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Leaders: Tame Your Brain, Calm Down…Then Give Feedback!

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

Almost every boss recognizes the need to give honest and frequent feedback to their employees about what they are doing well and what needs improvement.  Yet, according to my research with over 1100 leaders at all levels, almost half of all leaders avoid feedback altogether, and over 80% don’t do it all that well. Less than 5% are delivering super-helpful feedback on a regular basis.

Big Impact

Employees, especially young and hard-to-retain workers, complain that their bosses deprive them of feedback. HR professionals spend a lot of time preventing or dealing with the damage that occurs from avoiders, and companies lose big when talent isn’t developed and mistakes go uncorrected. So 95% of all leaders have room to grow in the feedback department. Why is this such a pervasive problem for organizations of all shapes and sizes?

Fear and Stress

There are a number of reasons given for the feedback gap. But the most common and hard-to-budge problem experienced by leaders is the fear and stress they experience when attempting to talk honestly to an employee or colleague about the need to improve, why they need to improve, and how they can improve.  Being asked to give feedback is similar to being asked to physically harm another person. So no one really wants to go there.

The Emotional Brain Rules

If it sounds irrational that leaders skip over something as important as feedback, it quite literally IS illogical. MRI studies of feedback givers’ brains trace which parts of the brain “light up” as they attempt to give feedback. The task of giving feedback triggers so much fear and trepidation that brain cells rush from the frontal cerebral cortex where the brain’s reasoning ability is coordinated toward the emotional parts of the brain where cortisol and other emergency chemicals are shot off to fight or escape the feedback “enemy.”

Calm Your Brain for Success with Feedback: 4 Steps to Success

You are already ahead of the game by simply knowing the effects of feedback on your brain. If you take conscious actions that will tame your brain, you can become one of the top 5% of great feedback-giving leaders.

Step #1: Recognize your brain states as a natural human tendency and notice when you are experiencing emotional responses as you prepare for giving feedback. Take a few deep breaths and continue observing your own thoughts.  Imagine a picture or symbol—such as a blue ribbon or a smiling, successful employee to focus on each time you feel a surge of stress during a feedback conversation. Know that at first, there will be an ebb and flow of stress, but that with practice the stress will lessen.

Step #2: Reframe the meaning of feedback. Remind yourself why you wish to give excellent, helpful feedback and what it will do for each of your team members. De-sensitize the old associations you have with feedback and fears that people will be hurt by it.

Step #3: Redirect your feedback actions so that it creates more positive associations by you and your employees. In the past, you probably waited too long to discuss issues which could have been more readily resolved. Now your team members can trust that you will initiate a helpful feedback conversation right away.

Step #4: Revel in your success. This sounds goofy but there is a scientific basis in reveling. MIT researchers and others have discovered that the brain’s neuroplasticity can be activated subconsciously through the experience of success. After you and your employee benefit from the feedback experience, the brain takes note of what it did right and increases your motivation to give even more helpful feedback in the future.

You have begun a virtuous cycle. The more comfortable you are with giving feedback, the more effective you will become as a feedback giver. Less and less negative associations will be present to trigger fight or flight brain chemicals. Your fear will transform into enthusiasm for great feedback conversations!

Published, August 2014, on Great Leadership

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