I’ve spent the last 5 weeks completing a Human Centered System Thinking Course. Based on the name I had no idea what it was either. Essentially I took a course about solving organizational challenges by focusing on the connections and relationships between different groups of people within a system and how these relationships and connections facilitate and impede organizational goals and wellbeing. Simple enough. And the course was fantastic. I loved it and I will be sharing the project I worked on for the duration of the course in next week's newsletter. But for now, I wanted to share a larger observation of the course. And it centers on the exclusive nature of language.
It seems that the design and organizational world is full of words. Words that really mean other words. Fancy words, complex words. Interesting sounding words. Words that professionals LOVE to hear other professionals say and use. These words get us so excited! And they let us strut our knowledge and intimacy with a subject in front of other professionals on LinkedIn. It’s like a secret club of language that quietly signifies a level of expertise. It’s fun and seductive and feels oh so smart.
And I get it to a certain extent. Different approaches need to be branded in some way to differentiate styles. Human centered approaches differ from other approaches and so on and so forth. Psychology does the same thing using different terms for different modalities of treatment along with different approaches to understanding symptoms. One can view depression under a psychoanalytic, cognitive behavioral, somatic, or expressive therapy lens and this is just a small sampling. Each approach comes with thought leaders and specific words and terms that are used within the profession. Most of these words stay within the profession. Meaning that they are words and terms heard at conferences and between professionals. And I am in agreement with this to a certain extent. But there are more useful ways to share the actions and insight around these words in ways that are more tangible to patients and the general public.The exclusivity of these words is unnecessary. They present unnecessary barriers. Psychology belongs to all of us. So let’s talk about it like it does.
In psychology the origin of many of these terms is research based. And this makes sense. There needs to be an agreed upon set of terms when discussing science. Yet, in this organizational, leadership, design world, a lot of these words and categories seem to exist just for existence's sake. And this is problematic. Because this creates barriers. And barriers create exclusivity. And this exclusivity goes directly against what design, organizational, and systems approaches are attempting to alleviate.
Here’s a specific example from my recent class project.
My research focuses on feedback exchanged during fine arts class critiques. First, I should share that artists don’t use the word feedback. Feedback is an organizational term. I have decided to use the word feedback because in my research I am focusing on feedback or critique in many different systems, mostly corporate and organizational and the word critique is mostly used within the arts. Still I find the difference between the two words to be quite illuminating. Below are the definitions. See what you think.
The transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source.
Information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.
A careful judgment in which someone gives an opinion about something.
A descriptive and balanced detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
The objective of a fine arts critique is to provide guidance to the artist that will assist in the progression of the work. Ideas are shared by instructors and fellow students with the goal of moving the work forward. Information shared during the critique process should be understandable and digestible. The idea is to integrate the information shared and use it to improve the individual work, skill, and artistic process for the artist being critiqued.
In my assessment of the nature of feedback in fine arts classes I determined that there exist 4 different types of feedback. I use the words useful, useless, safe, and unsafe precisely because they are words that not only can be easily understood, but also easily felt. We all know what safety and usefulness feel like. And I argue that the significance of understanding the feeling of a word when thinking about a system is even more important than the definition.
Free from harm or risk. Unhurt. Secure from threat of danger, harm, or loss.
Dangerous. Able or likely to cause harm, damage.
Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways. Of a valuable or productive kind
Not fulfilling or not expected to achieve the intended purpose or desired outcome.
The 4 types of feedback I identify are:
- Safe + useful
- Safe + useless
- Unsafe + useful
- Unsafe + useless
When I presented my project to the class, I received feedback from several peers about the words I used to describe the 4 types of feedback identified. One idea presented suggested that there is no such thing as useless feedback. And while this is an intriguing idea, I do not think it is true. Particularly when weighed against the objective of a critique. Additionally I argue that useless feedback is also present within organizational feedback. If we look to the definitions above, useless feedback would be ideas and opinions that do not further the development of the work being presented. And this uselessness could fall on both sides of the spectrum. Useless feedback can include personal attacks that have nothing to do with the work and also non-specific pleasant comments that cannot be used to further develop the work.
