An Integral Perspective on Feedback

January 9th, 2015


There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with the way we give and receive feedback in organizations. I have personally experienced feedback meetings as deeply dehumanizing, objectifying, and counterproductive. At best, they were useless and a waste of time. To see if this was true for others as well I conducted a survey of participants of the Integral Agile Wizardry seminar. Sadly, all my suspicions were proven to be correct.

As someone who likes to apply integral thinking to a number of things I felt the maddening urge to bring at least some clarity to the process of giving and receiving feedback. Using the tools of integral metatheories we can fortunately take an elevated view of what is going on here, sort out a lot of misunderstandings, and arrive at a conclusion which offers valuable insights into the proper use of feedback.
At its most basic level, Integral Theory is about looking at perspectives and truly inhabiting them. In day-to-day life, we usually fail to take this into account and lose ourselves in fights about truth. Our conversations end up not being about discussing different perspectives, but about one perspective being right. I will show how we can use the art of perspective-taking to build a new, more wholesome feedback culture.

Throughout this article, we are going to use four different lenses to analyze the concept of feedback before looking at ways of using what we have learned to develop integrally informed feedback practices. First up, we will look at who generally receives feedback. Second, we will look at common reasons for giving feedback. Third, we will look at perspectives used in feedback talks. And fourth, we will complete the picture using the quadrant view before arriving at our conclusion. But first, a short interlude.

Speaking from the Heart

Most of the stuff here is going to be very technical and intellectual. But the prerequisite for all of this is that we relate to others compassionately. Many of the typical issues we encounter during our feedback sessions won’t even arise if we learn to feel true empathy while at the same time staying away from idiot compassion. Our hearts can guide us in this process, showing us where and how deep someone is willing to go. Being truly present with someone is a precious gift and the least it will do is tell us when to stop talking and end a superficial conversation.
A huge step towards being compassionate instead of mistrusting is assuming that other people mean well in general. Their methods might be harmful to themselves or others, but deep down we are all seeking to increase happiness and decrease suffering. That basic truth in itself connects us to one another and that is especially important when we talk about a sensitive topic like feedback.

Now, on to the intellectual stuff: let us take a look at what our holon of focus is going to be.

The Holon Lens - The Who

Most feedback meetings concentrate on the employee as the individual holon of focus. Rarely do people get together to provide feedback for an entire team holon or to listen into the purpose of the organizational holon. We will focus on the individual employee holon as the receiver of feedback throughout this post, but the concepts are applicable to the other holons as well. The reasons for giving feedback differ wildly and we will have a look at them in the next section.

The Levels Lens - The Why

First of all, let me state again that these levels we are talking about are holarchical. If you grow to another stage, you ideally transcend and include the previous one. If this concept of levels does not inspire an increase in compassion for the other person’s view in you, then you shouldn’t be using it.
Having said that, the levels lens tells us that as the complexity of people’s thinking increases the number of perspectives that person is able to authentically inhabit increases as well. Clare Graves' work shows us that individuals, who have their center of gravity at a certain stage, form distinct social holons when working with other individuals operating at the same stage. There is a very different reason for giving feedback at each of these stages and I’d like to outline them briefly. Feedback Amber Amber
Amber tends to form very strict hierarchies in order to maximize stability. The great breakthrough here is the development of strict processes which at this stage represent the right way to do things. It looks like Amber is not very keen on giving that much feedback. When it does it’s mostly about doing everything the correct way and not deviating from the true path. Different perspectives at this stage are simply not very important since being right or wrong is a binary thing and there is usually the correct perspective. The individual employee's payoff of the feedback process is certainty about their compliance to whatever is right. For the company it’s about making sure people stay in line and stick to the processes. Feedback Orange Orange
Orange often forms a meritocracy, a more fluent hierarchy where skilled people can advance quicker than in Amber organizations. It looks like Orange usually delivers feedback in the form of an annual evaluation by the superior. Differing perspectives are honored somewhat as long as they deliver the right results. The perspective of the superior is usually the right one, because, honestly, why would he be higher up in the system if he didn’t know more than you (and yes, in an Orange company that person is going to be male 90% of the time)? The payoff of the feedback process is usually some form of financial incentive or promise of promotion for the individual employee. The company uses feedback to make sure the right results are achieved by the employees. Feedback Green Green
Green often flattens hierarchies, deconstructs perspectives, and gives equal value to all participants. It looks like one of two things happens here: or
The payoff of the feedback process is usually a sense of belonging to the community and contributing to a prosperous work environment for the employee as well as for the company. Feedback Teal Teal
All of the stages we have seen so far offer fascinating advancements and have pushed us forward in incredible ways. And thus we enter Teal space. It’s not yet clear what the preferred organizational structure of Teal looks like. Since Teal tends to simply use concepts that work without being overly attached to them it’s likely that there won’t be one single preferred structure. Nevertheless, Frederic Laloux identified three possibilities, depending on the length and depth of the value chain: parallel teams, a network of individual contracting, or a spatial holarchy of nested teams.
Teal companies seem to be purpose-driven and employees feel the need and are encouraged to align their unique individual purpose with the one of the company. That’s why the feedback process seems to be mostly purpose-driven as well.
It is at this point that feedback starts to make incredible sense. Why? Because you’re an idiot!

