‘Feedback’ as a power game

We are so used to being subjected to various administrative processes that often we don’t question them anymore. After all, that’s how you get efficiency – not just when the people in charge do things in an orderly way, but when the people they are in charge of follow along without making a fuss. Singapore is a VERY efficient place. And all that efficiency can sometimes make us forget that administrative processes and devices don’t fall out of the sky fully formed. There is nothing natural about them. It is PEOPLE who devise them, with particular motives, and particular implications. In these motives and implications is a story of power, however deeply embedded it is. And in the technological society where technique (as Jacques Ellul explains it) is everything and everywhere, the story of power can be so deeply embedded that even the people devising the administrative processes may not be aware of it. Among all the forms of technique that administrators employ to efficiently govern their institutions, perhaps there is none so pernicious in its embedding of power games as those mechanisms which are devised in the name of “feedback”. The word sounds so innocuous. What could be so bad about telling someone how they have done? Surely everyone takes that information in a perfectly neutral way and uses it to improve their performance. From the point of view of the organisation, it is the epitome of efficiency. And you know, it is even more efficient if that “feedback” is encoded in an official document – a form. After all, we all know that a paper trail is by far the most effective way of keeping track of essential communication within an organisation. Forms make good sense because they provide a standardising template.

Except for the fact that at the receiving end of all this administrative efficiency are people. Who are messy in their refusal to react to any action in exactly the same way. Just as I was musing on the power game that “feedback” is, I read this article in the Washington Post about a study of people’s responses to performance appraisals. To quote from the article:

New research by psychologists at Kansas State University, Eastern Kentucky University and Texas A&M University looked into how people respond to negative feedback they receive in a performance review. They guessed that people who are motivated by a real desire to learn would respond well to getting critical feedback in a performance review, using it to improve how they work without much in the way of complaint.

They were wrong.

Those who like to learn—presumably some of the best employees—were significantly bothered by the negative feedback they received. The research is a reminder not only of how much people dislike criticism, but of how dangerous performance review tools like rankings and ratings can be….

Those with the strongest learning goal orientation were still significantly unhappy with the constructive criticism they had received.

What this study suggests is that “feedback” can be a dangerous thing, even depressing good performers, no matter how “constructively” it is phrased. I would like to suggest, based on a critical framework, that the reason people get discouraged by feedback is because they KNOW at some level that it is a power game. You work your butt off, you try to do everything right, and at the end of the day someone who may not even be much better at her/his job than you are at yours gets to write down on paper what s/he thinks about your performance. And the most galling thing is that her/his word counts more than yours. How can that NOT be about power? To make it even more suspect, this study tells us that it may even have distinctly INefficient results on subsequent performance!

So why do people in power still insist on formal channels of “feedback” if it does not actually improve performance? I argue that the practice continues in ever more innovative ways because it reinforces the power asymmetry. And my educated guess is that for something that purports to afford standardisation, it actually opens the way for very arbitrary manipulations and consequences. Using a sociotechnical lens allows us to see that a “feedback” form is much more than just a piece of paper that provides a helpful template. Motives matter. They get embedded in the design of the form, and the way in which the form is designed can lead to new ways of using the form, which can then lead to re-designs of the form, and so on. At every point decisions are made. And every decision is part of the power game.

We don’t have to keep considering this in the abstract. I have an example of this power game that I’d like to introduce. It is hypothetical after a point, but the building blocks of the hypothesis are in place, enough for us to make some plausible extrapolations based on what we know about the context. Foreign domestic workers in Singapore face a lot of hardships, as can be seen from numerous articles on the website of “Transient Workers Count Too” or “TWC2” for short. Yet their mistreatment by numerous actors and devices is the result of a complex web of processes – cultural, economic, and administrative. The following is just one example of how some of these factors come into play in a power game:

You know a mall is declining in value when the shops and restaurants get slowly edged out by the maid agencies and tuition centres. One mall that is trying valiantly to resist this creep is Bukit Timah Plaza. Popular Bookstore, DBS Bank and NTUC Fairprice give it some respectability, but the “maid agencies” are gathering on the fringe. I detest these agencies. There seems to be not a shred of recognition for the humanity of the young ladies they treat as commodities. I have seen these young ladies standing for hours in the agencies, in various grotesque performances of efficient servitude and eagerness to learn to please their masters.

Today I walked past one of these agencies and saw a news clipping proudly displayed on their glass door:

maid agency feedback

This made me even angrier. Imagine the situation. The foreign domestic worker (henceforth FDW – the word ‘helper’ is as objectionable to me as ‘maid’ because it denies the professional nature of the relationship and therefore the worker’s right to be treated fairly) is in a position of vulnerability. She lives with her employer, isolated for the most part, from her family and friends. She follows arbitrarily set rules, work hours and practices. She has no real way to negotiate the terms of her employment – at the level of this lived reality – with her employer. We do not even need to go so far as to bring in FDWs who are abused by their employers. Even in a perfectly cordial situation, the FDW is vulnerable to arbitrary power games, often unconsciously enacted by well-meaning employers.

This agency has decided to go the extra mile in improving their service! They ask the employers for “feedback”, and then write up this feedback in the form of a letter to the FDWs providing advice on how they can better serve their employers. This is adding insult to injury! Not only does the hapless FDW have to follow the arbitrary rules the employer sets, she also has to read a litany of her faults via the mediation of the agency – which adds an extra layer of distance between her and her employer, and further reinforces her lower status. Someone in the Straits Times decided this was worth writing about as news, and the agency was so chuffed with the publicity that they proudly displayed this letter  on their glass door. Now, anyone coming to the agency takes it as a given that “feedback” is part of the package, that it is a good thing, and that they don’t ever need to view their FDW as a human being with feelings and opinions of her own.

Not all feedback is of this variety of course. There are formal feedback systems that help the powerless to articulate their concerns and anxieties. Students’ anonymous review of teachers in universities is a good example. These feedback loops do not exist as relations of domination or as technologies of governance when we view them from the perspective of the powerless. They are specific conduits that help communication to circulate “freely, without obstacles, without constraint and without coercive effects” to quote Foucault. The relation of domination embodied in a feedback system that is unidirectional from a position of power – employer to domestic worker, for example – is inhibitive and delimiting in ways that are not always immediately perceived by those with power, but viscerally experienced by those without.

Someone posted a quote on Facebook the other day from the British television series “Yes, Minister“:

” … but Humphrey, you’re more concerned with means than ends …

of course I am minister, administration has no ends … “

This made me laugh, as it would anyone who is familiar with the dry wit of Humphrey Appleby. However it contains what I think is a blind spot of technocrats – that their administrative processes and devices have no ends. It is not that administration has no ends, but that the means ARE the ends, insofar as the means are the means of maintaining both the efficiency and invisibility of power structures. And each new technique builds on the ones that come before in what seem like perfectly logical ways. At each stage there is a moment when intervention is possible, when the power game can be made visible and questioned. But that moment is brief and usually rationalised away as an inefficiency.

When we spot such a moment, I’d like to think that is the time when we step up to the plate and make an attempt – however quixotic it may seem to those who lack imagination – to reclaim a scrap of our humanity.

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