The image of the lizard above makes me laugh. It is almost as if he is saying, “Talk to the hand.” I am not interested in what you have to say.” “Screw you and the horse you rode in on.” Do you ever feel like responding that way when you are given negative feedback at work? I bet you do!
“Before you tell me how to do it better, before you lay out your big plans for changing, fixing, and improving me, before you teach me how to pick myself up and dust myself off so that I can be shiny and successful- know this: I’ve heard it before. I’ve been graded, rated, and ranked. Coached, screened, and scored. I’ve been picked first, picked last, and not picked at all. And that was just Kindergarten.”- Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
Negative Feedback at Work- Why Should You Care?
When you stop and think about it, we receive an inordinate amount of feedback throughout our career. So, why aren’t we great at receiving feedback? Why do so many of us dread our performance reviews? Why do we get nervous when our boss says she wants to meet with us (without even knowing the topic of the meeting)?
Here is why we should care about seeking feedback… it is critical to our growth and professional development. It “has been linked to higher job satisfaction, greater creativity on the job, faster adaptation in a new organization or role, and lower turnover. And seeking out negative feedback is associated with higher performance ratings.” -Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
Let’s talk about our lizard brain, our emotions, and how we can become better at receiving feedback.
Our Brain & Feedback (high-level view):
The most primitive part of our brain (brain stem), commonly referred to as the reptilian brain is responsible for some very basic functions that help us survive (i.e., feeding, fighting, fleeing, and… reproduction). Our lizard brain is always scanning for threats and helps us identify familiar (safe and preferable) and unfamiliar (suspicious) things. The limbic system, on the other hand, is where emotions are attached. Lastly, the neo-cortex is where rational thinking occurs.
How Does Our Lizard Brain Impact How We Receive Feedback?
Most often, our default response is to automatically see feedback as a threat because the feedback is seen as unfamiliar; it differs from the story we’ve told ourselves about a particular situation. For example, when we get angry, we think it was the situation that caused the anger, we don’t think it is our fault. When something goes awry, we blame the situation, not ourselves. We all have good intentions and we default to judging ourselves by our intentions, not the impact of our decisions or behavior. This is one reason why feedback is often inconsistent with the story we tell ourselves.
Therefore, we are hardwired from a neuroscience perspective to buffer ourselves from the “threat” of feedback.
Our typical default reactions to feedback:
- This is totally wrong, unfair, or unhelpful.
- We may be suspicious of the giver.
- I don’t see myself as the problem. “You are the problem, not me.”
- Victim mentality of, “I’m always the one being blamed.”
Emotions and Feedback
Our emotions have the propensity to amplify our reaction to feedback? When we experience anger or fear while receiving feedback, it can cause us to dismiss or reject the feedback or maybe even cause us to become confrontational. Also, when we see feedback as a “threat,” our empathy switch gets turned off and it makes it difficult for us to understand the other person’s perspective.
Relationships Muddy the Waters
Our lizard brains are always scanning for threats and social threats are perceived the same way as physical threats. Therefore, our relationship with the giver greatly impacts how we receive feedback. Some default reactions to the giver:
• You aren’t credible or trustworthy.
• I am suspicious of your motives.
• Your completely lack skill or judgment in your delivery of the feedback.
• You don’t treat me fairly or you don’t appreciate me.
• The real problem is you, not me.
Training Our Lizard Brains with Red Flags
Now that you have a basic understanding of why feedback can feel so threatening, let’s discuss how we can challenge ourselves to hear the feedback, gain insight, and grow. First, we want to look for red flag alerts which are found in our response to feedback. Are we curious and seeking to hear more or are we automatically rejecting/dismissing the feedback (red flag)? Can we see our role in creating the situation or is it always someone else’s or the situation’s fault (red flag)? Are we looking for what is right about the feedback or only what is wrong (red flag)?
After we have trained our brains to recognize the red flag alerts in our default response, we want to look for ways to find what may be valid about the feedback we have received. One exercise recommended by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen is to write down the following: what was the original feedback, what is wrong, what is right, and what is missing? Then you can use that information to validate or invalidate the feedback in an objective way, so that you can determine how to use that information to help you improve.
Other Helpful Tips for a Feedback Conversation
• Be your own referee and give yourself a timeout if you feel overwhelmed with fear or anger. You can say, “I really want to hear what you have to say, can we take a break and come back and discuss this some more?
• Ask a trusted adviser or mentor for their honest opinion regarding the content of the feedback and your response to it.
• Be curious… use phrases like “Tell me more,” or “What is one thing you see me doing that gets in my way?”
• You might want to add your own thoughts about the situation, “Here is what would help me change.”
We simply can’t escape feedback. Feedback is a part of our everyday life at home and at work. However, we can challenge ourselves to become better receivers of feedback.
Our professional growth, “is about mastering the skills required to drive our own learning; it’s about how to recognize and manage our resistance, how to engage in feedback conversations with confidence and curiosity, and even when the feedback seems wrong, how to find insight that might help us grow.” -Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
How do you challenge your lizard brain to receive feedback, gain insight, and use that information to grow?
Kris Macchiarola, Ed.S is a consultant, speaker, leader, and coach. She specializes in helping organizations create a culture where employees feel energized, enabled, and engaged, ultimately, giving them a competitive advantage. She is an EQ champion and specializes in Human to Human.
Kris’ personal philosophy is based on what she sees as a pervasive need —helping clients create a high-trust culture and improve their organizational health. She focuses on helping leaders identify organizational blind spots, increase organizational awareness, and align communication, policies, initiatives, and leadership practices with high-trust strategies. Kris enjoys public speaking; she is available for keynotes and executive retreats.