Shadow Land

Wait, what? Well yeah, you’re kind of an idiot. Slightly delusional at least. But everybody else is too, so don't feel bad. We all have an immense amount of shadow material that is invisible to ourselves but obvious to others. We use lenses to make sense of our infinitely complex reality and, by definition, these lenses exclude vast amounts of phenomena that don’t fit into our current worldview.
Our peers sometimes see our blind spots more clearly than we do and can help us grow by reflecting what they see. You're not the only authority on your self and it would probably be wise to give up that illusion. That external perspective is tremendously helpful. And, assuming they use good relational skills, others can give us the greatest insights of our lives. We will revisit this concept in a later section to see how this helps us to engage in a dialog.

The levels lense helped us identify several reasons for giving feedback. Now that we have seen that this can actually make sense, let’s refine our view of where feedback can come from.

The Interior-Exterior Lens - The How

Splitting any holon in interior and exterior, we have already seen that the right-hand side (the exterior) is monological. Here, we simply observe surfaces which can be studied by one person alone without the need to engage in a dialog. The left-hand side (the interior) is different from that, however. Interiors can’t be seen from the outside. They need to be interpreted and the only way to get a good feeling for them is to engage in conversation.
Using our interior-exterior lens we arrive at four different ways of giving feedback: Exterior to Exterior Feedback Exterior to exterior - Most management literature advises us to use only this particular type of feedback (this being just one example). We are told not to be subjective as that is inappropriate, brings up all of these pesky emotions, and makes people defensive.
But what can we actually say objectively about another person? We can talk about their specific skills, their behavior, their personal hygiene. Integrally informed feedback includes the exterior-exterior view as it is very helpful when talking about professional development as horizontal growth. Everything involving skills and behavior falls into this category.
This type of feedback is appropriate if we want to create agreement on facts.
Example: “Our evaluation shows your Java skills to be very decent, but you really need to become more familiar with Git. You open new development branches all the time when, in fact, we always commit to the main trunk directly for our Continuous Deployment pipeline.”

Interior to Exterior Feedback Interior to exterior - Interior to exterior statements are used when we speculate about or state our personal views on the skills or behaviors of others. From an integral point of view, this is perfectly acceptable as long as we make it clear that we are not talking about “facts” but about our interpretation. Impact feedback for example is a kind of interior to exterior feedback.
Example: “You speaking up in our last retrospective made me feel really uneasy. I wanted to interrupt you and your behavior made me feel embarrassed for you.”

Interior to Interior Feedback Interior to interior - When we speak from our inside to someone else's inside, we interpret their I-perspective from our own I-perspective. We exchange worldviews which can lead to building a real We-space. When we use interior to interior communication the goal is usually to create mutual inner resonance.
Example: “This is just my interpretation, but I feel like your need to create equality within a team hinders you in expressing your stated purpose of creating freedom to be authentic in Agile teams.”

Exterior to Interior Feedback Exterior to interior - Exterior to interior is a bit tricky. As individuals, we usually can’t make objective statements about people’s interiors, because we are unable to fully leave our subjectivity. We have to rely on tools for that. So, if someone agrees to do an exercise or test regarding their values, purpose, or intentions, we can use the results to make a somewhat objective statements about their interiors (which are never 100% objective either, because that person interprets her own self as well).
Example: “You did the Moving Motivators exercise and it showed that splitting the team would seriously affect your need for relatedness in a bad way. So we are not going to do that.”

Most of the conflicts we face during feedback talks appear because we fail to differentiate between these basic perspectives. Having our interior worlds treated as objective things feels harsh, like we are being pinned down and don’t have any space to move. Our natural reaction is usually to fight that assumption itself instead of pointing out that it’s simply an incorrectly stated perspective and thus invalid feedback.

