What’s Wrong with Feedback?
Feedback seems to be everywhere in modern society except in the places where it actually matters.
We generally understand the purpose of feedback when it comes to our work environments and government institutions. In basic terms, feedback is a process that allows information about actions to be returned to the source of those actions. Whether that information is considered, however, is another issue. For example, does anyone truly believe that if we feel exploited at our jobs, or if our government is dangerously veering toward fascism, we can rely on feedback to help us out?
Although approval-seekers pay lip service to it, few companies actually encourage feedback on an organizational level. Instead, bottom-up demands are often ignored by the powers that be for a variety of reasons based on class, social status, ideology, efficiency, and so on.
Of course, not all feedback is valid in and of itself — it needs to be facilitated, evaluated, and democratically implemented. This is a tall order for those who are most affected by it, as it takes humility and empathy to recognize the importance of your co-workers, beyond their value in the marketplace. Most “executives,” who probably consider empathy too much of a woo woo concept to be taken seriously, choose to focus on growth projections and inadvertently create environments that work for the few and not the many.
This mindset creates an echo chamber where collective knowledge and potential are suppressed in favor of the expertise and motives of those at the top. The rest is, quite literally, theater.
Take for example what is known in office culture as “internal communication.” Do you ever wonder why, amid all of our incredible innovations, Human Resource departments never seem to wield any actual power? It’s because HR staff have to play the same games as the rest of us. When profit margins are put on a pedestal and workers are treated as disposable, feedback becomes a carrot that is dangled during interviews and political campaigns, only to be put in a safe place until the next time a new employee or constituent need to be sold on “the mission.”
The same process occurs in the information business industry where news entertainment shows manufacture, filter, and project “public” feedback, to the point where it is the media-politics complex and its coterie of personalities — not actual, human participation — that shapes public perception on current issues.
Even though we are more connected than ever in some aspects of our lives, the lack of feedback mechanisms outside of the marketplace corrodes our relationships, work structures, government, and ultimately our planet.
In the following paragraphs, I will outline the anti-feedback mindset that dominates our daily experiences, and analyze the implications of not having any actual input on decisions that concern our lives.
What’s Wrong with Feedback at Work?
These days, few companies are serious about encouraging ongoing feedback. If you think otherwise, consider yourself lucky. According to Gallup, “21% of millennials and 18% of non-millennials meet with their manager on a weekly basis. The majority of employees say they meet with their manager as infrequently as less than once a month (56% of millennials and 53% of non-millennials).”
Virtually all research on creating a healthy work culture emphasizes the importance of regular feedback. Yet, most organizations still consider performance evaluation to be a once-a-year affair and choose to rely on annual performance reviews to assess the “performance” of their workers. It’s common for businesses to hire outside consultants to survey their employees, do a couple of webinars, and come back next year with more workplace “insights” that won’t be implemented.
One could say that most companies are better at creating a perception of a feedback-friendly environment, than actually doing so in practice. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter whether the decision to neglect feedback is based on ineptitude or a conscious attempt to centralize control over an organization, because the consequences are the same — unhappy, exploited, and apathetic employees.
The lack of feedback in our work lives illustrates why most workplaces are not democratic. Instead, employees have to bracket their own moral values and adjust them according to different situations. Here’s how sociologist Robert Jackall, author of Moral Mazes, describes the choices employees have to make at work in a Harvard Business Review article from 1983:
As it happens, the guidance they [men and women in bureaucracies] receive from each other is profoundly ambiguous because what matters in the bureaucratic world is not what a person is but how closely his many personae mesh with the organizational ideal; not his willingness to stand by his actions but his agility in avoiding blame; not what he believes or says but how well he has mastered the ideologies that serve his corporation; not what he stands for but whom he stands with in the labyrinths of his organization. In short, bureaucracy structures for managers an intricate series of moral mazes.
Feedback can’t take root in environments that run on power plays and ambiguity, which is why two-way communication in the modern workplace is often treated as a liability, rather than a path toward a collaborative and fair work culture.
“American businesses typically both centralize and decentralize authority,” writes Jackall. “Power is concentrated at the top in the person of the chief executive officer and is simultaneously decentralized; that is, responsibility for decisions and profits is pushed as far down the organizational line as possible.”
This arrangement mirrors what we see in society at large through the spectacles of mass media, politics, and the financial industry. The difference is that the mindset that stifles public feedback isn’t confined to the moral mazes of a corporation, but is projected and enforced through all-encompassing media channels and the few corporations that control the content on them.
What’s Wrong with Citizen Feedback?
You wouldn’t hear it much on the news, but studies have found that the average U.S. citizen has little to no impact on public policy. Perhaps this explains why 42% of U.S. voters stayed home during the 2016 elections.
While the reasons for Americans’ lack of voter turnout are complex, the fact that almost half of the country doesn’t vote is indicative of the U.S. oligarchy’s blatant disregard for citizen feedback. For example, 80% of Americans favor raising the federal minimum (nonliving) wage, which hasn’t been done in a decade. However, even though data shows that U.S. states which raised their minimum wage helped low-income workers, that doesn’t seem to affect our representatives.
