“But the results in my “Wheel of Life” are excellent! Besides, the hardest thing for a successful leader is to receive personal feedback? Isn’t it?”

This is part of a conversation I had  with a very well positioned, self made CEO, and it got me thinking, how do people perceive feedback? Why is it sensitive and how do we deal with it?

“Fight or Flight” is a hyper arousal state of our nervous system when we are faced with stressors and threats. We might not be scanning our surroundings for wild animals to make sure we are safe in the wild anymore, yet the “threats” that trigger the fight or flight response in our nervous system are still there. Feedback is one of these triggers. Yes, it can be seen as a way to get motivated and reach your full potential, but the reality is, most of the time no one loves to hear where they’re going wrong. The phrase “Minimize Danger, Maximize Reward” defines how our innate system works no matter how resilient we are. At the workplace, feedback can make us feel like our status is threatened, that there is a sense of uncertainty or unfairness. The amygdala will receive the data and always try to translate it into emotions.

Why is Feedback so Important?

In a 2019 study conducted by Ying-Leh Ling, an international researcher in education, it was found that “feedback environment has significant influence towards intrinsic motivation.” While extrinsic motivation driven by monetary and non-monetary rewards may have a positive effect on performance, it is considered to be short-lived. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation’s results last longer. Employees will feel more appreciated and in turn would want to keep on improving and impressing. 

Even more, according to a survey by Gallup, employee engagement goes up to 50.5% if the feedback is positive compared to 10.4% when the feedback is negative. Additionally, 29.1% of employees search for new employment after negative feedback compared to 3.6% when the feedback is positive. 

Such data comes as support for the previously mentioned “fight or flight” system that gets triggered by any situation our senses deem threatening. 

How to give and receive feedback?

The trick? The way feedback is given equally to the attitude of the receiver.

According to an article written by Timothy Murphy for Deloitte, there are four elements that need to be taken into consideration once you are giving or receiving feedback. 

  1. The giver’s inner dialogue
  2. Nonverbal communication
  3. Verbal communication
  4. Receiver’s inner dialogue

In any conversation about feedback, all four factors play a big role without us even noticing and most of the time leave residues which make the conversation take a bad turn.

Giving feedback:

1. Keep yourself in Check: 

Whether you’re a manager or a colleague giving feedback, it is important to first of all keep yourself in check. Do not initiate a conversation where you will give feedback if you are in a bad mood for example, it is more contagious than you think. This will have an effect on the three other factors. Your posture might become uninviting – nonverbal communication, our words short – verbal communication and in turn, this will influence the receiver’s attitude – receiver’s inner dialogue. This first step is clearly crucial for the whole process. 

2. Pay attention to  nonverbal communication

Research has time after time proved the importance on non-verbal communication any discussion. Even when we are not paying attention to these nonverbal cues, Heike et al. were able to prove that “cerebral activation patterns demonstrated an attentional bias towards nonverbal signals.” This clearly means that the receiver will be continuously scanning for facial expressions and body language and adding them to his or her understanding of the situation.

3. Start with the wins 

Now that you know that your brain is constantly trying to search for threats, create less of them. When you’re giving feedback, focus on the positive and share the negative in a smooth way. Start with the wins. A study by Losada and Heaphy showed that there’s actually a ratio between negative and positive feedback to ensure a high performance after the feedback and that is a consistent six positives to one negative. Pick words that are not triggering and could provoke a defensive shield. This will help you reach our goal sooner and easier. Once you get to the things that went wrong, try to be specific and pair it with encouragement. 

4. Make a habit out of giving feedback. 

Yearly feedback has proven to be unsuccessful means to reach a higher end. What actually works is building and reinforcing a culture where coaching and feedback are a part of the job. This will even make it less stressful for everyone involved in the situation. 


Now what should you do if you’re on the receiving end?

Well, it might naturally be expected for you to receive feedback if you’re an employee. Yet, it’s a bit tricky if you’re the manager. Here are some tips if you are on either end.

As an employee:

You might have realized how delicate giving feedback is. You can make it easier and here are 3 Steps that can help you:

  1. Your attitude: we all tend to unconsciously associate feedback with criticism, you are not alone. Changing this attitude towards feedback and looking at it as a means for you to learn and grow can drastically enhance the experience for you as well as the person giving you feedback. This will in turn contribute to not triggering your nervous system and putting it in fight or flight. Controlling your defensiveness and judgment of the situation will follow.
  2. Nonverbal communication: once your attitude towards the situation is in check, nonverbal communication will directly follow. But just in case it did not, go that extra mile and put in the effort. Do not avoid eye contact, smile (it will actually trick your brain into believing that the situation is not threatening.)
  3. Feedback is not a monologue: whenever the feedback is happening, it is important for you to realize that you are a part of it and not an observer. You can ask questions, examples and you can most definitely ask for tips. It might not be from the person directly giving you the feedback, look for an expert or someone reliable in the subject of the discussion and discuss it with them. 

As a leader:

This is where things become a bit more difficult for you as well as your employees. 

  1. Your attitude: yet again, attitude is the constant no matter the position. Your employees see you as the holder of their “fate”. They will probably fear approaching you and providing feedback and this can easily turn the culture of the workplace into a very toxic one. Whether the gossip behind your back or everything that comes with seeing the manager as the scary monster. Understand that even though your employees might not be at “your level”, you always have something to learn from them. It can be scary and it is important for you to recognize it to be able to surpass it and adopt it, but don’t allow this fear to hold you back from the great outcomes of feedback. 
  2. Adopt the open door policy: just like you want to be able to communicate openly with your employees and help them improve, allow them to do the same for you. This can happen through modeling as well as going to them and asking for feedback yourself. Set the pace and they will follow.
  3. Act upon the feedback: all of this can end up in a charade and lack of trust if you ask your employees for feedback and you don’t actually act upon any of the conversations that have happened. Think through what they communicate with you and push for change.

By now we understand why feedback at work is such a sensitive topic. We know that our brains perceive and react to it as a threat. We also understand that even though it might be “threatening”, that can be modified when we pay attention to all the factors in a feedback conversation. And finally, we can clearly see that no matter the position, whether a junior or a CEO, feedback is one of the major ingredients to the recipe of success.

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