For those of you not in the fine arts world, personal attacks happen in critiques often, especially in fine arts settings. Critiques can be inappropriately personal and have nothing to do with the work or skill of the artist. There is a difference between noticing that the work might be boring or uninteresting versus saying directly to the artist that they are boring and uninteresting as a person. It is not useful in terms of the development of the work to know that the personal opinion of someone in the class is that the artist is boring and uninteresting. However, understanding that the work itself might be boring and uninteresting and how and why this can be improved is actually useful. Not delivered in a safe and feel good way, but also very useful.
In contrast, information that is delivered in a very safe and feel-good way can also be useless. Sharing that the work is great without offering any specifics as to why or really thinking about what can be improved is also useless. While this might feel good, it does not achieve the goal of the critique.
Another idea presented about the 4 identified types of feedback is that instead of using the words safe, useful, unsafe and useless I should use the terms radical candor and ruinous empathy to describe the quadrants of safe + useful and safe + useless. Just out of curiosity, do you know what those terms mean? I didn’t until recently. I argue most people do not. And in the case of working toward making a change in a system as a whole, terms like this are a barrier. And as far as I can determine there is no reason why using words not many understand when other words can be used with the same results makes sense. This does not facilitate communication, connection, or understanding.
Here are the definitions:
Radical Candor - means to share your (humble) opinions directly, rather than talking badly about people behind their backs.
Ruinous Empathy - is “nice” but ultimately unhelpful or even damaging. It's what happens when you care about someone personally, but fail to challenge them directly. It's praise that isn't specific enough to help the person understand what was good, or criticism that is sugar-coated and unclear.
I am curious, why are these terms necessary here? Do they facilitate a deeper understanding? Do they foster inclusivity?
Exclusivity when it comes to language hits me in two ways. The mental and emotional. Mentally, I wonder what there is to be gained from keeping a set of words meant to describe observations seen in a system as being exclusive? I am stretched to find a reason outside of professional ego. If systems design and thinking involves working with all parts of the system, what is gained by using words that entire systems cannot easily digest? Words used to foster change within a system should be easily accessible. Do not create barriers of language where they do not need to exist.
Emotionally this hits me personally. I can remember what it was like to enter into the world of psychology through the backdoor. I was a latecomer. I dropped out of undergrad psychology and was required to take the most basic prerequisites to pursue my graduate studies. I suddenly found myself in a world where I was required to understand a new and very unknown language. I was learning to fly after I had jumped off the cliff. It was exhilarating, but also really intimidating. I had no idea that there were two usages of affect. What was affect? A patient can have a particular affect? What?! Why can’t we just describe the patient’s emotional state? Why is it important to use the word affect? Does the patient even know what affect is? Probably not. So why are we using this word to describe them? So many questions. And intimidation is the key here. If we are looking at complex problems within systems and organizations, aren’t we trying to break down barriers and intimidation instead of fostering them?
Lots of questions, I know. But necessary. You can imagine my response to using radical candor and ruinous empathy was, no thank you. As I do not think they do anything to further the goal of my project other to create a barrier between those who understand those words and use them and those who do not. And while these terms might be well incorporated within an individual classroom, as you’ll see when I share more about my project next week, these words are not used by all parts of the system. Communication about making changes would have to include an agreement that these words are all going to communicate about this complex problem from here on out. And that just seems like a waste of time. Change is threatening enough. We do not need it to come with onboarding a whole new set of complex words and concepts, especially when unnecessary.
Perhaps this is a very personal opinion. And maybe it is. But then it is also a personal value. I deeply value making how we talk about psychology and human behavior friendly. I wonder what the benefit is of making the language we use to talk about something that belongs to all of us a barrier. And don't get me wrong, it makes me feel good to use complex words and phrases and feel smart and like I belong to a group of big thinkers by using them. But that’s about me. What I have to prove. My worthiness.
And serving the system is much bigger than what just serves me.