No More Feedback (book summary)

We’re talking here about “feedback” as commentary from people you work with, telling you what you could do better—in particular, 360° Feedback as part of a performance review. I’ve capitalized “Feedback” in this post in reference to this particular use of the word.

The benefits of Feedback are purely mythological.

Carol Sanford, No More Feedback

In “No More Feedback,” Carol Sanford notices that formal Feedback programs are destructive to organizations and people.

This post summarized its core points.

Summary of the book

The worst Feedback programs define “core competencies,” skill categories that try to be “objective” but accomplish only “generic.”

Feedback programs are based on: you can’t see yourself clearly; other people can see you objectively.

Feedback from coworkers is anything but objective.

There’s all the known cognitive biases: We tend to reinforce our own first impressions, we remember only what comes to mind, we are swayed by gossip, etc. Race and gender biases affect our expectations and feed the other biases.

And most of all: we project our own deficiencies on other people. Feedback is a little about you, and a lot about the person giving it.

In contrast, self-observation is very helpful.

Feedback (in our performance reviews) makes us more self-centered!

We’re stuck worrying about what our peers think about us all the time, just like in middle school.

This disconnects us from business outcomes. This disconnects us from our self-regulation. It puts our regulatory functions in our near co-workers, which is a terrible place for it. Office politics now hold the judgement of our personal worth. 🤬

Feedback programs evolved from early work on cybernetics, and use a mechanical model of organizations. People are complex open systems, and we do not need external governance to function and improve. We have all that within us.

People have three core capacities for doing work in the world.

Source of Agency: we may rely on the authority of others, or initiate self-directed efforts.

Locus of Control: this can be external (my life is determined by others) or internal (I change my situation).

Scope of Considering: this can be narrow (internal considering: it’s all about me) or broad (external considering: other people matter)

source of agency ranges from: external "mom said I could" to internal "try & stop me!"
Locus of Control ranges from external "i am subject" to internal "I am responsible."
Scope of Considering ranges from internal "ME" to external "world."

These capacities can be developed by self-reflection. Other people can be a resource to help, but that looks very different from “here’s what I think about you.”

Feedback undermines our self-reflection and self-direction.

It puts the locus of control externally (other people are in charge), places the scope of considering internal (it’s about me), and reduces personal agency (I lack authority even over myself).

We need support in changing ourselves. That support is best received as Socratic questioning, NOT advice or evaluation.

What to do instead?

Each person makes a developmental plan for themselves.

  • based on intrinsic motivation
  • particular to the person and situation
  • can include a challenge that helps people outside the usual locus of considering
  • boundaries are provided by organizational strategy.

Evaluation also belongs to the developing person. Reflections can be invited from others, but those are entirely that person’s thinking.

My Conclusions

I found this book in Charity Majors‘s living room. It surprised me, because she is a HUGE fan of interpersonal feedback at work. We have Feedback as part of our review process at Honeycomb. A company value is “Feedback is a Muscle.”

Now, our process is less egregious than some. The Feedback is unstructured; there are certainly no “core competencies” prescribed. It doesn’t feed directly into performance ratings, it’s only an input. People get Feedback only from people they choose.

Most importantly, our performance reviews are more of a summary than source material. The real feedback we offer each other is quick, small, and frequent. It’s public or private, as preferred by the recipient. It is always our opinion or observation, not an evaluation.

This book resonates with me: I’ve always hated performance reviews. “You are not the judge of me!” is my philosophy. Yet at Honeycomb we treat them more as an evaluation of the relationship: how is this going for you? How is it going for the company?

Our system is currently working better than any of the Feedback examples Sanford describes. Yet that’s almost in spite of its structure. As the company grows, values are fuzzier than form inputs. I worry that we’ll get more generic, more “scalable,” and more destructive.

“For any group, all individual members must be self-accountable and self-governing to be viable, vital, and evolving appropriately within the ever-changing world.” (p147)

Carol Sanford, No More Feedback

Sad Little Addendum

As important as the points are, I can’t really recommend the book as a book.

Things that bugged me:

  • The book isn’t well-organized. It jumps around.
  • She keeps mentioning concepts (such as “Big Promises”) which she never explains. Guess they’re in another book.
  • There’s some stuff about each person’s “unchanging essence” that I don’t jive with.
  • There’s some stuff on the history of “feedback” as a concept, which I find unhelpful (even though it’s on my favorite topic, the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics).
  • She calls people “resources” when they are “resourcing” another person’s self-development. I cannot bring myself to call people “resources.”