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How neuroscience can help us give and receive critical feedback ?

By Professor Anne Lytle

Feedback: managers give it, employees get it. It is a core practice integrated into our organisational world. We know it is supposed to be good for us. We know it is supposed to motivate us to perform better. We know acting on it should help us improve and grow.

But why is the giving and receiving of constructive (that is, critical) feedback so difficult, whether informal ‘in the moment’ feedback or in more formal structured settings?

For regardless of how resilient the receiver, there is still often a strong emotional response that must be overcome in order to accept and act upon the feedback. And if the feedback isn’t delivered ‘just right’, then defensive reactions like blaming, justifying or simply discounting the feedback are common.

For however well-intentioned, planned and practiced the giver, the delivery does not always get the desired response, and might even go horribly awry, resulting in disengagement instead of improved performance.

To explore this question, we must know a bit about the brain.

The Amazing Brain

Your brain is amazing and complex. While it weighs only a bit over 1kg, it uses close to 30 per cent of the fuel you bring into your body. The most important part of the brain for the modern work world is called the Pre-Frontal Cortex, or the PFC.

The PFC is what differentiates us as a species, and is responsible for higher-order and complex cognition like planning, prioritising, analysis and decision making, which is often called our ‘executive function’. It also plays a role in who we are in terms of our conception of ourselves and our personalities, self-awareness and the moderating of social behaviour.

We are just beginning to understand what we need to do to maximise its performance. For example, evidence shows that there are many things that decrease the performance of the PFC, the most obvious being when we are tired or hungry (the PFC needs a lot of fuel to work well). But, we also know that multi-tasking, being distracted, interruptions, continuous switching between tasks, attending to too many stimuli at the same time, stress and too much emotional arousal reduce functioning more than most of us would expect.

We also know that self-control, focus and attention are limited resources… we exhaust them quickly if we don’t spend time in recovery mode regularly. So don’t beat yourself up about having that piece of chocolate or that glass of wine.

Approach or Avoid: How The Brain Interprets The World

To understand more about feedback we need to know that the brain primarily exists in two different states: ‘approach/reward’ versus ‘avoid/threat’. In the approach state, our brain interprets the world to be safe, and we feel satisfied and connected. Blood flows are available for higher-order cognition. We can reflect, learn and recover. This state is associated with the release of oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, chemicals associated with interest, pleasure and connection.

The avoid state is when the brain interprets the world to be threatening, and diverts resources to the more primitive parts of our brains responsible for helping us to run from predators or engage in a fight. Our brains, of course, scan for danger and sometimes over-interpret risk or threat, as this helped the survival of the human species in previous eras.

But this brain state and its associated physiological responses are not necessarily as well suited for the types of threats that most of us experience in the modern world, where fighting or running are not the strategies best matched to the challenges of the workplace, such as receiving critical feedback!

These judgements of approach versus avoid are guided by a complex network in the brain called the limbic system, which includes the amygdala, hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, orbital frontal cortex and insula. When the limbic system senses a threat, ranging from a predator to an angry face, it kicks the brain into ‘avoid/threat’ mode, and sets of a chain of reactions that prepare us for the physical requirements of flight or flight. Unfortunately, what it does in this process is take resources, glucose and oxygen, away from the PFC and impairs higher order brain functioning and decision making.

It explains why you can’t think when you are really angry or upset about something, and also why you sometimes do things that later you regret.

It can make accidental connections and misinterpret incoming data, overgeneralising someone, for example, to be enemy rather than friend. Even worse, chronic over-arousal of the limbic system increases what we call allostatic load, increasing cortisol and adrenaline, which can kill existing neurons and inhibit growth of new ones.

So literally, we are unable to effectively process information and learn, in addition to this state negatively impacting our health.

Five Reasons Why the Brain Finds Feedback Threatening ?

So what are the factors that set off these judgements in our work worlds, and how does feedback fit into this? David Rock, a key figure in the field of neuro-leadership, has proposed the SCARF model, which involves five major domains of social experience that activate an approach/reward versus avoid/threat response: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

1. Our Status Is Threatened

Status is about our relative social standing, and goes down when we are criticised or wrong. Certainty is about the human desire to be able to predict the future, or a desire for closure. Autonomy is our sense of control over our lives and the way we do things. Relatedness is our connectedness and sense of safety with others in our world. Fairness is our sense of what is right or acceptable, that resources or rewards are equitably allocated.

Feedback can be problematic from multiple perspectives and creates a strong sense of threat for most people. When we deliver critical feedback, even when our intentions are good, we threaten the status of the other person. Not only are we telling them they have done something wrong, but it increases our status relative to theirs. Even a subtle status threat is detected by the limbic system and results in a biochemical reaction that happens without awareness.

