How to Overcome the Fear of Feedback

What’s holding us back from accepting and sharing feedback with others? The answer might be in your head.
July 6, 2016

Mary considers herself to be a good manager. Whenever one of her employees is struggling with an assignment, she swoops in to help them put things in order and give pointers. Her company is introducing a new 360-degree performance management system based on continuous feedback, and, as a leader, she’s been encouraged to lead the transition by first asking for feedback from her team. She’s excited about this new change because she thinks it will help a few of her team members open up and resolve conflicts amongst each other.

But when she receives her feedback, she’s surprised to find that several people say she needs to let go and allow people to work out assignments in their own way. One person even used the term “micromanaging.” Even though she’s supposed to be setting an example, her first reaction is anger. She sets aside a lot of time to help her employees solve problems and receives criticism in return. She’s now supposed to act on the feedback she receives in order to encourage employees to do the same, but she feels betrayed.

Related: How to React to Negative Feedback at Work

Most people have trouble handling feedback well. Some have even more trouble giving it. Feedback is not meant to harm or criticize people, but as a way to improve. So even though we know feedback is good for us, what’s holding us back from accepting and sharing it with others? The answer might be in your head.

What Are the Psychological Factors That Make Us Afraid of Feedback?

The most common answer is our body's natural negativity bias. Prominent psychologists and neurobiologists find that our brains are hardwired to react to negative stimuli faster. This was originally necessary for our survival. Sensing an attack would trigger our body’s natural fight-or-flight mode, increasing the amount of hormones released to the bloodstream, elevating reaction time and heightening our emotions. The experiences that trigger these reactions become etched into our brain so we can quickly react to dangerous situations. This is why we tend to remember negative experiences more than positive ones.

But in an office setting, our negativity bias and fight-or-flight reaction can actually work against us. Even when receiving mostly positive feedback, it tends to be the constructive feedback we recall most acutely. Although feedback doesn’t constitute a physical attack, in their separate research, psychologist Peter Gray and management professor Neal Ashkanasy both explain that criticism can signal a sense of exclusion. In hunter-gatherer societies, people were dependent on the group for survival. For this reason, constructive feedback can sometimes trigger our fear of exclusion from the group.

Is Fear of Giving Feedback More About You Than Others?

A study by Dr. Carla Jefferies of the University of Southern Queensland discovered that a failure to give constructive feedback might actually be more about protecting ourselves than others. In her experiment, participants were told to give feedback on an essay either in person, anonymously or feedback that would not be shared with the author.

She found that participants with lower self-esteem gave more positive feedback in person and more critical feedback in the other two situations. People with high self-esteem gave the same feedback in all situations. According to a researcher on her team, “If one accepts that people with relatively low self-esteem are expected to place greater emphasis on wanting to be perceived as likeable or attractive to others, then this lends support for the self-protection motive.”

Supporting this research, a study conducted by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman found that 74 percent of employees who received constructive feedback already knew there was a problem. This shows that employees aren’t necessarily blind to the things they need to improve on, they just either aren’t sure how to improve or aren’t fully aware of how it impacts the team. In fact, in their previous research, they found a majority of employees actually want constructive feedback.

The caveat is that people don’t want to receive top-down instructions on what to do. In their study, they also found the more managers carefully listened to their employees’ point of view before giving feedback, the more honest and trustworthy their feedback was perceived.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman suggest that the best way to give constructive feedback is:

1. Give the other person the chance to explain the situation and what they think went wrong. Before immediately going into feedback, first allow them to formulate their own plan of action. If you listen carefully up to this point, when you give your own feedback, it is much more likely to be well received.

2. Offer to check in the following week so that you can lend further advice if needed, without seeming overbearing.

So what are we still so afraid of?

Related: 5 Strategies for Giving Phenomenal Feedback

Changing Your Mindset

Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s studies into what she terms “fixed and growth mindsets” provide valuable insights into this fear. According to her research, people with fixed mindsets view their skills as constant personal traits, while people with growth mindsets view their skills as malleable abilities which can be improved. For example, children who have been praised for being smart throughout their lives might face difficulties improving after receiving a bad grade on an exam. However, children who have been praised for getting good grades based on their hard work and dedication are more likely to see a bad grade as an opportunity to learn.

When we associate abilities with a part of our identity, receiving constructive criticism can feel more like a personal attack. People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, are more likely to take risks and overcome obstacles by seeing failure as a signal to try harder, rather than time to give up.

