Why the heck is workplace feedback so hard?

It’s happened to all of us. You’re sitting at your desk and your boss stops by and says nonchalantly, “Hey, can I give you some feedback”? Regardless of how competent and confident you are, chances are your brain has already registered a threat response.  “Sure, no problem”, you say. Your brain says, “Brace for impact!”.

The problem with feedback

Feedback is an essential component of workplace learning, yet most organizations struggle to do it effectively. Why is that? The problem is that the way that we’ve been taught to give feedback is pretty much all wrong for the way our brains process feedback.

Most of us were taught that we should give feedback, in person, soon after the event. Right? Some people were even taught the “sandwich” method – which was good feedback + development feedback + good feedback. Turns out your brain is way smarter than that.

Your Brain and Feedback

It turns out your Reticular Activating System (starting in the retina in your eye) augments the signal for danger in your brain.  So when you’re supposed to feel cool and confident going into that 1:1 performance review with your boss, your brain is detecting that silence about your last email project x could be a bad sign.

Guess What – He’s Stressed Too

Dr. Tessa West of New York university did some interesting social science research back in 2018.  Managers in a company were brought together in pairs that did not know each other for a “role play” exercise.  They were then told that they were adversaries in a negotiation and had to do the best they could.  Then afterwards they were either asked to provide feedback to the other person or proactively ask for feedback.   There were three main conclusions:

  1. It is highly stressful to the brain to receive unsolicited feedback
  2. It is highly stressful to the brain to be required to give feedback
  3. The only time it is less stressful is when you proactively ask for feedback.

Your Boring Old 360 Tool is NOT the Answer Either

What does it mean that you are a 3.2 on managing ambiguity, really?  According to HR guru Marcus Buckingham, not a darn thing.  360s ask bosses, peers, and direct reports (the usual suspects) to rate you on a scale of 1-5 or 1-10, sometimes with a small place for comments.  Often “raters” are asked to give input on up to 40 different competencies.  Ask yourself how qualified each of those people are to rate you, how many direct interactions have they had with you, and how recently?  Lastly, making pretty numerical charts and graphs may look good (and cost a pretty penny) but honestly creating quantitative data (4.1 on Executive Presence), is just well, “fake data”.

Start a Revolution – Slowly

There are better ways to help your leaders get timely, actionable and empathetic feedback. There are great new tools out there that are fast, user friendly, and scalable.  And there is at least one that you can roll out without setting the IT Director’s hair on fire.

Libby Robinson, is the Managing Partner of Integral, a leading leadership and advisory company.  She seeks to blow up the entire 360 degree feedback market by helping leaders see how technology can make it less stressful to create a positive and empathetic feedback experience (Fx) for people in organizations.

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