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June 16, 2014

  • Feedback Circle
  • It was at my first staff meeting that I should have realized something was wrong with my place of employment.

    I was the brand new Communications Coordinator at an agency working with youth at risk. It was a small non-profit—in fact I was the fourth full-time employee. I had taken a substantial pay cut from where I was working writing pension documents being bored out of my skull. I was happy for the increased responsibilities, the opportunity to write for fundraising and the chance to do event management.

    My first experience working there was interviewing a bunch of the youth for the newsletter. I remember hearing the stories of these kids who had been at the margins and were now working toward things like graduating high school and getting a job. I was proud to work there.

    But that first staff meeting should have warned me something was up.

    Just before the meeting, Sandra, the Executive Director, took me aside and explained something to me.

    “We do something a little bit different at the end of our meetings.” She explained.

    “Oh?”

    “Yeah.” She seemed a little nervous explaining it. “We do this thing with the youth called a feedback circle. Each youth gives another youth an item of positive feedback and an item of challenging feedback. And the person receiving the feedback can’t argue or discuss it. They have to accept it.”

    I nodded my understanding. “Anyway, we feel that since we ask the youth to do it, the staff should do it with each other.”

    I remember thinking to myself at the time, “That’s just a little bit fucked up.” It was the absolute commitment to the ideology I think that weirded me out: that what was good as a training tool for youth without social skills was appropriate for adults in their 30s who had to work together every day. It seemed like some weird leftist form of Amway culture. But I wasn’t going to argue the point.

    The key rubric of feedback circle was that you couldn’t respond to it. And so I had to sit politely while my colleague Margot asked me if I wanted challenging or positive feedback first. I selected positive and got the standard boilerplate about how great it was to have me on the team.

    Then it came to the challenging feedback. “You were walking around the office the other day playing music on your iPod…”

    It was true. The prior Friday I was pitching in on a last-minute grant proposal that was due that day. I was working on my piece of it while listening to Moby on my new iPod Nano. I did keep my iPod plugged in as I printed off my materials and walked it over to the business office on the other side of the reconverted bank we worked in for Sandra to look at it.

    Margot continued, “I thought it was unprofessional.”

    I nodded and thanked her for the feedback but I was troubled. Basically Margot got the last word in front of my co-workers to say I was unprofessional. And how was it that she got to arbitrate what was and wasn’t professional?

    My confusion continued as the feedback continued on bi-weekly basis. Sandra used it to complain I wasn’t telling people when I was out of the office. Margot despaired that I would plug in the kettle and boil water for tea and forget that I had done it. It was a valid concern—I once walked into discover I had created a tropical microclimate in the kitchenette by leaving the kettle to boil dry over 45 minutes—but why couldn’t Margot just, you know, mention it at the time?

    My response was to buy the office—out of pocket—a kettle with an auto shut-off.

    Sometimes it felt like feedback circle was the time when the staff stored up their petty concerns and let them out. Many times feedback was about something infinitesimally tiny but it was blown up because it was discussed in the middle of a staff meeting. Other times it just got ugly. I watched one staff member use feedback circle to give a laundry list of complaints to her direct report.

    I once told Sandra something I noticed about one staff member who over-explained everything they said and did. “You should bring that up in feedback circle” she said.

    “Why would I? That thing is just who they are. The whole point is that human beings should accept those things about the other.” It was clear Sandra and I were on different planets.

    We were supposed to feel, as the pedagogy went, as though the challenging feedback was balanced by the positive feedback. But it never felt that way for me. In fact my stomach contracted into knots every time there was a staff meeting. My colleague and friend Zola and I hated feedback circle. We complained about it but there was a zealous devotion to the model.

    Everything and anything could be subject to feedback. And the most devoted took it beyond staff meetings. Margot loved this. I remember being asked if we could go out to talk about something. It turned out after much sturm and drang that feedback was that when I came in some mornings through the main entrance I didn’t say hello.

    I smiled, accepted the feedback, and made sure to come in via the side entrance from then on.

    As time wore on, it became clear I wasn’t working for a happy organization: we were being treated like shit by members of our board. We were underpaid (a much vaunted salary review concluded I was being paid at the market, bullshit given I had taken a substantial paycut). We were overworked. And every staff meeting we had to pick a staff member for feedback. Zola and I had a pact that we would try to pick the other when we could in order to make it easier.

    It was, I suppose, a form of compensation for the dispossessed: we couldn’t control so much of our jobs, so we turned our attention to complaining to each other when we didn’t clean up the kitchenette or forgot to leave without telling someone. It was Orwellian social control. A Two-Minute Hate.

    Eventually I found a job somewhere else. I was still working on my resignation when Margot came by to give some other bit of feedback. I forget even what it was about, except it was something remarkably picayune that I couldn’t believe I was having to deal with it. I indicated to Margot I was done with this.

    “My job is to produce communications materials for this organization. It’s not to fully cater to every single complaint that is made in the spirit of feedback.” I told Margot.

    Margot was aghast. “These are things you really should be working on. I did your references when you were hired I know that others have said this.”

    I smiled and thought to myself apparently telling an employee the substance of things said by their references was deemed “professional”.

    Shortly after I left Sandra had found a better organization to work for, which I was glad to hear. Zola went back to the US where she grew up. The lovely fundraising director hired shortly before I left was gone within a year or so. The organization tried to stay solvent as its funding base gradually shrank. Five years after I left, they finally closed their doors.

    I want to say I was sorry when I heard it. I remember the pride I felt when I interviewed that first group of youth. But, instead I wasn’t sorry. Because I remembered being stuck in endless staff meetings doing this exercise that was supposed to make youth better people that instead made us suck at being adults.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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