A psychologist explains why giving feedback can be risky and how to counter it.

November 2, 2017 - 10 minute read - Posted by

“Could I offer you some feedback?”

Imagine you’ve just been asked this question.

Perhaps you have just completed an important presentation. Or an email has popped up with these words in the subject line. Whatever the forum, the moment you hear those words, how do you feel?

As a true psychologist, I decided to test this out with some colleagues, friends, and my partner (yes, I know, risky move). I asked the question “Could I offer you some feedback?”.

After about two seconds, I asked them how they felt and why they felt that way.

Their responses?

“Anxious”, “scared”, “self-conscious”, “fearful” and even, “shocked” just to name a few.

One colleague told me:

“My mind immediately started racing. I was thinking about everything I could have done wrong”.

Another stated that:

“It’s just a diplomatic way to say that I’ve messed up, right? You always feel secretly stupid and just hope no one will notice”.

One tiny question. Some mighty big ramifications.

Why do we respond this way to feedback?

I bet none of you reading this are surprised. Neuroscience has been telling us for years that this is actually a common response for a number of reasons. A key one being that this is a by-product of our evolutionary instinct to survive.  

I’ll explain.

Humans are hardwired to perceive threat even where such a threat may not exist. While this ability to detect ‘error’ or ‘sense when something is wrong’ was useful when humans were worried about a potential predator attack, these evolutionary by-products are far less functional in an everyday workplace as threats are so often perceived but may not actually exist.

So, what happens when we are approached out of the blue and we are offered some ‘constructive feedback’?

We immediately feel threatened. We feel anxious. We feel uncertain. Our brain tells us, “something is about to go very, very wrong”.

Enter the dilemma.

We actually thrive off feedback!

Feedback is good for us. Let me rephrase that, feedback is essential for us.

When done right, feedback improves performance and engagement of teams, builds confidence, drives development and promotes career mobility.

Error-based learning (i.e. learning from ‘failure’) is by far one of the most effective ways to nurture growth and drive innovation. You only need to look at the aviation industry to see how they have advanced exponentially through dissecting failures transparently and learning from them.

We also crave feedback. How engaged would you feel in a role that gave you absolutely no feedback? Studies have estimated that over 65% of employees crave bi-weekly feedback.

So how do we address this? One way that we know works, is to foster a culture of feedback.

Tips on Fostering a Culture of Feedback

Culture will turn up whether you like it or not. Your choice, as an organization, as a leader or as an individual contributor, is whether or not you make it intentional.

Here are three things leaders can do to intentionally create a culture of feedback that is nurtured, promoted and most importantly, valued in your organization.

Leaders, make your people feel safe.

Psychological safety is a big deal. In Google’s famous 2 year study on team performance, psychological safety was the key unique factor that differentiated high performing teams.

Similarly, in Simon Sinek’s “Leaders Eat Last“, he reinforces the need for leaders like yourself, to create what he calls a ‘circle of safety’ to foster comradery and reduce potentially negative team member competition.

It takes a lot of effort to make an employee feel safe. Especially when it comes to delivering constructive feedback or expressing disagreement with your colleagues or your leader.

Yet, ‘positive conflict’ is essential for fostering innovation and building trust among teams. It also ensures we don’t fall victim to processes such as groupthink.

Let’s look at ways to build psychological safety in the next two steps.

Sit down. Be humble.

Fostering psychological safety requires building true and meaningful connections with your team members.

Regular meaningful 1-on-1 conversations are crucial to establishing trusting relationships. It ensures you keep the experience human. Be humble about it.

Paul Santagata of Google emphasizes the need to speak human to human. Based on the belief that humans have a universal need for respect, competence, social status, and autonomy—and he is right.

He further notes that he aims for his team to always walk away with a positive experience suggesting routine feedback processes as an effective way to build employee psychological safety.

Routine feedback often takes away those elements of shock and anxiety. Which leaves employees to perceive feedback positively and ultimately reap the benefits.

Also, never forget how important empathy is in building trust in these conversations.

Social psychologist, Brene Brown frequently speaks to using empathy to connect with others’ perspectives and showing the courage and vulnerability as a leader to do so.

So go ahead. Show your team that you have the courage to be vulnerable by opening up to feedback and leading by example. Ask for feedback on yourself as a leader.

Be humble, be human and connect.

Curiosity never actually killed anyone (not even the cat).

Curiosity is a word I see popping up more and more lately. And I love it.

Curiosity is the mark of an inclusive and humble leader. A leader that values different perspectives and is happy to ask “is there a better way?” or “what are your thoughts?” or even “what could we try next time?”.

Recently, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt discussed a concept he coins as “Soak”. He also believes that effective leaders are curious. They take time to engage in what he refers to as a “soak period”. This is where they absorb information from different sources and contemplate before acting.

In nearly every coaching session I’ve ever conducted, a leader will describe a challenging scenario to which I ask, “what was the other person’s perspective on this event?”.

Nine times out of ten, not a single meaningful question comes up.

Even more alarmingly, if a question had been asked, often the response could not be recalled.

In a nutshell, they didn’t ask enough questions. When they did ask questions, they didn’t listen to the response. They made a lot of assumptions.

We love to make assumptions. Our brain is constantly making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. Stop and ask yourself—”do I truly understand what is going on here?”, “what else do I need to know?” and “what questions should I be asking?”.

And don’t forget, when you start asking questions, be open and listen to the response.

While this all seems simple, we’ve all (unfortunately) experienced providing feedback to a leader only to watch it fall on deaf ears. Not the greatest feeling is it?

Strive to be the type of leader that asks questions and listens. Questions are so powerful. When asked with the right intention, they nurture growth and foster a culture of open and trusted inquiry.

Don’t just take my word for it. Harvard Business Review revealed that the real conversations happen when we have well-intentioned curiosity.

Next Read: Top 3 benefits of having 1-on-1s with your employees


Also published on Medium.

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