on the subject:

“Unless handled with consummate skill and delicacy, the feedback process constitutes something close to a violation of the integrity of the person [and our profession] …leaving managers uncomfortably feeling as if they are “playing God.” Yet…circumstances force us not only to make such judgements and to see them acted upon, but also to communicate them to those we have judged”.

I agree with Rubin that the giving of feedback, particularly anonymised 360 feedback, is iatrogenic (the medical term referring to the fact that treating a symptom can, and often will, make the root cause worse!). Not only does the indiscriminate and unreflexive use of anonymous feedback produce unhelpful relational consequences such as judging, blaming, back-biting, gossiping, politicking, etc., organisationally, bullets and grenades dressed up as words breeds a ‘survival of the fittest’ culture characterised by fear, cynicism, distrust, anger and loathing. In these cultures diversity and difference are usually stifled.

The article reminded me again, how, much of the management tools we take for granted and see as normal, e.g., appraisals, performance reviews, 360 reviews, etc. actually serve to damage, rather than create flourishing workplace communities.

On the plus side, I’m really glad that more people are beginning to realise this and to write about it. This augurs well for the future.

“If performance review was a drug, it wouldn’t be approved by the federal food and drug administration because it’s so ineffective and it’s got such vile side effects.”
(Robert Sutton – Stanford)


[i] Rubin I, Re-Energizing the Soul of OD, Seasonings, A Journal by Senior OD Practitioners, Volume 12 (3) 2015

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