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Why is feedback so difficult? The behavioural view - with three suggestions for you to try


We care deeply about what others think about us. This is why feedback can be such a difficult endeavour, so infused with negative emotions, fear and anxiety.

What is the behavioural explanation for the negative connotations of feedback? How we are perceived by others is ingrained in the survival instinct. Our brain is always on the lookout for danger, it tries to protect us from external threats.

Negative feedback is a threat to our position in a team/organisation/society.

As stated by psychologist Daniel Goleman “Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are remarkably potent biologically, almost as those to our very survival”. 

For this reason, if you are planning to give feedback which the other person may perceive as threatening, then be prepared for a negative reaction. It's human nature, nothing to do with you, nor the other person. 

Can we apply behavioural insights to improve the feedback experience? Of course, we can.

My proposal is based on introducing a positive narrative, creating reflection opportunities and turning the whole thing upside down!


The power of words: choose a positive narrative 

Somehow the word feedback tends to trigger the expectation of a negative comment and this association is very ingrained in our consciousness.


My proposal is to emphasise positive feedback: what has your team member done well and should do more of? Which positive behaviours have they shown that should be role modelled more frequently? One of the basis of this suggestion is my experience as coach in Strengths, which is all about building on our natural talents rather than trying to fix our so-called weaknesses.


I am not dismissing the need to draw the attention to and stop negative actions and behaviours. This is required, and sometimes essential. 


Don’t tell: create an opportunity for reflection

If you tell your feedback there is limited opportunity for dialogue, which is a more effective learning opportunity. 


For example, if I am going to give feedback on presentation skills, I would start with "I observed you presenting at the stakeholder meeting just now, what was it like?”, “How do you feel about it?" and “How do you believe the audience reacted?” By asking a question rather than telling, you open a dialogue and the opportunity for the person to reflect. 


It is important to ask as many questions as possible about their experience, reactions and observations. Their reflections enable you to confirm some of their impressions, or give an alternative view. 


Change your view point: turn feedback upside down

If you watched Mary Poppins Return, you may remember her eccentric cousin Topsy Turvy: her whole world turns upside down every second Wednesday, and she doesn't know how to function in such chaos. Wise Mary Poppins suggest "When you change the view from where you stood, the things you view will change for good". 


I propose to request feedback before the event. I started this approach with my team some years ago, and quickly realised that it removes so much pressure from both giver and receiver of feedback. The receiver is sending a clear message he is eager for feedback and to learn from the experience. The giver is prepared and can notice the event in a more meaningful way, plus he will be more open in sharing his observations because they are expected. 


In conclusion, behavioural insights can help improve how we give and receive feedback. My proposal is to

move away from the negative connotations often associated with the word feedback, and create a positive growth experience.  

These are my three suggestions for you to try:


1.    Consider how often you give negative instead of positive feedback, and then make sure you accentuate the positive. 


2.   Ask questions to help the person receiving feedback to reflect on the experience and develop their learning. 


3.    Encourage people to ask for feedback in advance of the event 


These changes will introduce a fundamental change in team dynamics, leading to an open and learning culture. And please let me know about your experience of trying out these suggestions.


I welcome your comments and feedback (of course!)

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