In our many years of managing, we rarely met an employee who was not anxious about receiving feedback, especially of the ‘constructive’ kind. With advances in brain imaging technology we are learning more about how feedback is received by the brain and the degree to which it achieves the goal for which it is intended.
Unsolicited Feedback creates a Threat Response in the Brain
As mentioned in previous editions of BrainBuzz, the main job of our brain is to keep us safe (Evian Gordon 2000) and we have evolved to be 5 times more aware of danger and threat than pleasure or reward (Roy Baumeister 2001). When we are asked by someone if we would like feedback, our brains default to the negative and assume it’s going to be critical (the real translation of ‘constructive’). Our defence mechanisms kick into action and our limbic emotional brain presumes the worst leaving us in no position to objectively evaluate and process what is being said.
Often the benefit in the feedback process is for the giver as it enhances their sense of status and autonomy over us and we have exactly the opposite reaction.
David Rock through his SCARF model identified 5 core social needs that, when threatened, can put us into a state of negative stress. These needs are:-
Status – our sense of relative importance to others
Certainty – the ability to predict the future or need to know what’s happening
Autonomy – the perception of exerting control over events or being at choice
Relatedness (Belonging) – being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the group/tribe – a sense of safety with others
Fairness – a perception of fair exchange and equality
One of our colleagues was presenting on resilience recently and mentioned off the cuff that, as this was a new topic, she would like some feedback. One person approached her immediately afterwards and told her she had about a page of feedback to give her and asked if she would she like it now. Our colleague was about to run a different session 10 mins later and knew she needed a clear head. She asked the giver if she could meet to talk about it. What was our colleague feeling – threat or reward? How did it influence her mood and confidence for the next session?
Insight 1 – We revert to justifying our behaviour. When we receive unsolicited critical feedback we tend to either consciously or subconsciously find ways to discount it in order to preserve our sense of status. The giver might say “Can I offer you some constructive feedback?” but the receiver might hear “Can I criticise your work so that I can feel better about myself?”
Insight 2 – We need balance and perspective in giving feedback. As humans we all have a natural desire to be accepted and recognised for who we are and what we contribute. The challenge is that our brains are primed to see more negatives than positives, and so we are skewed to notice more things that have gone wrong and our feedback is often more critical as a result.
In giving feedback, we often forget to acknowledge the positives and instead highlight the negatives, which puts the receiver’s brain into more threat. We can then lose perspective – not only is receiving critical feedback giving the message to our brains that ‘we’re not good enough’, but it seems that we are not doing anything well.
Without hearing positive feedback when it is warranted, we are more likely to resent and resist a ‘critical’ feedback message when we hear it, even though we might give the impression that we are taking it on board.
Insight 3 – Feedback is not bad! We all recognise the need for feedback on performance in the workplace and the individuals we speak to are often saying they don’t get enough. Without a feedback conversation we are often left in a vacuum and wondering if we are doing OK. Encouraging self-assessment and asking an individual to share their views of what they are doing well, what they are struggling with and what they would like to work on to achieve performance improvement, is more effective than telling someone they need to improve.
Through carefully crafted coaching questions we give the employee the opportunity to have a moment of insight which results in greater acceptance of what needs to be changed and provides motivation to want to take the required action to make the change (David Rock 2000).
Tip 1 – Create a Culture of asking for Feedback – ideally, organisations will see the logic in making feedback brain-friendly and strive to create a culture of employee-driven feedback. With more focus on each person speaking and listening to understand what is being said, both parties will feel less threatened and employees are more likely to be in a state of rational calm.
Making feedback a regular, two way and less formal part of organisational culture reduces the threat sense and encourages everyone to reflect on how they are performing (both the positive areas and the areas for development). Employees can then be encouraged to ask more people than just their manager for feedback, reducing the potential for subjectivity and bias.
Tip 2 – Coach your people to ask effective Feedback Questions – the more specific the feedback request to others is, the more able they are to focus their feedback. When the feedback provided is clear, specific and actionable, the greater the chance of the individual taking action.
A note of caution though – when the employee states specifically the area of their performance which they are seeking feedback on then nothing else should be offered. The feedback request is NOT an open invitation to give more feedback, so avoid seeing this is a cue for thinking “well while I’m at it”.
Examples of seeking feedback questions include:-
“In regards to my presentation skills, what do you think I could be doing more or less of, or consider doing differently, to improve how I communicate the benefits of our service to prospective clients?”
“I sense that I could contribute more effectively to team meetings but am not sure how. What tips could you give me to help me make better contributions?”
“I’m looking to develop my team leadership skills. Which one area do you think I could focus on first that could make a positive difference to helping my team perform at their best?”
Tip 3 – be a role model for asking for, and acting on, feedback – Show your people that you, as a leader, are open to feedback by asking for their views through crafting good questions that help you seek specific feedback on aspects of your performance as their leader.
For example “To what degree do you feel that I understand your needs and challenges?”
“Do you think that we meet the right amount of time or do you want something different and what is your opinion of the quality of our meetings?”
Tip 4 – Be generous and genuine in your giving of strengths-based positive feedback – in our experience as coaches, one thing that comes up time and again is that “I wish my manager gave me more positive feedback, more often”. As leaders, we can create a habit of catching someone doing something ‘right’ by providing our specific observation on what they have done well and feeding back on their strengths and achievements.
We can reward our people by offering a personal thanks, but whether we do this in public or private is worth thinking about. Not everyone wants to be praised in public – and it is not as simple as thinking it will work for extraverts, but not introverts. It is a very personal preference and there is no clear rule – adjust the approach to suit each person.
Back in 1996 Avraham Kluger and Angelo Denisi identified that “Feedback does nothing or makes things worse more often than it improves performance”. This sounds a bit negative so let’s use our understanding of the brain to make feedback more brain-friendly and help create a culture of employee driven feedback and a psychologically safe environment for people to take responsibility for their growth and development.