Mary considers herself to be a good manager. Whenever one of her employee’s is struggling with an assignment she swoops in to help them put things into order and give pointers. Her company is now introducing a new 360-degree performance management system based on continuous feedback and, as a manager, she’s been encouraged to lead the transition by asking for feedback from her team first. She’s excited about this new change because she thinks it’ll help a few of her team members to open up more and resolve conflicts amongst each other.
However, when she receives her feedback, she’s surprised to find that several people said she needed to let go more and allow people to work out assignments in their own way. One person even used the term ‘micromanaging’. Even though she’s supposed to be setting an example, her first reaction is to get angry. She sets aside a lot of time to help her employees solve problems and only gets criticism in return. She’s now supposed to act on the feedback she receives in order to encourage employees to do the same, but she’s still feeling betrayed.
Most people have difficulties receiving feedback well. For others, the only thing worse than receiving constructive feedback is giving it. When given correctly, feedback is not meant to harm or criticize people, but meant as a way to improve. Even if we know feedback is good for us, what’s holding you back from accepting and sharing it with others? The answers might all be in your head.
What are the psychological factors that make us afraid of feedback?
The most common answer is our body's natural negativity bias. Prominent psychologists and neurobiologists have found that our brains are hardwired to react to negative stimuli faster. This was originally necessary for our survival. Sensing an attack would trigger our body’s natural fight or flight mode, increasing the amount of hormones released to the bloodstream, elevating reaction time and heightening our emotions. The experiences that trigger these reactions become etched into our brain so that we can react to dangerous situations faster. This is why we tend to remember negative experiences more than positive ones.
However, in an office setting our negativity bias and flight or flight reaction can actually work against us. Even when receiving mostly positive feedback, it tends to be the constructive feedback that we recall most acutely. Though feedback doesn’t constitute a physical attack, in their separate research Psychologist Peter Gray and Management Professor Neal Ashkanasy both explain that criticism can signal a sense of exclusion. In hunter-gatherer societies people were dependent on the group for survival. For this reason, constructive feedback can sometimes trigger our fear of exclusion from the group.
Is fear of giving feedback more about yourself than others?
In fact, this is also relevant to giving feedback. A study by Dr. Carla Jefferies of the University of Southern Queensland discovered that a failure to give constructive feedback may actually be more about protecting ourselves than others. In her experiment, participants were told to give feedback on an essay either face to face, anonymously or to give feedback that would not be shared with the author.
She found that participants with lower self-esteem gave more positive feedback face to face and more critical feedback in the other two situations. People with high self-esteem gave the same feedback in all situations. According to a researcher on her team, "If one accepts that people with relatively low self-esteem are expected to place greater emphasis on wanting to be perceived as likeable or attractive to others, then this lends support for the self-protection motive."
Supporting this research, a study conducted by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman found that 74% of employees who received constructive feedback already knew there was a problem. This shows that employees aren’t necessarily blind to the things they need to improve, they just either aren’t sure how to improve or aren’t fully aware of the impact on the rest of the team. In fact, in their previous research, they found that a majority of employees actually want constructive feedback.
However, the caveat is that people don’t want to receive top down instructions on what to do. In their study, they also found that the more managers carefully listened to their employee’s point of view before giving feedback, the more honest and trustworthy their feedback was perceived. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman suggest that the best way to give constructive feedback is to first give the other person the chance to explain the situation and what they think went wrong. Before immediately going into feedback, first allow them to formulate their own plan of action. If you listen carefully up to this point, when you give your own feedback it is much more likely to be well received. Finally, offer to check in the following week so that you can lend further advice if needed, without seeming overbearing. For more information on how to give constructive feedback see here. So what are we still so afraid of?
Changing your mindset
Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s studies into what she terms ‘fixed and growth mindsets’ also provide valuable insights into this fear. According to her research, people with fixed mindsets view their skills as constant personal traits, while people with growth mindsets view their skills as malleable abilities which can be improved. For example, children who have been praised for being smart throughout their lives may face difficulties improving after receiving a bad grade on an exam. However, children who have been praised for getting good grades based on their hard work and dedication are more likely to see a bad grade as an opportunity to learn more.
When we associate abilities with a part of our identity, receiving constructive criticism can feel more like a personal attack. People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, are more likely to take risks and overcome obstacles by seeing failure as a signal to try harder, rather than time to give up.
