Why Most Feedback Is Ineffective
This article is inspired by the work of David Rock and neuroleadership. You can find a copy of his paper on the SCARF model here.
If you are a supervisor, whether it be in education, business, the medical profession, or even of a youth soccer team, you've probably uttered a phrase that sounded something like this:
"Can I give you some feedback?"
Now, let's assume a few truths are sitting behind this innocent question.
It's your job to offer feedback. You are an evaluator, expert, or some type of leader whose role includes the growth of your direct reports.
You have the best of intentions. You are honestly wanting the receiver of the feedback to grow, to increase in mastery and become a more proficient employee or performer.
Either way, if you've ever given feedback, you know that it is not always received in the spirit in which it is offered.
Sometimes you're feedback is received with a dead-eyed dullness, flat and staring into the horizon as the receiver waits for the next inevitable blow to fall.
Sometimes the person receiving the feedback treats you like Typhoid Mary that just stepped onto their vacation cruise ship.
Sometimes you get head nods, "Yes sirs," or, "Yes ma'ams," and you walk away with a sneaking suspicion that nothing will really change. If it does, it'll be just enough to remain compliant but not enough to effect real change.
Here's the problem with feedback: it's frightening. For some, it can invoke the same unconscious reaction as hearing footsteps behind you when you're walking to your car across a dark parking lot late at night.
There are many social triggers that invoke an approach (good) or avoidance (bad) reaction in our subconscious. One of those revolves around status.
Status is all about where we perceive ourselves in the 'pecking order' in any (and every) social situation. It's our relative importance as compared to others, our seniority. Status is why we enjoy winning a physical competition, a card game, or even an argument. When our perceived status goes up (and others' goes down in relation to us), our brain's reward circuitry lights up.
Unfortunately, the same is also true. Being left out of an activity shows up in the same areas of the brain as physical pain. The threat of social rejection is a real deterrent for people and can make them act in ways similar to people wanting to avoid a hunger tiger in the jungle.
This is where feedback comes in. While most of us don't offer it as criticism, we cannot really control how it is received. Many everyday conversations devolve into arguments simply because they invoke a status threat. When we feel like someone is trying to one-up us, we'll react strongly to maintain our perceived social status.
Advice, instructions, and/or feedback can all trigger this status response. Even an unintended suggestion that someone is ineffective can make status rear its ugly head and shut down all learning. While some people are quite open to feedback, its a variable, not a constant. You've probably experienced a moment of confusion when speaking with someone who you thought was very open to feedback, but instead you got a curt response or even an insult thrown back at you.
I'm not trying to say that feedback should be avoided. We all need it, whether we like it or not. Instead, a simple adjustment can make all the difference.
While external feedback can be a status threat, internal feedback can usually bypass the alarm bells. Instead of asking, "Can I offer you some feedback?", try a few of these questions instead:
If you were to give yourself feedback on that (lesson, project, task, presentation), what feedback would you give?
If you were to rate that (lesson, project, task, presentation) on a scale of 1 - 10, with 10 being ultimate perfection, what would you rate it? What would you do differently to make it a 10?
In a perfect world, what would your ideal (lesson, project, task, presentation) look like? What are some things you're thinking about that will help you reach that ideal?
This is why self-reviews are so powerful in the evaluation process. True growth comes when employees takes responsibility for their own development, and that's hard to do when our feedback is received as a threat to their status.