Are your team hallucinating?

DSCN0764 (800x600)When I was learning to be coach, my tutor told me to read a really great book ‘Effective Coaching’ by a guy called Miles Downey.  I loved it as a book and it definitely helped me to develop my coaching skills, so if you’re looking to move into the world of coaching or develop your own skills in that area it’s well worth a read.


There was one particular story in this book that really stayed with me, and funnily enough it wasn’t actually about coaching, but about feedback instead.


Downey writes about the fact the human body is a system that needs ‘feedback’ from its environment in order to function properly.


The example he uses to illustrate his point is how a human being reacts when left in a flotation tank too long, an environment which he says gives an individual almost no feedback whatsoever.  It is essentially a large enclosed bath filled with a high density saline solution that is exactly body temperature, the effect being anyone floating in it cannot feel anything, not even the water as it’s the same temperature as the skin. The senses are basically deprived of all stimulation.


Short periods of time spent in this environment can be extremely beneficial and can help a person completely relax and unwind, or even have clarity of thought about how to solve particular thorny issues that have been preying on their minds.  However if a person stays in such a tank for too long they can start to hallucinate and make things up; and after an extended period of time the person eventually goes mad.


So you might ask what this has to do with feedback.


Well Downey believes there are lots of people walking around organisations ‘hallucinating’ because they simply aren’t receiving the necessary data they need – they have been starved of sensory information for so long, and in the absence of any feedback are forced to ‘make it up’.  He says this is particularly true of top executives, as no one has the courage to tell them the truth.  He says when human beings do not know what the reality is; they simply make it up, just as in the flotation tank.


It’s almost like your brain contains lots of different files, a bit like a computer or a filing cabinet and as it receives data it processes and files it in in the appropriate place, using it accordingly to help make decisions and modify behaviour.  However in the absence of any concrete data the brain will begin to draw its own conclusions and start to populate those files with information it believes to be true, but is in fact completely unfounded.


This can work in two very different ways (neither good by the way); if the person is naturally optimistic their brain is likely to take an absence of data as ‘no news is good news’ and so will fill those imaginary files with positive and affirming information.  This can result in an over inflated view of how well they are doing and a lack of self-awareness of their impact on others.  Conversely if a person has more of a leaning to being pessimistic, they are likely to catastrophize and think the worst if they don’t receive any real evidence or data, which will begin to undermine their confidence and ability to perform without constant reassurance.


Just as an example ……..In his book Downey talks about an individual who has written a report and left it on his mangers desk, but the manager hasn’t got around to reading it yet.  In this situation, one person might think: ‘I haven’t been told anything different, so that report was good’ – which can then be further interpreted and filed in their head as ‘I am good’.  However another person might think because they haven’t heard from their manager, they believe the report wasn’t good enough and have then further interpreted this as: ‘I’m not good enough’ and likewise this is the message that is filed.  This is all because the manager hasn’t taken the time to provide any data at all to either individual.  Even a simple apology: ‘I haven’t got round to reading it yet’ gives the brain some concrete information to process and prevents it from ‘making things up’.


It’s worth asking yourself if you’ve got people who think they are better than they actually are or any people who need constant reassurance from you – are they hallucinating.  In the absence of any data from you, are they being forced to make things up? Remember what Downey says, the human body is a system that needs feedback to survive.


What information are you providing people with for those files in their heads – how much factual data have you given them or you have you unconsciously abandoned them in a flotation tank?



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