The good news is that we are not naturally divided into fixed and growth mindsets. Developing a growth mindset towards feedback is possible. According to Dweck, the first step is recognizing your fixed mindset “voice”. When you start placing blame on others for the feedback you receive, this is your fixed mindset speaking. Once you recognize this voice you can begin counteracting it and responding with a growth mindset. See Dweck’s TEDTalk, ‘The power of believing that you can improve’, for more inspiration.
Overcoming fear of feedback through habit
An important part of overcoming your fear is creating a feedback habit. In Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, he describes how neuroscientists and psychologists discovered the impact of habits on rewiring the brain towards certain behaviors. Marketers and CEOs have used the key elements of creating a habit - cue, routine and reward - to induce certain behaviors in consumers and employees. Duhigg contends that by creating a routine and reward system triggered by certain cues, we can rewire our brain to create new habits and behaviors.
If you want to start exercising more, leaving your running clothes next to your bed will trigger a cue to go for a run in the morning. If you get into the routine of going for a run every morning your body gets used to the routine. The incentive can be a reward, such as having a big breakfast when you get home. Eventually, the habit kicks in and your body will become accustomed to going for a run when you wake up, even if you forget to leave your running clothes out or don’t have time for an elaborate breakfast.
One example he gives is Starbuck’s success in teaching employees how to navigate difficult situations with customers. In Duhigg’s book he introduces Travis, a manager of two successful Starbucks locations, who attributes his professional success to Starbuck’s lifeskills training program. In his previous jobs, Travis had difficulties dealing with angry customers. Rather than dealing with the situation calmly, he would be overcome with emotion and argue back, making it difficult to hold down a steady job. When he began working as a barista at Starbucks he entered into its education training program.
The company’s main focus is providing great customer service, and it found that the best way to do this was to ensure its workers received training on life skills such as managing emotions, how to stay organized and focused and, most importantly for Travis, willpower. Through these trainings Travis was able to master his emotions by creating go to habits for different situations that could arise at work. For example, the LATTE method is used to deal with difficult customers:
Listen to the customer
Acknowledge the problem
Take problem-solving action
Explain why the problem occurred
The program encourages employees to imagine difficult situations with customers, decide how they would react in advance and practice through role play. By having a set routine in place, Travis was able to overcome his emotional response to angry customers. As soon as he receives the cue, a complaining customer, he dives into his routine allowing him to stay level headed. Since instituting this program, Starbuck’s revenue increased by $1 billion. See Duhigg’s thought-provoking TEDTalk detailing more insights from his book.
Creating a feedback habit
You can also use this method to create a feedback habit in your company. Amongst our clients we’ve observed that as employees share more and more feedback through Impraise, they begin to develop feedback behaviors. As the habit forms, people become more comfortable expressing feedback face-to-face. In our biggest client company, a major hotel booking platform, we’ve seen this lead to an increase in the exchange of unsolicited feedback and better professional development conversations.
Utilizing their employees’ affinity for games, a gaming company we work with has created a reward system in which people vote for the best feedback they were given, resulting in a bonus for the top contributor.
When creating your own feedback habit keep in mind these three elements to habit forming. For example, your steps could be:
Cue - Receiving a feedback notification from a colleague
Routine - 1. Analyze the feedback,
2. Ask questions to better understand
3. Thank them
4. Strategize ways to improve based on your feedback
5. Set goals for yourself based on these strategies
Reward - Using the feedback to reach the professional goals you’ve set for yourself
To put this into context we’ll go back to Mary, the manager who just received surprising constructive feedback from her employees. When her thoughts of betrayal and exclusion start to set in, she should recognize her fixed mindset voice and respond: “It’s not that my employees are ungrateful for my help, they just want more opportunities to grow professionally.”
Following these steps, after receiving her cue, feedback notifications on her real-time feedback platform, Mary should automatically read through them and write down keywords and patterns she sees. She should then respond to her feedback in order to fill in the gaps: “What can I do to better support you when you reach an obstacle?” Finish by thanking them for their feedback.
Based on their answers, it’s time to come up with strategies for improvement. Maybe her employees would like her to first ask if they need her help. When they do ask for help, she can make sure to adjust her language and tone, so that she’s sure to provide suggestions rather than instructions. She should also consider offering individuals opportunities to take on more responsibilities. For example, suggesting that an employee take the lead on a new project. Another option is committing to having more regular one-on-ones with her employees, so she can check in and offer her assistance when needed.
Finally, Mary can set her professional goals around this feedback: “Becoming a better leader by providing more autonomy to my employees”. Mary should then check in from time to time and ask her employees for feedback on her management style and what she could do to more effectively reach her goals.