I hope that honoring and clearly identifying these distinct viewpoints helps us lay to rest the notion that one or the other, subjective or objective, is either the only way to go or completely forbidden. As long as we use precise language to clearly articulate our perspective and everybody involved knows about the validity of all these views, there is nothing inherently wrong about any of them. They are just different, and every single one of them is partial. Keeping that in mind, we can finally start inhabiting objectivity and subjectivity completely.

The Individual-Collective Lens

In addition to using our interior-exterior lens, we can further refine our view of our focal holon (you know, that beautiful human being sitting opposite you, full of life and love and stories) by including collective aspects of said holon. You can read the page about quadrants to get a feeling for that. We won’t go into too much detail here since the fundamental confusion in feedback talks seems to revolve around interior and exterior perspectives. Feedback without any collective aspects is usually incomplete, but doesn’t cause as many negative reactions as the confusion about internal-external. Suffice it to say that true all-quadrant feedback should also involve the person’s shared worldview (within the culture of that person’s team for example) and systemic interactions (within processes and exchange of information for example).

Taking all of this into account, we end up with all-quadrant feedback of much higher quality than regular, partial feedback. All-Quadrant Feedback

One-way Street

Now that we have cleared this up somewhat, we can turn to the one thing I find even more offensive than confusing the views above. It’s about this: One-directional Feedback Most feedback processes require the receiver to act on the received feedback without being able to influence this particular form of judgement (because their bonus often depends on it in Orange environments). This has changed somewhat over the past years, and there is a big trend now towards giving people feedback and telling them you would like them “to simply receive it”. The recipient can do whatever they like with it. While this approach is supposed to give the recipient the freedom to disregard the feedback if they would like to, it is still deeply objectifying to the recipient and people who provide feedback that way are actively working against establishing a dialog. It’s not noble. It’s bullshit.

Lots of people ask where the You is in AQAL Integral Theory. It’s in the We. Only if you and I really come together, we form a We. If we don’t, I become an It to you. There is no creation of a We space, only you judging my exterior when you talk and I’m not allowed to answer.
How could we ever establish a true dialog, a real exchange of perspectives and interiors, when only one person is speaking and the other person listening?
We have seen that the perspective of the one giving feedback matters just as much as the one of the person receiving it. It matters where that feedback comes from horizontally (the interior-exterior and individual-collective lens) and it matters where that feedback comes from vertically (the levels lens). The lens used during the feedback talk is of utmost importance and the receiver of feedback might have to help the sender adjust their lens. You also rob yourself of the chance of learning something when you just throw whatever you think out there without opening the space for discussion.

Putting It All Together

If we want to use feedback to build a true, meaningful dialog, we have to keep in mind that we grow through learning from other people’s perspectives and other people learn from us in the same way. However, we have to clearly state where our feedback comes from. Dialog The exchange of the exterior perspectives is usually pretty straightforward. You exchange facts. People argue over this, but don’t necessarily feel like anybody is getting hurt in the process. Most people are pretty good at this already. The inside perspectives, however, are much trickier. But you can take an easy shortcut.
Consider this: someone makes a statement like “I think you could enhance your communication skills.” Now, you can look inside yourself, simply agree, and then work with that other person on finding ways to do that. Or you can ask the question “Why do you think it is important for me to do that?” if that particular statement doesn’t resonate with you. By asking that question you start looking at the lens the other person is using to make that statement. What are their values that led them to make that remark? This right here is your entry point for a dialog.

Entering this sort of dialog requires a commitment on both sides and a willingness to be vulnerable. There’s no process that makes it easier. We need to listen to our hearts and use our empathy to guide us while we engage in communication like that. I believe we’re still several decades away from this becoming an accepted practice on a company-wide scale. However, in Agile environments we can start using these techniques right away. The first step is to know about them. This probably requires consciously making an effort to improve our mindset and skills. Once these become second nature to us, we can let them go and have vastly improved heart-to-heart and head-to-head conversations. There are few things that I look forward to more.

I would like to thank the following people for helping me refine my understanding of the current state of feedback:
Antoinette Coetzee
Cara Lemon
Nikky Oberdas
William Strydom
Kareen Walsh
Bill Johnson
Sue Shreve
Katrina Ferguson
and others who shall remain nameless.

About the author:
Johannes Schartau is an Agile Coach from Hamburg, Germany. He is passionate about his work as a Scrum Master and Kanban Coach, Integral Theory, meditation, Kung Fu and weightlifting. You can follow him on Twitter @IntegralAgile.