Your Brain on Feedback

by Katherine Poehnert, M.Ed. Psych., PCC

Let’s face it- when someone asks- “do you mind if I give you some feedback?”  …….it’s highly unlikely that you will hear all the great things you said or did.  It’s certainly possible that “the good stuff “can be the two sides of the cookie, with the “negatives” sandwiched in between, for better digestibility, but your brain is just waiting for all the criticism…constructive or not.  “Under the popular sandwich model, a manager carefully slips a criticism in between two compliments, hoping not to threaten the employee while still offering guidance.” (Workforce- issue 93- winter 2018)

Given this scenario, and looking at basic brain functioning, feedback is actually experienced by the brain, and particularly the Amygdala (The fight-flight, freeze area) as a social threat.   The brain cannot, however, differentiate between a social or a physical threat- it is simply seen as a threat. “The fundamental organizing principle of the brain is to “minimize danger, maximize reward”  It is designed to keep us safe from anything perceived as a threat. When we feel threatened, we shut down, and that’s what happens when we’re given feedback in an ineffective way.” (Neuroleadership institute)

Once our amygdala has been “hijacked”, the brain does all it can to reduce this threat and is focused on that. When hijacked, problem-solving, creative insight, and analytical thinking are all reduced, not leaving much room for openness to growth or change; the primary purpose of feedback.

“While feedback conversations are intended to improve performance, research by Columbia University neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner shows that giving feedback only succeeds at improving performance 30% of the time. The rest of the time performance either remains the same or gets worse. That means that 70% of the time, feedback is not having its intended impact!“ (Neuroleadership Institute)

Interestingly enough- giving feedback to others can be anxiety-producing as well.  In fact, studies have shown that when participants are tracked with heart monitors, equal anxiety is recorded in both scenarios. Often, to combat this anxiety, when giving feedback, we may be overly nice, and polite, which often may not serve the person who is receiving the feedback.  Some research by West and Thornson (NYU) suggests that often a “culture of niceness” where “brittle smiles” are the result of overcompensation to hide the desire to speak or act more candidly and critically develops. In this case- there is an emphasis on being overly positive, and never really addressing areas for growth.

Asking for feedback is the best way to avoid brittle smiles and the culture of niceness. “When you ask for feedback, you’re licensing people to be critical of you,”  “It may feel a little more uncomfortable, but you’re going to get honest, more constructive feedback.” ( west and Thorson negotiation study- NYU)

When you ask, you are actually giving permission, which puts the giver  in a state to be more candid and  the receiver in a state to be prepared for more “negative news”

As coaches, we generally focus on the positive, which is hugely important. In fact, according to Martin Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology,  Research shows that feedback that builds on what we did right causes us to put more energy into that behavior, increasing our self-efficacy. It appears, based on this information, that following a healthy balance between a strong and sincere focus on what has been done well, and a discussion on the areas for future improvement is the best, most productive approach.

Here are some do’s and dont’s when giving feedback:


  • Ask them to self-assess
  • Sit next to the employee
  • Recognize success equal to the rate of “problems”
  • Focus on what to do, not what not to do
  • Focus on building strengths
  • Develop a connection at the beginning of the conversation
  • Focus on actionable level feedback
  • Be specific (not general- such as “great job, etc.- the brain likes granularity!)
  • Give on a regular basis in real-time (Engagement is highest with weekly quality feedback. Yet less than 20% of employees say they are getting this weekly and of those, only 27% said it was done well and useful (Neuroleadership Institute).


  • Give advice or instructions
  • Only focus on the “problem”
  • Show superiority over your employee
  • Sit on the opposite side of the table or desk
  • Make general comments or examples
  • Wait only till the end-of-year review

(Neuroleadership Institute)

Feedback is vital to growth, in fact, to the University of Sheffield cognitive scientist Tom Stafford, feedback is the essence of intelligence. “Thanks to the feedback we can become more than simple programs with simple reflexes, and develop more complex responses to the environment,” he writes: “Feedback allows animals like us to follow a purpose.” (Workforce- issue 93- winter 2018)

Elevate your Leadership Potential

To learn more about honing your feedback skills and executive coaching, reach out to Katherine for a consultation.