Monday, February 22, 2010

Under Construction

Like almost everything else, our thoughts about thinking, and in particular, memory, have undergone change.

It used to be that memories were thought of as fixed and stable. One only need think of the the Pensieve in the Harry Potter books for an example of this.

It turns out that this is not the case. We may have memories that are particularly vivid. (These usually have a strong emotional component to them, whether it is the birth of a child or something particularly embarrassing.) Each time we remember something, an image appears, but the story that we tell ourselves about the image, the meaning we ascribe to it, is constructed in each new moment of remembering. Winifred Gallagher talks about some of the research in this area in her great book Rapt.

Our memories change over time, because our thoughts are always changing. Have you ever talked with one of your old high school buddies and discovered you remember an event very differently?

In the workplace, we can find ourselves in a place of having to defend our own work, or evaluate another's work, after it has taken place. This can be a profound source of disagreement and stress. I have yet to see a post mortem that did not cause frustration and hurt feelings (and tension between individual and institutional memory as well). But I did see, in another context, the successful use of "feed forward." Instead of talking about what happened in the past, feed forward focused on what to do next time, without blame, and without inferring good or bad intent.

Our brains are always constructing our reality--future and past. Rather than expending so much energy on the past, let's try to focus the act of construction where it belongs. On the future.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about feedback and memory in the workplace.


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