I don’t have any magic words to cure you of your dislike of feedback—both giving and receiving it. No one relishes the moment when the boss stops by and says, “Let’s meet at 1:00 p.m., I’ve got some feedback for you.” And who really wakes up excited to have that challenging performance discussion with that difficult person?
In addition to feedback, I also don’t like several types of vegetables, doing planks, or working leg days at the gym, but I eat and do them anyway because they are essential parts of the process of growing stronger and healthier.
It turns out when you see tangible results, the work (including leg days and eating vegetables) gets a lot easier.
The same goes for feedback, but all of us need some help.
First, the Purpose of Feedback:
Simply stated: The purpose of workplace feedback is to strengthen those behaviors that contribute to high performance and change or eliminate those behaviors that detract from high performance.
It’s positive, focused on creating or improving behaviors that strengthen the function or organization, and never intended to be an indictment. Unfortunately, inept feedback givers introduce fear into the process.
Why We Hate the Idea of Feedback
Imagine you’re taking a stroll on the African savanna and suddenly you come face-to-face with a lion. Most of us go from calm to frightened immediately. Well, the same brain response you might experience with the lion is triggered when the boss summons you for some out-of-nowhere feedback.
We’re hard-wired to respond to threats with a fight or flight response. And while the boss/lion scenario isn’t entirely equivalent, our brain’s fear center doesn’t differentiate between the two situations. It just sees “threat” and goes about making us drunk on adrenaline.
The idea of receiving feedback—particularly the constructive kind—is a potential threat to our view-of-self. We see ourselves in one way, and lo and behold, someone comes along and attempts to burst our bubble. Cue the defend mode.
And while giving constructive feedback in challenging situations doesn’t come with that sudden trigger, we’re naturally wired to avoid pain, and sometimes that’s what the idea of giving tough feedback feels like.
Note: my informal research on giving difficult feedback finds almost every manager in my communication workshops confessing they’ve deliberately delayed or ignored giving feedback because the fear of the encounter exceeded the guilt over delaying it.
It Gets Worse! We Don’t Like People Who Give Us Constructive Feedback
Yes, I know we are all supposed to run around being open to feedback on our performance and to be diligently doling out feedback across the team. But not only do our brains struggle with it—giving and receiving—it turns out, we don’t like people who burst our bubbles and challenge our view-of-self.
As described in Harvard Business Review, Paul Green, a doctoral candidate and two of his colleagues conducted a study on negative feedback that showed that “critical appraisals from colleagues drove employees to adjust their roles to be around people who would give them more positive reviews.”
Green goes on to say: “What we see in the data is that current feedback systems trigger this reaction of constructing a surrounding group that will protect us from experiencing critical input.”
Long story short, we avoid people who give us negative feedback.
Is Feed-Forward the Antidote?
I love feedback’s cousin, feed-forward. I use it all of the time and I encourage managers to use it. But, at the end of the day, it’s the same stuff but with a bit of time-travel involved. Instead of looking in the rear view mirror, we focus on what behaviors will look like in the future.
I love it.
It doesn’t change anything. We all know it’s “feedback” and it still feels like criticism.
It’s Time for You to Take Control of Your Feedback Situation
We all can benefit from the right type of specific, behavioral, task or situational-focused feedback. None of us have an entirely accurate view of our gaps or strengths.
Thank the brain, yet again.
The issue is how to take control of feedback and wield it carefully and appropriately for mutual gain in the workplace. And literally, I want you to take control.
Eight Tips to Help You Take Control of Your Feedback Universe
1. Build a Healthy Feedback Environment
As a manager, strive to create a workplace where quality, performance and business-focused feedback is part of the DNA of the culture. Single out the need and responsibility for feedback as a core value on your team, and strive to teach and model the behaviors essential for bringing the words to life.
2. Teach Your Team to Give You Meaningful Feedback
Nothing says this is important like modeling the behavior and setting the standard for encouraging feedback on your performance. This opens the opportunity to teach individuals the value of specific, performance and behavioral-focused feedback. And it helps them grow accustomed to giving and receiving it from each other. To prime the feedback pump, ask these questions constantly:
- What’s working?
- What’s not?
- What do you need me to do to help you succeed?
3. Redouble Your Efforts to Build Quality Workplace Relationships
Fear takes a backseat when someone we respect and someone we perceive has our best interests in mind shares input on our performance. A great approach here is to recruit one or more swim buddies—individuals you trust to give you the unvarnished truth about your behaviors.
4. Cultivate a Personal Growth Philosophy and Mine for Gold
I’ve found that feedback in all forms is much easier to accept when individuals have a robust personal growth philosophy. I confess to still struggling to summon the courage to read evaluations for my workshop, speaking, or teaching programs. However, my drive to find areas and ideas for improvement overwhelms my hesitancy and finds me mining for nuggets of performance-enhancing gold. Vague or destructive feedback is easily discarded. Input that offers specifics on how it impacted the experience is priceless. Keep mining.
5. Ask Questions About Feedback You Don’t Understand
Given all of the challenges of giving feedback, it’s not uncommon to be on the receiving end of something that sounds muddled. Cultivate the attitude that there must be a pony there somewhere, and ask thoughtful—not defensive—questions in search of clarification. Put the giver at ease and listen intently. And then thank the giver for sharing this with you.
6. As a Giver of Feedback, Design Your Discussions for Success
Effective feedback discussions are designed. They include some essential components structured in a way to focus on observed performance with business impact and to elicit thoughtful discussion and interactive solution development. In my workshops on the topic, I have experienced managers and executives practice opening a feedback discussion, first without consideration of a design framework and then by using the framework. The difference is shocking to all involved.
7. Conduct Feedback Discussions with Care and Empathy
Our instinct with most challenging discussions is to race through them and escape. As a result, we come off as critical and unfeeling. That’s wrong. Instead, you need to slow down and take into account the reality of the person on the other side of the feedback discussion. Clarity, respect, and empathy are vital components of authentic, effective, constructive feedback delivery.
8. Feedback Isn’t Always a Gift—Ignore Untrusted Sources
Just like a warning on your computer, if you don’t trust the source, don’t open it. Individuals with agendas or less than positive intentions are some of the first and fastest to offer negative feedback. Permit yourself to tune out these sources. Not all feedback and feedback givers are worth listening to in our lives. Make sure you trust the source.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
The feedback issue is worth wrestling to the ground for all of us. Unfortunately, for all the reasons described above, it is a bit of a mental challenge. Feedback can be powerful or incredibly destructive. Whether you are giving or receiving feedback, you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to win this wrestling match.