John Higgins October 9 2018
change management

Feedback and 'Truth' are Never Neutral

Article by John Higgins, September 2018

People tell others what they want to hear. The powerful have a little list of who and what to listen to. For decades the assumption has been that hierarchy and power-distance can be flattened, even disappeared. Feedback happens in some magical land where the truth can be spoken without fear or favour. The only problem with this? It’s fake news. It’s just not ‘true’.

For the last five years I’ve been researching alongside Professor Megan Reitz into how truth gets spoken to power. Here are some of the headlines, most of which are obvious when we switch our human (rather than workplace) minds on:

  • Who says what to who is a function of power – and how people experience it in the moment
  • Putting the responsibility for speaking up on the least powerful is a recipe for silence
  • The more powerful you are, the more unseeing you are to how the ‘truth’ you are told is being manufactured for your pleasure

Outside of a science lab, feedback is never about some neutral exchange of ‘objective’ information. It’s always political (workplaces are political places); it’s always riddled with conscious and unconscious biases – and it always carries with it a sense of risk. What will happen if I say this? What will happen if I hear something that I don’t want to hear, that doesn’t fit with the dominant ideology of the organisation?

 In my upcoming book with Megan, ‘Speak up! Say what needs to be said. Hear what needs to heard’, we start with the actual reality of the workplace, not the idealised one. This reality is one where the psychology and politics of power is given its proper weight and prominence. More Freud, less Harvard MBA.

 When thinking about the context in which feedback happens in your workplace we’d strongly advise you to pay close attention to your taken-for-granted habits for giving and receiving feedback. Ask yourself:

  • What sort of ‘truth’ is permissible where you work? Are you, for example, in the grip of what our colleague Alison Reynolds calls the ‘tyranny of the tangible’?
  • Whose interests are being served by managing feedback in the way you do? Whose way of knowing is reinforced?
  • Are we really interested in hearing from others or are we going through the motions because someone, somewhere thinks it’s a good idea? In my work in the health sector, a lot of learning about equalising the power distance between vulnerable patients and clinicians, so people really hear from each other, is slowly leaking into the managerial world. 

The workplace has become a land of make-believe, where everyone is investing a large amount of their discretionary energy in hiding their true reality from each other (see the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey for more on this). Feedback mechanisms and processes have become part of this ritual of only revealing what is allowed to be formally shown or paraded in public. The ‘theatre of business’ (Lars Vollmer) has replaced connection to the organization’s espoused primary task, of serving customers and providing a return to investors.

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Feedback happens in the social and political context of the workplace – where the defensive routines of the powerful continue to sustain their authority, much as Chris Argyris and others talked about in the 1980s. Workplace feedback also happens within a wider historical context, where employee engagement has been trivialised. Rather than being an invitation to participate in meaningful decision-making as it was framed in the 1970s, it has turned into a nebulous measure of feeling good/feeling bad about the ‘culture’ of the workplace.

During the research with Megan, I was particularly struck by one story. A start up company had a policy of ensuring everyone knew how to read the books, so they could see how the company was doing. Employees were treated as adults. When the company was sold the new company hid all financial information in the Finance Department (for all those good reasons of departmental power and authority). The infantilisation of the workforce had begun. Feedback had shifted from being an Adult-to-Adult encounter, to a Parent-Child one, where Mummy or Daddy knows best about what needs to be known and talked about.

John is the Research Director of The Right Conversation and co-author, with Professor Megan Reitz, of a number of recent HBR articles around speaking truth to power. Their book ‘Speak up! Say what needs to be said. Hear what needs to be heard’ will be published by FT Pearson in Spring 2019.

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