Nature evolved through information and feedback. If it wants to evolve individually or as an ecosystem, it has to pay attention to the information received in the form of DNA through multicell reproduction. When nature shifted from single cell reproduction to multicell reproduction the mix of DNA strands and combinations expanded exponentially. This triggered significant evolution in nature.
Feedback is another form of information that nature and its species evolve from and as a result nature has become very good at listening and receiving feedback. One of nature’s design principles is that it curbs excess using feedback loops. In nature, ecosystems exist in a dynamic balance, they continually move but tend toward equilibrium. The way nature maintains this dynamic balance is that when a system shifts out of balance, there are feedback loops that either reinforce or dampen down a pattern of growth or behavior. Using feedback to help a living system learn and adapt so it remains resilient is an example of nature using a simple design principle of feedback to maintain dynamic equilibrium.
Nature listens to feedback and its species and plants respond to feedback. They are great listeners because they have instincts that tell them that feedback is important to pay attention to. By becoming good listeners, they increase their ability to thrive.
Humans listen differently than nature
Humans don’t always have the same approach to listening as nature does. Literature is filled with books and articles on how to give and receive feedback, in part, because the art of feedback is fraught with experiences where it didn’t go well. As humans we have both beliefs and preconceived mindsets as well as emotions that can mediate the information that is coming at us through feedback.
For example, if we don’t like what we are hearing, or if the feedback doesn’t fit with our perception of ourselves, we put up defenses to the information we are receiving. We do this in small ways – like when our body gives us feedback that we have over done something that causes us to be in pain the next day. And we do this in patterns, when we continue to receive feedback that a habit or behavior isn’t serving us – like when anger or other emotions shape our decisions and choices. Our organizations and teams also have habits of screening information and feedback by only looking for specific data or trends that confirms a belief or mindset that exists in the company.
The act of limiting the information and feedback we receive can help us by diminishing the noise in the outside environment, but most times, it eventually hurts our effectiveness and our capacity to evolve. Nature can help us learn to listen to feedback in a way that doesn’t make us blind to trends and patterns that we need to help us adapt.
Approaches that can help us listen to feedback:
- Work to prove your thinking wrong. When we conclude or decide something, continue to seek out information to prove yourself wrong. It is a simple strategy that helps us stay open to disconfirming information that helps us vet our decisions.
- Welcome resistance from others to your ideas or thinking. It helps us test our thinking and allows us to incorporate other points of view that are critical to seeing our organization or system in a more integrated way.
- Pay attention to feedback that is getting louder. If we ignore feedback that is designed to help us maintain dynamic equilibrium, it doesn’t go away, instead it gets louder and triggers more negative consequences to our behavior. It is as if the feedback thinks it needs to get more intense to get our attention.
- Learn to listen early. When we pay attention to feedback as soon as it whispers to us, there are more options to respond. It takes less time and smaller shifts to accept and adjust to feedback if we listen to it early. For example, when your intuition says something is off with an employee and you initiate a conversation to check in with them, it can help resolve the issue quickly. If you wait, the issue can become more problematic if it aggravates and intensifies with the person.
The Benedictines have a rule that members of a community should “listen with the ear of your heart.” It is their way of remembering the importance of listening and being open to what is being said. Nature uses listening to adapt to changing conditions in an ecosystem. If we can listen more effectively, we can diminish the level of suffering we experience when we ignore feedback that is showing up in our lives and our organizations.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019) 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 in lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net