Providing feedback is an act of decency as indicated by Harry Kraemer, a long time business executive and professor of management and strategy at the Kellogg School of Management.

If we decide to always be nice to everyone and withhold honest feedback, our colleagues will not have the opportunity to truly understand how they can improve.

As humans we have an inherent need to improve ourselves but without awareness of our development areas this will not be possible. Research shows that about 87% of employees want to improve in their job but only a third actually receive the feedback they need to improve. The reason for this is quite clear. Feedback discussions are uncomfortable, for both the giver and the receiver.

Why do we as feedback providers and receivers find it so hard to engage in feedback discussions?

All people want to be liked by others and we therefore then avoid anything that includes possible conflict. We need to ensure that higher values surpasses our need to be liked. We should rather let the value of respect for the feedback receiver’s development guide us.

It is important to deliver the feedback in an appropriate manner. Often, if the feedback is not delivered properly, defensive reactions like blaming, justifying, fear or disengagement can be expected. When receiving feedback our brains tend to scan for risks (as part of basic survival) and sometimes over interpret the perceived threat.

According to Anne Lytle from Monash University our brains interpret situations from two different states “approach/reward” versus “avoid/threat”. In the approach state, our brain perceives the world to be safe which allows us to feel satisfied and connected. The avoid state is when the brain interprets the world to be risky and threatening, and diverts resources to the more primitive parts of our brains responsible for helping us to run from predators or engage in a fight.

These psychological reactions are however not necessarily suitable for the modern world we live in today. It is therefore important to note that it is not an ideal strategy to run from something as critical as receiving or giving feedback.

We often feel that our status is threatened when a manager or colleague provides us with valuable feedback on our performance.  As the receiver it is therefore important to also keep the purpose of the feedback in mind.

Create a culture where everyone is comfortable to provide regular feedback to one another

People cannot begin to determine that they are perhaps not performing if they do not have the data they need. It might be challenging providing feedback but it is important to keep the bigger picture around the purpose of the feedback in mind.

Feedback should not be kept for bi-annual performance reviews. Feedback should be given regularly as this will prevent any surprises. The more you provide feedback the easier it gets.

When we give feedback we need to take the way the brain works into account and practice delivery methods that will decrease the threat response of the receiver and increase the positive impact of the content of the feedback. The following tips can guide you in creating a culture of providing regular and comfortable feedback:

  • Increase the receiver’s status by first making your own status vulnerable relative to theirs. Do this by stating the confidence you have in the receiver’s ability and their capability to improve. Increasing the status of the receiver will allow them to hear your message.
  • Increase certainty by being clear about the purpose of and the outcomes of the feedback – what needs to change walking out of the discussion and why. Make sure you use clear and specific examples of where the receiver performed a task that need to improve. It is valuable if the feedback takes place shortly after the specific event and not after a few months only.
  • Increase autonomy by asking the receiver to come up with their own ideas on how they can do things differently in light of the feedback. Be prepared to ask open ended questions to guide the receiver to initiate their own suggestions to improve.
  • Increase relatedness by connecting with the receiver on a human level – show empathy and care and perhaps even share some of your own development journey stories.

Being on the receiving end of the feedback it is critical to decrease your threat response and put strategies in place to effectively reflect and respond to the feedback provided. The following guidelines can assist you:

  • Label your emotion in the moment. When we identify our emotional state we decrease the emotional activity in our brains giving more capacity to think rationally about the feedback we are receiving.
  • Reappraising the situation. To consciously choose to interpret your feedback situation differently also allows you to shift your emotional response. There is evidence that people who can reassess their situation live healthier and happier lives.
  • Listen to the feedback given. Do not interrupt while feedback is provided. Listen attentively and do not assume what they will be saying. You will absorb more information if you focus on listening and understanding rather than being defensive and focusing on how you will respond.
  • Be aware of your reactions. Be conscious of your body language and tone of voice. Avoid putting up barriers that will threaten the purpose of the discussion. Attentiveness indicates that you value the feedback being provided and puts both parties at ease.
  • Be open. Be receptive of new ideas and different ways of thinking. You may just learn something worthwhile that can have a significant impact on improving.
  • Understand the message. It is important to understand what is being said to you, especially before reacting to the feedback. Ask clarifying questions if necessary.
  • Reflect and decide what to do. Evaluate the feedback, the consequences of using it or ignoring it, and then decide which actions you will take because of it. How you react is your choice. Consider asking for further views if you do not agree with the feedback.

University of Sheffield’s cognitive scientist Tom Stafford says that feedback is the essence of intelligence. He states that feedback allows us to become more than simple programs with simple reflexes, and develop more complex responses to the environment. Feedback is a gift. Give and receive it generously.


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