When our brain senses a threat, our body activates a threat response. It’ll go into some form of defensive behavior and lock down most functions that aren’t necessary for survival. It’s what we rely on to keep us alive when we’re confronted by an angry bear.
And, as it turns out, when we have to deal with feedback at work.
To illustrate how feedback constitutes a threat, we can take a look at the SCARF framework from David Rock. It lays out a range of things that can trigger a social threat and create stress:
Status: talking to a person of higher status (eg a manager).
Certainty: if we’re not sure what feedback we’re going to receive, or how the meeting will go.
Autonomy: when we’re not in control of the feedback - we didn’t ask for it, we didn’t choose the meeting time, we didn’t set the agenda.
Relatedness: if we’re outside our social comfort zone - talking to someone we don’t know very well or can’t relate to.
Fairness: when we perceive that the feedback, or the feedback process, isn’t fair.
Feedback may not present the same threat level as a rampaging bear, but that’s academic. Biologically it doesn’t matter if the threat is real or not - all that matters is that we feel it.
So what happens then? We go on the defensive. We shut down or retreat and we’re definitely not going to take the time to positively reflect on the feedback we’re about to receive.
Stress is prohibitive
When we feel stressed we think less, find it difficult to draw connections in information, and experience fewer ‘aha’ moments. Essentially, stress prevents us from thinking clearly and learning effectively. So for feedback to be an active learning opportunity, it shouldn’t be stressful.
Making continuous feedback the new normal
When talking about work is something that happens all the time, between all kinds of people and for all kinds of reasons, then it becomes normalised. It’s just another thing we do at work, not something unexpected to be feared. If your manager comes up and says “we need to talk about your work”, then there’s no reason to panic.
Creating an open and transparent work culture is critical to reducing feedback-related stress. Other ways to reduce the feedback threat include:
Status: recognising and appreciating people for their work, especially publicly (if they’re into that).
Certainty: eliminating surprises is the key here - communicating what the feedback process is and what the outcomes will be.
Autonomy: encourage people to seek and give feedback under their own steam; to dictate who they talk to, about what. Invite them to offer their own ideas and make their own decisions about work.
Relatedness: it’s easier talking to people we know. Encourage team activities and grow connections - even getting together for lunch can make people feel more comfortable with each other.
Fairness: make feedback open, honest and authentic. Transparent communication leaves no room for assumptions of (un)fairness.