Why is giving and receiving feedback so difficult?


Do you recognize the following scenario? You have a colleague at work who has certain behaviors that are… less than ideal. Maybe he’s always complaining or creating a bad vibe, maybe she’s never done by the deadline, which means you have to work even harder, or maybe there’s that one colleague who always steals your ideas and takes full credit for them. How do you respond to this? Most of us might complain to like-minded colleagues to blow off some steam. But why don’t we just confront the source of our irritations? Why is it so difficult to provide constructive feedback to others?

And if you have a tendency to blow off a bit too much steam and you end up being the source of others’ irritations, then what is it about the thought of others confronting us that makes us so uncomfortable?

In other words – why is it so difficult to give and receive feedback?

“Man is by nature a social animal” – Aristotle, 350BC

Humans beings are herd animals. Not only because it’s nice to have someone to enjoy a flat white with on a Wednesday afternoon or so we have someone to complain to when our partners get on our nerves. We’re herd animals because that’s how we’ve been able to survive for many thousands of years. Humans simply haven’t been able to survive without the help of each other, and that’s why we’re so dependent on the acceptance and protection of the group. And here lies the secret to why giving and receiving feedback is so difficult for us.

Will constructive criticism put me in a bad light?

Fundamentally, we struggle to give feedback because we don’t want to put ourselves in a bad light. Will our points be dismissed? Is the point even valid? Will others think I’m unfair? As mentioned above, we’re hardwired to seek out the acknowledgement of the group. We’ll do nearly anything within our power to avoid hurting our social status. Studies show that social rejection activates the same areas of our brain as physical pain – evolutionarily speaking, these experiences are comparable.

“Great job!” – whispers to the next person: “that was terrible…”

We’re so uncomfortable telling the hard truth that we would rather tell a little white lie than be completely honest. DePaulo and Bell completed an experiment in which a number of participants had to evaluate several paintings. Then, they were introduced to the “artist” behind the paintings who was invited to tell the personal stories behind each artwork. After this, the participants were asked to repeat their evaluations of the paintings. One participant went from saying “It’s ugly. Plain ugly,” but once in the presence of the artist said “I like it. It’s my second favorite from the collection”.

It’s not easy for us to offer our honest, constructive opinion. But maybe it’s difficult to give, because we know how difficult it can be to receive? How far are we willing to go to avoid negative feedback?

You don’t like what I do? Bye, nice knowing you

Dramatic subheading? Yes, but stay with me. A study from 2017 shows that we tend to restructure our social networks simply to avoid non-acknowledging feedback. This may sound like a lot of work just to avoid a bit of criticism, but there’s a good reason for it.

Our positive self-perception must be maintained

Everyone has a self-perception. It’s based on how we appear, how we’re understood and how we’re perceived by others. This self-perception is maintained by our social environment. When someone offers feedback that is more negative than our self-perception, the feedback will be perceived as a threat towards us, our positive self-perception, and our position in the social network.

Our lizard brains react to this feedback the same way we would react to a threat to our survival due to the overarching danger of our exclusion from the group. And what is a typical survival strategy in the face of danger? Flight. We restructure our social networks to eliminate the threat to our positive self-perception. This is one of the main reasons why receiving feedback is so difficult.

The perception of threats varies

You may think this sounds a bit extreme, changing our social circles to avoid non-acknowledging feedback. Can’t recognize this from your own life? Maybe that’s because you have great faith in your own abilities. One study shows that people who believe in themselves have a better reaction to negative feedback than people who don’t believe in themselves as much. The threat from negative feedback will appear smaller if you believe in yourself, which makes pretty good sense. So if you want to be better at receiving negative feedback, there are a bunch of ways you can improve your faith in your own abilities.

How can we make this easier?

If you can relate to the sensation of sweaty palms and a pounding heart when a colleague approaches you with feedback, there are a few tips you can use. First of all, it may be an advantage to be the one reaching out to receive feedback, so it doesn’t hit you unexpectedly. It might also be easier to receive feedback if we believe that others want what’s best for us – that the giver is coming from a place of positivity.

But how do we actually make ourselves believe that our colleagues have good intentions with their critical feedback?  A study shows that high performing teams have 5.6 positive interactions for each negative interaction. It’s essential to create an appreciative environment, where the positive interactions outweigh the negative ones, if you want to be susceptible to feedback – this is also important to keep in mind when you’re giving feedback to others.

Want to see a change? Start with the man in the mirror

“If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change”. Do we even have to say who’s behind the quote here? If you work in a company that doesn’t have a good feedback culture, it’s vital that you start with yourself. How can I make it less uncomfortable for others to receive feedback?

Listen first

A good way to offer constructive feedback in a positive way is by listening first. This might sound counterintuitive. How am I going to tell someone how to change by listening to them? The point is, that if you start by listening to what your recipient has to say on the topic, it feels more like a dialogue than a lecture. If you want to provide constructive feedback on a presentation your colleague just made, you could start a conversation by asking “How did you feel about your presentation earlier?”

Talk action, not personality

Something that can make feedback even harder to receive is if you feel attacked on your personality. Most people consider their personalities to be stable across time and context, so if you tell someone: “You’re always so pessimistic!”, it’s more personal than if you say: “I didn’t enjoy the way you received my ideas today” and give them a specific example. By being specific and behavior-oriented, there’s a greater chance that your criticism will be well-received.

Practice makes perfect

Giving and receiving feedback is difficult. It’s difficult because it clashes with our fundamental need to be acknowledged in our social environment. We don’t want to insult anyone or to feel excluded. Try to incorporate a mindset that reminds you that your colleagues have good intentions and try to seek out feedback on your own. When you give others feedback, listen first and try to be specific. And practice. Practice does make perfect.

You may be thinking about why being good at giving and receiving feedback is important. A healthy feedback culture can actually be seen on the bottom line, and you can read more here to find out how:

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