Neglecting the working class is one of many stances that unite the political and media establishments in the U.S. MSNBC and Fox News can bicker all they want when it comes to social issues, but when it’s time to limit the war budget, address our health crisis, get big money out of politics, or help the working class, they bow to their corporate masters and cling to propaganda masked as “diversity of opinion.” Those in charge of “news making” are put there precisely because of their willingness to misrepresent or ignore public demands.
What does that say about our power as citizens? In the absence of PR firms and economic leverage, most of us default to voicing our opinions on social media where public feedback is diluted and diverted through the channels of vetted tech bros and their mysterious algorithms. In the meantime, mass media replaces grassroots feedback with a reductive, corporation-friendly portrayal of public attitudes and opinion, spliced with idiotic animations and depression pill commercials.
As Noam Chomsky likes to remind us, the most basic premise of economics — that people make rational economic decisions —is a bit of a dud, because the advertising industry makes it virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to be well-informed:
In fact quite generally, commercial advertising is fundamentally an effort to undermine markets. We should recognize that. If you’ve taken an economics course, you know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. You take a look at the first ad you see on television and ask yourself … is that it’s purpose? No it’s not. It’s to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices. And these same institutions run political campaigns. It’s pretty much the same: you have to undermine democracy by trying to get uninformed people to make irrational choices.
Simply put, at the opposite end of our genuine need for feedback and representative democracy are efforts to manufacture and subvert populist sentiments in order to align our own needs and desires with those of the ruling class. Whether that happens through Boards of Directors, corporate news stations, and political non-representatives is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, where own survival is at stake.
Even feedback that strongly suggests an environmental catastrophe will threaten the human species in the very near future doesn’t seem to affect those in charge. Ironically, it is a feedback loop between global warming and cloud loss that could “push Earth’s climate past a disastrous tipping point in as little as a century,” according to an article in Quantamagazine written by Natalie Wolchover. In the piece, Walchover cites climatologist Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, who has said that even 2 degrees of warming will cause “considerable loss of life and suffering.”
“At the 4-degree end of the range,” the article continues, “we would see not only the destruction of the world’s coral reefs, massive loss of animal species, and catastrophic extreme weather events,” but also “meters of sea-level rise that would challenge our capacity for adaptation. It would mean the end of human civilization in its current form.”
Such assessments cause little concern on Capitol Hill. Democrats can hardly utter the phrase Green New Deal, a set of proposed economic stimulus programs that address climate change and economic inequality, much less fight against the fossil fuel and corporate interests that are curb stomping our planet. This is more than welcomed by Republicans and their far-right media representatives, whose favorite past time is portraying progressives and environmental activists as scary, radical socialists.
The mentality that stifles citizen feedback in the highest corridors of power also dominates moral mazes in the workplace, where fraternity culture and “the Board” are often valued more than the needs and voices of workers.
Feedback as a Revolutionary Force
The premise of democracy — that we get to participate in the decisions that affect our lives — has been stamped into our minds since we were little. Yet, where it matters the most, feedback is often suppressed and ignored. Now more than ever, people are acknowledging the ridiculousness of annual performance reviews and the futility of elections determined by money.
To state the obvious: there’s nothing wrong with feedback. However, we wouldn’t know this if we are constantly told that our opinions and stances don’t matter. If we internalize this mentality, we will become the perfect useful idiots of the 21st century, whose purpose is to extend our political gridlock just long enough for the next generations to face full-blown fascism, amplified by the climate devastation that will inevitably threaten human existence in the near future. Yes, we’d be those guys.
To escape the manufactured realities that turn work and government into a totalitarian nightmare, we have to revolt against our dominant, death-worshiping culture that thrives on fear, preemptive wars, elite domination, and an illusion of a free press. We have to choose to live in the real world, where “retweets” and “likes” don’t mean much, and the ruling class is frightened by the potential of our collective knowledge and actions.
Just like executives who hide from the opinions of their employees, or politicians who have sold their integrity to the highest bidder, the decision to bury our heads in the sand and wait for “innovation” to save us won’t work for long.
At this stage of the game, accepting the status quo goes beyond our personal moral dilemmas and Party affiliations. It signifies that we are indifferent to the mass suffering that is being inflicted in “sacrifice zones” all across the U.S. and abroad — suffering that will surely spread to the rest of American society if and when corporate supremacists have their way.
Revolting against the thought and consumption patterns ordained by the corporate state is one of the few ways to paralyze our systems of oppression. This starts with addressing our own addiction to the never-ending entertainment stream sponsored by Silicon Valley and the U.S. government, and requires us to show solidarity with the millions affected by structural violence and deep-seated inequalities.
To protect our minds and bodies from the morally bankrupt mantra of groupthink, we have to reject the rituals that diminish our creativity and potentiality in favor of profit and status. We have to embrace our collective genius through coalitions that provide a voice to the voiceless, and a vision for those willing to imagine an alternative course for our future.