Why Is Feedback So Darn Difficult?

Written by on February 10, 2014

In the process of “becoming,” we encounter obstacles. We find the areas – or they find us – in which we do not excel, and, if we are fortunate, we receive feedback that helps us learn, improve, and grow. Boston College psychologist Peter Gray says, “It’s important to recognize that it’s human nature not to want unsolicited negative advice. We don’t want people to tell us something negative unless we ask for it and are ready to hear it.”* As we work to build our credibility, it’s helpful to put ourselves constantly in the place of asking for and being willing to receive feedback.

“Becoming” – Growing In Our Fields & Capabilities – Means Being Open To Feedback

When the feedback is positive, we need to be able to accept it with humility – and still take learning from it.

  • How can I continue to bring this level of quality to our work, or how can I surpass it?
  • And, perhaps, how can I elicit tougher feedback?
  • How can I ask someone to truly critique my performance or offer “tough love”?

If You Want To Grow, You Need Constructive Criticism Alongside Praise

We can go through our careers, encountering nothing but “Good Jobs!” Then when we’re confronted with criticism it can feel crushing because we haven’t been exercising our “feedback muscle.”

Why Do We Fear Feedback?

Dr. Gray posits that we fear feedback, not because of the content specifically, but because it threatens our place in the “pack.” Our brains are hard-wired to seek out inclusion, to be part of the group. When we receive criticism that our performance was not up to par, that we did not meet expectations on this job, or that we need to develop skill in this or that particular area, we feel as though our place is threatened. Subconsciously, we fear exclusion and isolation. The more we are exposed to constructive criticism, the less we fear -and the stronger this feedback muscle becomes. We start to see feedback as nourishment and vital to helping us move forward.

We are not generally great at receiving feedback, to be sure, but neither are we adept in giving it. People tend to give feedback based on emotion: a direct report made an error and missed a deadline; a team member didn’t meet expectations in a presentation. Whatever the event, feedback is often based on frustration, impatience and sometimes even anger.

A Different Approach To Feedback

Have you have received criticism from a leader that is harsh and quite demoralizing? Instead of being crushed or heading to the water cooler to commiserate, how do you make it work for yourself? Ask yourself:

  • What was the true intention behind the feedback?
  • What key messages can I take and use to improve?
  • How did my emotions play a part in this encounter?
  • How can I go back and have the next conversation more effectively?
  • What was my part in this? What might I have done differently to ensure a better outcome?

Remember it is your responsibility, because this is your career and your credibility on the line.

When Giving/Receiving Feedback, Credibility Is At Stake

Leaders, you will lose credibility by giving feedback that is not constructive or delivering it in a way that is not conducive to positive change or growth. You’ll also be at risk of losing credibility is you are “off limits” to feedback, or refuse to grow/change/address feedback in a constructive way.

We are all accountable for creating an environment where we can thrive versus survive. Only by being open to feedback and to circling back with those who offer it can we start to affect the environment in which we work. It’s about being able to accept positive feedback and constructive criticism, extracting learning from each. And, take a moment to consider what might happen if we, givers and receivers of feedback, changed the term from “feedback to feeding forward”.  Now that is an idea to grow on!