The good news is that we are not naturally divided into fixed and growth mindsets. Developing a growth mindset toward feedback is possible. According to Dweck, the first step is recognizing your fixed mindset “voice.” When you start placing blame on others for the feedback you receive, this is your fixed mindset speaking. Once you recognize this voice, you can begin counteracting it and responding with a growth mindset. See Dweck’s TED Talk, “The power of believing that you can improve,” for more inspiration.

Overcoming Fear of Feedback Through Habit

An important part of overcoming your fear is creating a feedback habit. In Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, he describes how neuroscientists and psychologists discovered the impact of habits by rewiring the brain toward certain behaviors. Marketers and CEOs have used the key elements of creating a habit—cue, routine and reward—to induce certain behaviors in consumers and employees. Duhigg contends that by creating a routine and reward system triggered by certain cues, we can rewire our brain to create new habits and behaviors.

If you want to start exercising more, leaving your running clothes next to your bed will trigger a cue to go for a run in the morning. If you get into the routine of going for a run every morning, your body gets used to the routine. The incentive can be a reward, such as having a big breakfast when you get home. Eventually, the habit kicks in and your body will become accustomed to going for a run when you wake up, even if you forget to leave your running clothes out or don’t have time for an elaborate breakfast.

One example he gives is Starbucks’ success in teaching employees how to navigate difficult situations with customers. In Duhigg’s book, he introduces Travis, a manager of two successful Starbucks locations, who attributes his professional success to Starbucks’ life skills training program. In his previous jobs, Travis had difficulties dealing with angry customers. Rather than dealing with the situation calmly, he would be overcome with emotion and argue back, making it difficult to hold down a steady job. When he began working as a barista at Starbucks, he entered into its education training program.

The company’s main focus is customer service and it found that the best way to do this was to ensure its workers received training on life skills, such as managing emotions, how to stay organized and focused, and, most important for Travis, willpower. Through the training, Travis was able to master his emotions by creating go-to habits for different situations that could arise at work. For example the LATTE method is used to deal with difficult customers:

Listen to the customer.

Acknowledge the problem.

Take problem-solving action.

Thank them.

Explain why the problem occurred.

The program encourages employees to imagine difficult situations with customers, decide how they would react in advance and practice through role play. By having a set routine in place, Travis was able to overcome his emotional response to angry customers. As soon as he receives the cue, a complaining customer, he dives into his routine, allowing him to stay level headed. Since instituting this program, Starbucks’ revenue has increased by $1 billion. See Duhigg’s thought-provoking TED Talk detailing more insights from his book.

Related: 6 Tips for Giving Constructive Criticism

Creating a Feedback Habit

You can also use this method to create a feedback habit in your company, so as employees share more feedback, they begin to develop feedback behaviors. As the habit forms, people become more comfortable expressing feedback in person and can lead to an increase in the exchange of unsolicited feedback and better professional development conversations.

When creating your own feedback habit, keep in mind these three elements to forming good habits. For example, your steps could be:

1. Cue

Receive a feedback notification from a colleague.

2. Routine

3. Reward

Use the feedback to reach the professional goals you’ve set for yourself.

To put this into context, we’ll go back to Mary, the manager who just received surprising constructive feedback from her employees. When her thoughts of betrayal and exclusion start to set in, she should recognize her fixed mindset voice and respond: It’s not that my employees are ungrateful for my help, they just want more opportunities to grow professionally.

Following these steps, after receiving her cue, Mary should automatically sift through the feedback and write down keywords and patterns she sees. She should then respond to her feedback in order to fill in the gaps: “What can I do to better support you when you reach an obstacle?” She can finish by thanking them for their feedback.

Based on their answers, it’s time to come up with strategies for improvement. Maybe her employees would like her to first ask if they need her help. When they do ask for help, she can make sure to adjust her language and tone, so that she’s sure to provide suggestions rather than instructions. She should also consider offering individuals opportunities to take on more responsibilities, like suggesting that an employee take the lead on a new project. Another option is committing to having more regular one-on-ones with her employees, so she can check in and offer her assistance when needed.

Finally, Mary can set her professional goals around this feedback: “Becoming a better leader by providing more autonomy to my employees.” She should then check in from time to time and ask her employees for feedback on her management style and what she could do to more effectively reach her goals.

Related: 10 Quick Tips to Be a Better Boss

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