It’s critical to our evolution as humans and living organizations to pay attention to robust and diverse feedback. In Nature, feedback from the larger system triggers evolution and helps curb excess in a system. In human systems, however, there is a direct relationship between expectations and feedback. Instead of using feedback to evolve, humans have a tendency to trigger feedback when someone or something doesn’t meet expectations. Sometimes we can interfere with the evolution of ourselves and others by how we listen to, give, and receive feedback. Here are three ways we hinder feedback:
We limit what we let in.
There is a lot of information and feedback coming from our external environment. One of the challenges today is to sort out what feedback is important and what we need to pay attention to. Sometimes, when we are feeling overwhelmed, scared, comfortable, or disrupted, our openness to listening to feedback can diminish.
For example, I have worked with organizations that are very comfortable with their business model. They stop listening to how their customers are changing, how funding streams are shifting, and whether public opinion or policy is shifting. When we choose to insulate our organizations or departments from feedback, we can miss significant changes that are on the horizon that we need to adapt to.
We lower our expectations.
Feedback is triggered when people don’t meet expectations but sometimes we stop giving feedback when we lower our expectations of others. For example, in our political climate, politicians are behaving poorly. Their actions reflect self-interest or party interest and they prioritize it over serving their oath of office, or the larger society that they were elected to serve.
Many people I know have shifted their expectations of politicians by saying “That’s just the way politicians behave.” In other words, they take the current behavior as the norm. Instead, we should be holding our politicians to a higher standard of behavior that serves the whole society and governs with the needs of the future in mind. When we lower our expectations, we are stopping the evolution of individual politicians and the collective evolution of how to govern in a complex world.
We get defensive when we don’t like what we hear.
It is a challenge to remain open to feedback when we don’t like what the feedback is telling us. Hurricane Ian, which created massive damage in Florida recently, is a form of feedback. But if we don’t believe in climate change, we defend ourselves against information that hurricane force and storm surge strength is increasing because of climate change. Our defensiveness limits the full scope and nuance of the feedback. The consequence of defensiveness is not changing our thinking or our behavior due to feedback.
There is a concept in organizational communication called positivity bias. It states that people shape feedback for their bosses based on their perception of what they are open to hearing (i.e., won’t be defensive about). This is why really bad feedback (that starts out on the front lines of the organization) can turn into a great idea after it is communicated through multiple layers of supervisors shaped by what the CEO is open to hearing. Defensiveness stops our own evolution and the evolution of the organization.
I am trying to scan the external environment for patterns of feedback in order to understand how things are moving and evolving in the world. I am learning to remain open to feedback I don’t like and look for what it can teach me instead. And I am resisting lowering my expectations just because I don’t want to give feedback or think it won’t be listened to.
By hindering feedback, we are hindering evolution.