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Feedback: Why is it so hard?!


In our conversations with HR leaders, we often hear about the challenge of developing the culture of feedback that is needed to drive performance. Our study of over 200 managers indicated that 97% of managers are concerned about causing stress by giving feedback. Over 80% were concerned about receiving an angry response when they gave the feedback.

To address these concerns, organisations often seek to train managers to deliver feedback better, or to change their performance management processes to encourage (or force) managers to give feedback more regularly. And these interventions do make a difference. However, what if, instead of focusing on the skills required to give great feedback, we seek to understand what happens in our brains when we receive feedback?

It is, after all, the receiver of the feedback who is the person responsible for making change in response to the feedback.

In our previous session on Leading Change, we explored the brain’s threat and reward systems. As humans, our brain is primed to move towards situations that trigger the reward system and away from situations that trigger threat responses.

Our threat system is designed to protect us from harm, to make us alert to threats and to keep us safe. As a result, when we are in a threat state, we feel anxious and stressed, we are more suspicious of others and closed to new ideas. Being in a threat state also has a negative impact on our cognitive abilities – impacting problem solving, concentration, memory and decision-making.

When we are in a reward state, we are more open to people and ideas. We are more resilient, positive, collaborative and creative. Our cognitive functions work at their best and we are open to learning. As you can see, these qualities support us to listen to, accept and respond positively to feedback.

Understanding our emotional and cognitive responses to feedback can therefore help create the right environment, enabling us to have more valuable, honest and effective conversations. If we understand how we ourselves respond, then that can help us to understand how others might respond and to change the way we approach giving feedback.

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, in their book “Thank you for the feedback”, talk about two conflicting human needs that are triggered in feedback situations. Firstly, we have a need to learn and we know, logically, that feedback is important for highlighting where we need to change and how well we are doing it. Learning how we impact others can help us to improve our relationships by being able to respond to others’ needs more effectively.

However, we also have a strong need to be accepted by others for who we are. Any form of feedback tells us that the way we are right now is not good enough, that we need to change.

One of the ways we can improve our response to the feedback we receive, is to understand more about emotional reactions to that feedback. This takes emotional intelligence (being able to interpret and manage our own emotions) and it takes resilience (managing our energy levels to be able to engage our logical brain rather than our emotional brain).

It is also useful to understand the triggers for our emotional reactions. Stone and Heen divide these into three areas:

1. Truth Triggers: Our belief that the content of the feedback is wrong, unfair, unhelpful
2. Relationship Triggers: What we believe about the person giving us the feedback or how we feel treated by them
3. Identity Triggers: How we think and feel about ourselves

These triggers are all completely natural and understandable – it’s not the triggers themselves that are a problem but the impact they can have on our ability to engage skilfully with feedback. They bias our responses to the feedback e.g. “that person always responds in that way, it’s them and not me”, “other people were also involved in that project, the feedback doesn’t apply to me”, “this feedback suggests behaviour that I showed and that I don’t like, I don’t accept that is me”.

The triggers can also be specific to a particular situation or person or can be general.

What feedback triggers do you have and what impact do they have on your ability to “hear” and respond to feedback?

Understanding your triggers can help you to separate the trigger from the content of the feedback. It can also help you to identify actions you might need to take either during feedback situations or before. For example, do you have a relationship challenge that means that you don’t really hear what each other says? Do you have limiting beliefs that impact how you respond to feedback – people with low confidence or imposter syndrome can be biased towards hearing negative feedback more than positive feedback.

Please let us know what you think or contact us at pip@insight-hrc.co.uk if you would like any more information.

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If you would like to discuss how we can help your organisation, then please get in touch with a member of our team.