Why We Need a Feedback ‘Hack’. How Our Brains Process Feedback and What We Can Do About It

by Debbie Plager, MS, PCC

Some of the most dreaded words in the business vernacular are, “I have some feedback for you.”  Whenever I heard the dreaded F word, my pulse started to race.  I felt my stomach drop.  My neck got scratchy.   I shared my physiological responses to feedback with a colleague Eric.  It turns out he was the opposite of me.  He leaned in.  His face got red. He took up even more room in his chair.  And he got ready to get loud and defensive.  Do any of these reactions seem similar to you?  Turns out, for most human beings on the planet, receiving feedback is very challenging.  Yet – it is something we crave as working professionals.  And, as executives, it is something we get less and less of.

What if I told you that either reaction – like Eric or like me – is perfectly normal?  What if I share with you that there is a biological reason behind your fight/flight/freeze response to receiving feedback?

Consider this.  As human beings, we are the only animals on the planet that need social ties to survive for our first several years.  Could a one-year-old seal survive on its own?  What about a two-year-old buffalo?  Yes.  Could an eighteen-month-old cat survive?  Absolutely.  While I am not saying the quality of life would be the same as if they grew up with their herd, pride, or pack, they could physically survive.  Contrast this with a two-year old human toddler.  Could they survive on their own?  We all know the answer to that.  It turns out that we are hard-wired to pay attention to and to protect our social ties because we rely on them for our very survival.

When we receive feedback – our status and connection to our ‘tribe’ is questioned.  When we receive feedback, we are unclear if our relationships are still intact.  For the past 15+ years, neuroscientists have studied how human beings perceive social threats.  It turns out that the same parts of the brain that process physical threats are engaged when we perceive social threats.  Furthermore, when neuroscientists view people experiencing social pain and physical pain via fMRIs – similar parts of the brain light up.

As a former business executive, I received training on multiple feedback models.  While knowing how to give feedback is useful – understanding the neuroscience around receiving feedback heightens the need for the following:

  1. Time and place matter. If someone’s perceived status is already threatened by the word feedback, be sure to give privately, and consider the time of day that you’re providing the feedback.  If you’re giving them feedback that may threaten their sense of competence, and you know they have a large presentation coming up the next day, you may want to wait until afterwards (unless your feedback is crucial to them improving their upcoming presentation).
  2. Ensure a trusting relationship is already present. This is one of those moments when you are sharing negative news.  If you have enough ‘credits in the bank’, and the other person knows that you care about them as a person and that you are sharing this feedback to help them, it is less threatening for them to receive your feedback.
  3. Stick to the facts vs. creating a story. When sharing feedback, stick to the observable facts.  Provide the context.  A helpful feedback framework is SBI (Situation, Behavior, Impact)
    1. Here was the meeting in question, i.e., the situation.
    2. Here’s what I observed, i.e., the behaviors you demonstrated. You said, ‘xyz’.  Your voice got louder.  You did not give person B a chance to speak.
    3. Then, share the impact that this behavior had on you. Only share the impact of someone’s behaviors on others if you know it first-hand (i.e., people shared directly with you).

But wait, there are more brain insights to share! The Neuro Leadership Institute (NLI) – a think tank for taking brain science insights and translating them into actionable organizational learnings – studied the effects of giving and receiving feedback.  While scientists knew for a while that people receiving feedback perceived it as a threat, NLI found that perceived threat levels among feedback givers were almost as high as those receiving feedback.  I.e., if I am sharing tough feedback with you – I am worried about the perceived ding on our relationship.  I am worried about how fairly I will be perceived.  As it turns out, nobody fares well in a feedback situation.  Feedback givers and feedback receivers both have their stress levels rise.

With this latest brain insight – what else can executives do to create a feedback culture and to get better at receiving and giving feedback?  Turns out there is a feedback ‘hack’.  While it doesn’t make feedback pleasant, it does the most to reduce the threat that givers and receivers have surrounding feedback.

Why We Need a Feedback ‘Hack’?

What is this hack?  Simply flip the feedback formula on its head and start to ASK for feedback.  Sounds too good to be true?  Let’s check with the brain science.  Let’s say you and Ana are peer executives, and you are working on further refining your strategic influencing skills.  If you a) share with Ana what you are working on from a developmental perspective and b) you ask her to observe you in an upcoming meeting where you are both present, this does a few things that help lower the feedback threat.

  1. Increases clarity. You know from WHOM the feedback is coming.  You know Ana will share feedback with you.
  2. Increases specificity and usefulness. You know WHAT the feedback will be about. e., You asked Ana specifically to focus on you strategic influence capability.  As an aside, it’s more likely that Ana will provide you with higher quality feedback. She is likely to pay more attention, and to look for specific things you do well and places you could improve.
  3. Increases the relationship and a sense of “us”. In addition to paying attention to your behavior and your impact in the meeting, it most likely means a good deal to Ana that you asked her to help you.  She is now “with you” to help you improve.
  4. Increases certainty. You know WHEN to expect feedback. You know that Ana and you will meet in a couple of days to debrief the meeting and to compare notes.

By flipping the traditional feedback script and asking Ana for feedback, you’ve done several things to make it less threatening for yourself as the receiver of feedback.  You’ve also reduced Ana’s perceived threat of providing you with feedback.  She sees it as helping you, as being specific, and being welcomed insight.

Furthermore, you’ve done one of the most powerful actions that you can do as a leader to build and sustain a feedback-rich culture.  You have role modeled asking for feedback.  Lastly, given how we are hardwired for reciprocity, Ana is likely to reciprocate in the future and ask you to provide her with specific feedback.  You’ve laid the foundation for a virtuous feedback cycle.

As a leader, you can work with your brain and role model for your teams and the broader organization how to create a culture that builds social ties, that gives people higher quality feedback, all while reducing the stress and perceived threats around giving and receiving feedback.


Elevate your Leadership Potential

To learn more about receiving feedback and executive coaching, reach out to Debbie for a consultation.