According to award-winning author, speaker, and executive educator Carol Sanford, the rats aren’t the problem; it’s the cheese. It’s what employees are racing to get and how they feel they must compete with each other and rely on external factors to get it. It’s about how we deliver and process feedback at work.
I had the pleasure of talking with Sanford during one of my podcasts, and we discussed how company leaders give feedback and how employees depend on it. Sanford challenged me and my listeners with the question, “What if people could see themselves and their behavior so clearly that no feedback or other assistance was needed to guide them in their work?”
The answer takes us back to the rats. Sanford shared with me how over one hundred years ago, American psychologist John Watson studied rats to develop the theory of behaviorism, which, on a very basic level, is the idea that all behaviors are learned through a person’s interactions with their environment and with other people.
Watson believed that people cannot change their behaviors on their own or for their own reasons; they depend on external factors and people. Watson’s work still drives many HR departments and how they manage and attempt to support their employees. Since Watson published his work on behaviorism in 1913, many studies have shown it to be faulty and unreliable. “If you manage rats,” said Sanford in our podcast together, “his work is really useful for you.”
During the podcast, Sanford challenged 360-degree feedback. To her, this type of feedback is more about those giving the feedback than it is about those receiving it. In her book No More Feedback; Cultivate Consciousness at Work, Sanford said, “In their earnest attempts to help me grow, my peers judged me against their own shortfalls and well-intention preconceptions.” When people are giving feedback, they usually do it through their own lens and what they believe to be their own shortcomings; they don’t see the person they’re evaluating for who they truly are and what they truly have to offer.
I argue that feedback would be meaningful if we taught employees how to give it in a meaningful way.
Traditional feedback methods often lead employees to trust other people’s feedback before they trust their own. Like the rats in Watson’s maze, many employees, particularly millennials, are conditioned to believe that they can only do good work when they receive good feedback; they can only succeed when they get the cheese that somebody else placed at the end of a maze that someone else created. “You can’t override the reptilian brain, and you can’t override the primate brain where we need to belong and are afraid of being ostracized,” Sanford said during our interview. “You can’t. It’s biologically built into us.”
So, how do people improve without feedback and external rewards? To Sanford, there are three key traits employees must have in order to genuinely improve: an internal locus of control, external considering, and personal agency. All of this comes down to embracing reflection rather than feedback.
In psychology terms, believing that you are responsible for your own success is called having an internal locus of control, and, according to Sanford, this is the first step towards authentic and effective improvement. “I want people to be responsible for themselves, stand on their own two feet, not expect other people to take care of them,” Sanford said during our interview. Improvement has to come from within.
Employees have to take full responsibility for their own behaviors, good and bad, and the last thing we want people to do is to blame others for their own shortfalls. In order to do this, employers must teach and empower employees to reflect on their own actions and trust themselves to see who they are and what they need to do to improve.
After establishing an internal locus of control, Sanford says we must encourage employees to tap into what philosophers call external considering, which is a person’s ability to think about more than just themselves. Employees have to see beyond themselves to see how their behaviors impact the bigger picture.
Finally, we want employees to have a sense of urgency and to take initiative. People need to believe that if they want something to get done, they need to step up and do it themselves. Feedback leads employees to believe that they are not responsible for seeing themselves and that they only need to improve when others ask them to. Companies thrive when employees see what needs to be done before they are told to do it, and they want to do it well because they believe in supporting the big picture and not just themselves.
To Sanford, this isn’t about balance; it’s about integration. On one end of the spectrum, there is the idea that we must all take care of ourselves and cannot rely on others for our own success. On the other end, there is the idea that everything we do must be done for others, and that we must build more compassion and empathy
Sanford doesn’t suggest that we find a place in the middle; she suggests that we learn to integrate both internal motivation and external consideration into our professional lives and that we encourage others to do the same. We must also know how to authentically understand and navigate each individual situation and person we face, and that each requires a different approach; this is not one-size-fits-all, which is what standardized feedback systems suggest.
To do this, employers must teach their employees to reflect upon and to self-govern their own behaviors and outcomes. It’s only when we know and trust ourselves that we can bring our best selves to the table. Sanford encourages organization leaders to not only provide educational opportunities but to also provide reflective and supportive communities in which employees can practice what they’re learning about taking internal control while also genuinely seeing and caring about the external factors they influence.
These communities are the most supportive when they ask questions rather than give traditional feedback. Along those lines, we are the most supportive of ourselves when we question ourselves and then trust ourselves to discover and deliver the answers. Sanford emphasizes the importance of being open to the answers and not predicting or forcing them, as many question-based feedback systems do.
Finally, this takes time. Sanford spent decades researching and writing about self-reflection and workplace consciousness, and she isn’t finished. Shifting an entire workplace mindset won’t happen overnight. It takes persistence, patience, and resources. This article is a good start, and reading Sanford’s book is another. “Don’t assume anybody is an expert on you,” Sanford advises, “And build organizations where no one is an expert on anyone else.”
You can more about Sanford and access her books and other helpful resources at CarolSanford.com