Feedback Brings Up Fear in the Brain
I’ve often brought up the topic of feedback at dinner parties with close friends, asking leaders at the table how they feel about giving feedback. They usually say they’re bad at feedback and wish they didn’t avoid it so much. Then the topic shifts. Everyone jumps in with story after story about crazy personal experiences when they received feedback
from toxic bosses.
Feedback as attack
Feedback can be scary. Can you remember feeling attacked by a critical teacher, parent, or boss? Although the incident may have occurred ten, twenty, or forty years ago, you probably remember the painful blow to your whole sense of self. I still remember the words of my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dangle, when she became irritated with my constant questions and comments in class: “Shut up, Anna. You talk too much and others aren’t interested.” My self-confidence crashed, and it took an embarrassingly long time to recover from that assault. Many of us received a strong imprint about feedback from our
earliest feedback givers—especially when those experiences left us feeling judged, criticized, rated, compared, humiliated, or singled out.
Feedback triggers fight or flight
Even though this phenomenon is ancient, more recently, neuroscientists have been able to observe our brain activity during feedback. By conducting brain MRIs while people
received feedback about their performance on assigned tasks, the researchers were able to identify which areas of the brain were activated based on the release of brain chemicals. It turns out that feedback often triggers a fight-or-flight stress response. The threat of criticism triggers a flood of the same hormones that our brain produces when it experiences threats of physical harm to the body. The fight-or-flight hormones hijack our mental, physical, and emotional capabilities. Calm, rational thinking becomes impossible because our brain cells have received the signal to divert all resources to fueling our ability to run fast or fight hard.
How can you dissolve fear of feedback?
Fear starts to melt away when your team members experience the positive benefits of feedback in a culture of continuous development and trust.
1. When they see positive benefits of feedback Be a transparent about valuing feedback personally and openly share what you are working on and how you benefit from others’ feedback. Share your intentions to help team members get better at their key goals, not to tear down egos. Share feedback to them that they will recognize as the most useful, re: what matters to them.
2. Culture of continuous feedback If you are a leader, you can build a great feedback culture by openly sharing your plans for giving and receiving feedback regularly. Make it simple, transparent, and relevant to their everyday activities. Always seek their feedback and visibly show how you are applying it.
3. Trust will follow all of this transparency and honesty. Once you get in and do feedback, those around you will know what to expect and fears will start melting away.