2. It Makes Us Feel Uncertain About the Future

Certainty might be threatened if it is not clear about what the future holds in light of the feedback. For example, if a manager tells an employee that their performance on a big project was not up to snuff, then the brain could detect some uncertainty in whether or not I will continue to work on this project, future projects, or even to continue to be employed.

3. It’s Taking Away Our Freedom!

Third, we often feel when we deliver feedback that giving a recommendation about what we want the other person to do differently is helpful. However, in light of the brain’s desire for autonomy and control, such recommendations can be perceived as taking away that freedom of choice. And increases the giver’s status relative to the receiver to boot!

This is one of the reasons that suggestions are often not heeded, and why the old adage of ‘trying to get the other person to come up with the idea themselves’ is actually good advice.

4. We Feel Abandoned

If we are not very careful about reassuring the other person about their safety within the relationship, critical feedback can also be a threat to relatedness, bringing out the threats of abandonment or exclusion. This is especially true if the work environment for the receiver has a strong social element… that they gain a sense of belonging from the giver of the feedback, the team or the organisation.

5. It Doesn’t Seem Fair

If the feedback is not considered to be fair - that is, if others were also involved in the problem and they are not getting the criticism, or if we feel the actual criticism itself is not fair, then this cues a threat response which is similar to disgust. Research has found fairness reactions to be especially strong when we feel we are dealt a bad hand, and exist in other species ranging from primates to dogs!

An additional factor is that the brain reacts even more negatively if the receiver might have been expecting positive feedback (a reward, or dopamine hit) instead of the criticism, as unmet expectations (and drop in dopamine) create a strong threat response. In these situations, people can become almost delusional in reinterpreting the comment in order to meet their positive expectations and receive the dopamine reward.

You have probably had the experience of certain individuals who always have to be right, and go to extraordinary lengths to delude themselves that they are not wrong using a variety of psychological defence mechanisms.

So, What Can We Do?

As a feedback giver, take the way the brain works into account and practice creating delivery methods that at a minimum, decrease the threat response, and at best, might even cue rewards! For example:

• Increase status by first taking some responsibility for the problem yourself… so that you are making your own status vulnerable relative to theirs. Sometimes when we start off by acknowledging our own contribution, it is much more likely the threat response is reduced and the other party can hear our message. You might also emphasise your confidence that you believe the person is more than competent and capable to make the improvement.

• Increase certainty by being clear about the consequences of the feedback… what will or will not change, and to what degree. If the person’s job is not as risk, for example, make sure they are aware this is the case!

• Increase autonomy by asking the person to come up with their own suggestions or ideas about how to do things differently in the future in light of the feedback. You may need to be prepared to take on a coaching style and ask a whole host of open ended questions to help guide that person to come up with their own answer.

• Increase relatedness by connecting with the other person on a human level… be empathetic and show that you care. Emphasise that person’s value to the team or organisation.

• Increase fairness by making sure that you have clear evidence of the problem, and are presenting it accurately. Make the standards transparent and consistent. Make sure they know if other people were also involved, that they will be treated the same way and given appropriate feedback.

If you’re receiving feedback, it is critical to become skilled at controlling or decreasing your threat response so that you can think and react appropriately and strategically. A few recommendations:

• Labelling your emotion in the moment. Research has found that when we name and identify emotional states within ourselves, we decrease activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain that governs emotion). The reason for this is that the naming of the emotion requires PFC engagement and diverts the brain’s attention and resources from the limbic system.

• Reappraising the situation. Cognitive reappraisal is a strategy that allows us to think about and interpret a situation differently, and is a stronger tool that labelling. If we consciously choose to think about it differently, we can shift our emotional response. For example, we can choose to reinterpret a criticism about our presentation style to be an opportunity to work towards our goal of becoming an inspirational speaker. While reappraisal and reinterpretation are difficult (and metabolically expensive, they take up a lot of energy and are harder when we are tired), practice will create a new neuronal pathway so that this skill becomes more natural and automatic over time. There is evidence that people who can reappraise live healthier and happier lives.

This is just a taste of the application of our knowledge of the brain to the practice of leadership. If we increase our understanding of how and why the brain responds to different situations, we are more likely to create working environments and practices that motivate performance instead of threaten it.

So next time you think about giving a piece of critical feedback to someone at work, stop and consider how to best do it. And if you are receiving it, you can say to yourself: “this anger is just my brain releasing adrenaline and cortisol and going into threat mode, and I can choose right now to see this situation differently” - and become better and better at maximising the performance of my brain!


Professor Anne Lytle

She is Director of Leadership at Monash Business School, Australia.

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