Feedback: Why we’d rather tell a little white lie than let people down

Studies show that we’d rather lie to someone than tell them our honest opinion. Social rejection affects the same areas of our brain as physical pain. This is the reason why giving as well as receiving feedback is very difficult. Here are our suggestions for how to give good feedback in spite of this challenge.

Feedback terrifies you

You know. You swore you’d do it. You’ve talked to your other colleagues and they’ve confirmed your observations. You’re just waiting for the right moment, the right vibe and for the planets to align, and then you’ll get it done. You’ll finally give your colleague the feedback you’ve had on your mind for weeks. Why is it so difficult? What’s holding you back? Why do you need all of this build-up? Luckily, there’s a whole bunch of explanations. Here, we provide four explanations and two possible solutions for how to solve your problem.

Evolution causes us to seek social approval 

For many thousands of years, human survival has rested on cooperation in groups, tribes and families. Your entire existence is dependent on the fact that you are accepted by the other members. An acceptance of your contributions, your shape and size as well as your personality. This is still relevant in the modern workplace, and we’ll do nearly everything in our power to stay accepted by the tribe. In this situation, feedback can be risky. What if I’m no longer living up to their expectations? Will I still be accepted in the group? What are my colleagues going to think? In other words, we’re programmed to seek out the recognition of the community, and feedback poses a threat because it exhibits our differences and our perceptions of each other.

Social rejection activates the same areas in our brain as physical pain. Our belonging to the group affects our willingness to give and receive feedback. What will the others think of me if I give critical feedback? Or, if John has this negative perception of my presenting skills, do the others agree with him?

We’d rather tell a little white lie than let people down

Being honest can be difficult. In fact, it can be so difficult that we’d rather lie than stand by our opinion. An experiment in an art gallery asked participants to have a look at the artworks and then discuss their opinions with each other. Later, the artist behind the artworks arrived and told the participants detailed stories about each piece. The participants were then asked to share their opinion of a specific artwork with the artist. Several guests couldn’t get themselves to share their honest opinion and made up what we might call a little white lie. One person went from saying “It’s ugly. Plain ugly” to telling the artist “I like it. It’s my second-favorite piece in the exhibition!” We’re willing to go very far to avoid hurting other people or putting their social status in jeopardy.

“I need your support, that’s all”

If we are willing to go that far to protect others, how far are we willing to go to protect ourselves? One example is the way we build our network and social circles. If you acknowledge me and my work, you are welcome into my network. If you’re mainly critical and focused on the flaws of my work, I won’t waste my energy on you. In short, we sort out the people who aren’t helping us create a positive self-perception. If Karen is always shooting down my ideas, pointing out my grammatical errors and criticizing my methods, I’ll simply stop asking for her opinion. We use our social environment to build our self-perception, and we’ll automatically seek out the people who help us build a positive one and cast away those who pose a threat to it. This is important to be aware of, because it can have consequences if we are constantly avoiding the confrontation of having our flaws pointed out.

Everyone is not equal before the feedback

You know those people who seem untouchable? They’re constantly smiling, no matter how hard they’re being criticized? Yes, they exist. It varies a lot how we react to negative feedback. How you perceive feedback depends on your faith in your capabilities and your self-esteem. Critical feedback poses a greater threat for employees who do not believe in themselves and their capabilities. Obviously, other factors play into the perceived threat, but this is worth noting when trying to navigate feedback among your colleagues.

Difficult means not impossible

Now you’re familiar with some of the causes and effects of the difficult feedback conversations. Now, it’s time for the solutions. If critical feedback is the big problem, focus on acknowledgement instead. What works, what’s good and what’s behind the small victories. Many people equate feedback to troubleshooting, and this is a fundamental misconception. We see that high performing teams have more than five positive interactions for each negative interaction. Maybe you can use this in your mental accounting? Every time you want to point out or fix a flaw or mistake, you may want to consider which accomplishments and positive tendencies you have observed recently. If you create a habit of providing acknowledging feedback, this will lower the perceived threat of being criticized. This creates an opportunity for better relationships, more growth and increased well-being.

Take the wheel

The uncertainty about feedback is one of its big deterrents. This means that taking control and creating certainty is a good idea. This can be done by seeking out feedback instead of waiting for it to jump at you around every corner. If you ask for feedback, you get to control when you’re in the right mindset to receive feedback, who you want the feedback from, and what, specifically, you want feedback on. This lowers the feeling of stress for giver as well as receiver, and you’re also more in control of your individual feedback needs being covered. It may be difficult for your colleagues to guess your feedback needs if you aren’t talking about them. By asking for feedback, you show your colleagues or employees which behaviors and which culture you want to establish within the company. The healthy feedback culture contains feedback interactions in all directions: manager to employee, employee to manager and employee to employee. If you’re scared of showing vulnerability and appearing weak when you ask for feedback, let it go. Studies show that the best and most efficient leaders are those who ask their employees for feedback.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

If the many paradoxes and quirks of feedback interactions could be fixed in one day, they probably wouldn’t be as widespread as they are today. It takes hard work, lots of failures, reflection and dialogue for you and your employees to establish a healthy feedback culture where growth and well-being go hand in hand.

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