Nature has many things to teach us about the importance of feedback in our organizations. In nature, feedback is designed to help the ecosystem maintain a dynamic balance and remain resilient. Feedback plays the important function of curbing excess from within the system instead of outside the system.
In a living system, feedback provides information to adjust behavior. It doesn’t wait for outside regulations or laws to force a correction. It uses information to correct behavior that doesn’t support the health of the system.
Organizations that are resilient and healthy have rich and diverse feedback loops. If an individual is behaving badly, there is feedback that occurs to check the behavior that isn’t serving the larger organization’s purpose. If the organization, a department, or a team isn’t acting in the best interest of the whole, there are feedback loops that let that entity know that they are behaving against the interests of the organization.
Rich and diverse feedback loops can come in both formal and informal ways. It could come from a one-on-one conversation or a series of conversations that share a concern about the behavior of several people. It could come from regular performance reviews, organizational metrics, organizational audits, and gaps between expectations and behaviors.
Feedback Dead Zones
Sometimes, organizations have difficulty creating feedback loops on certain behavior. For example, if a person is incompetent, there is usually feedback that is given from multiple sources with the aim to increase the competence of the struggling employee. However, if this feedback is ignored or seen as not changing the problem behavior, people will stop giving feedback and start working around the incompetent person.
This has three implications:
- The incompetent person initially has lots of feedback about their behavior. They feel pressure to change the behavior and learn to do their job better. However, if they are resistant to the feedback, eventually they receive less feedback as people give up on the person’s ability to change. At this point, they start to work around the individual. So, the individual eventually experiences less feedback and may assume that they are doing fine.
- The organization who doesn’t listen to the feedback eventually collects pockets of individuals who aren’t doing their job. This creates a drain on productivity.
- Other individuals who are working around the incompetent person start doing parts of their job as well as their own. This also interferes with the overall productivity of the organization and the morale of the staff.
Tracking Dysfunction by Observing Feedback Loops
Once we understand the importance of feedback in organizations, we can also use the presence or absence of feedback to track the level of dysfunction that is occurring with individuals or teams in an organization. If you want to see where your organizational problems are, just look for the quality of feedback in the team, department, division, or overall organization. If a person is unavailable to hear feedback or is unable to listen and shift their behavior, the problematic behavior continues and often gets worse over time.
Eventually, the behavior becomes problematic enough that the feedback loops that have been repressed or avoided come back louder and from different sources. For example, an executive’s unethical behavior becomes public knowledge and the larger organization is required to act. By this time, there are often costs to the organization in the form of lawsuits or bad decisions that the organization must correct. In 2018, we saw this dynamic show up in the #MeToo movement – in politics and with individual politicians.
Leaders who lead living systems need to assess the quality of their feedback loops in their organization. If they can create conditions conducive to giving and receiving feedback, their organization will catch dysfunctional behavior before it drains productivity or creates costly consequences that emerge when we ignore dysfunction.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based on lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net