Human Action

The Feedback Hunter/Gatherer!

We are feedback-seeking Animals! If you don’t believe this, consider the following ‘Hunter-Gatherer’ Story:

Before agricultural societies (some 10.000 years BC) developed, our ancestors all lived as hunters (mainly men) and gatherers (mainly women). Let’s consider both. Imagine men hunters going out in the wild without gathering any feedback from the environment; he would throw a spear and then returns to his group without checking (= gathering feedback) whether he hit the animal or not. Wouldn’t this be a rather foolish strategy?

Listening to feedback provided by our own bodies was also very important. Here again, imagine a time of scarcity and a woman gatherer trying out a new type of bitter root; those who were able to listen to their bodily signals could detect the first signs of sickness (and probably vomit); those who didn’t died and didn’t leave any offspring. The problem is that mostly when we think ‘feedback’, we automatically think of one particular form, namely: ‘evaluative feedback received from (important) others’. This is what our ancestors would also do when, for example, the male hunter returned full of pride and showed the product of his successful hunt. Or when the female gatherer would come back with food that contained more calories as the men’s. They would both hope to get positive feedback in return. (This, by the way, is the reason men often overlooked small prey because it wouldn’t allow them to boast in front of the group).

It has been demonstrated that women have always brought back more calories to the tribe than men because there were more calories in the food they gathered than in the men’s prey. Still, men would boast about the size of the prey, because of their status seeking...People have always needed feedback in order to evaluate whether their actions were positive both in terms of ‘economy’ (being a good hunter) as in terms of social regulation (being an accepted group member, a good coalition partner or an attractive sexual mate). The reason people don’t like feedback in general (e.g. the meta-analysis from Kluger and Denisi, 1996) is because we have a defense mechanism (which operates quickly by generating anger) to protect our self-image and status. So whenever we feel our status or self-image is threatened we will respond with a more or less strong form of anger. This was (and is) important in the competition for resources, coalitions and sexual mating...

This is the reason why meta-analyses show that people respond more negatively (poorer performance) when negative feedback is perceived as an attack on their personality. The ProMES researchers have carefully taken into account the research on the effects of feedback interventions and basically they make the following recommendations:

· Providing group-feedback on the team performance as a whole instead of individual feedback;

· The feedback is automated and accessible to all team-members through figures, graphs etc;

· The focus is constantly put on finding solutions for goals for which indicators inform the group if something is not working optimally;

· The contingency-idea provides an excellent opportunity to balance effort with result. More is not always better (e.g. it can cause you stress which can lead to sickness and thus absenteeism).

So yes, we are feedback-seeking animals – the latest scientific status of feedback interventions is summarized in the ProMES approach!

A story by Patrick Vermeren