Feedback or Unpack?

i-love-feedback“Hey, can I give you some feedback on that meeting?”

“Come in my office, I want to give you some feedback.”

“Do you have a minute? I have some feedback that you need to hear.”

Ok, how many of you have already gone into amygdala overdrive just reading that? Feedback is one of those areas of leadership and management that frankly, very few people have really figured out. Except for those highly self-regulated, amazingly emotional intelligent people for whom the idea of feedback is nothing more than a wonderful opportunity to improve (or, conversely, those who just don’t care), it’s mostly, well, tough. Tough to give and tough to take. And while I am by no means arguing that we don’t need it at all, I think it merits pulling apart and reconfiguring.

My first stop is, of course, the neuroscience perspective. Here there are a few things to take into account, the first being the pain of social rejection. We evolved to live co-operatively, in small groups. Our need to belong is as real and pervasive – and as important to our survival – as hunger or thirst. In fact, brain studies have shown that being rejected activates many of the same regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain.

Our limbic system, responsible for scanning for threats (and therefore keeping us alive) is finely tuned to whether we are safely part of the group, whether we are deemed acceptable or deficient, whether we belong. Feedback, even well intentioned, can often trigger a fight or flight response. We think we should be responding rationally, but deeply entrenched safety-driven neural pathways are screaming ‘‘threat!’’ On a basic level, even if it is not true in today’s society, being left out of the group makes us fear for our survival. This puts us in a mode where our higher brain shuts down, making it hard to take in what the other person is saying.

That having been said, it’s also important to note that in terms of any sort of pain, we’re not one-size-fits-all. In terms of physical pain, research shows that people will describe the same stimulus as anywhere from “not at all painful” to “highly painful,” with brain activity corresponding. It’s reasonable to conclude that the pain of social rejection is the same. What feels like harsh criticism to one person may even be too mild to take notice of for another.

BEST ADVICE: Get very very connected when you want (or need) to give someone feedback.When the person you are giving feedback to really knows that he or she is safe, you have a lot more room to say things and have them heard.

This perhaps brings us to the issue of the self-referential nature of our own brains. We understand the world by running it through our own experience, making our own mental map of what is going on. Our feedback to someone often reveals more about ourselves than it does about the other person. For example, when we are asked to rate someone’s behavior, such as in a 360-degree review, we tend to rate it in reference to ourselves. As Marcus Buckingham said in a 2011 article on 360-degree reviews: ‘‘If you rate me high on setting a clear vision for our team, all we learn is that I am clearer on that vision than you are; if you rate me low, we learn that you are clearer than I am’’ (Buckingham, 2011). Buckingham calls this ‘‘bad data,’’ and says that even if you have 20 people’s answers in a 360-degree review, 20 inputs of bad data do not make a reliable report. Bad + bad does not equal good.

In addition, we tend to think that there is a right and wrong way to do things. Each culture, including the culture within an organization, has its own ideals. For example, if the ideal/assumption in your organization is that challenging people and ‘‘calling them on their BS’’ creates the most growth, and you personally believe more in nurturing and focusing on strengths, you will be given ‘‘feedback’’ that you are not measuring up. And you will not be, but only relative to the ideal, which ultimately may or may not be effective.

BEST ADVICE: Provide feedback in terms of the impact you experienced. Marcus Buckingham adds: ‘‘Although you are not a reliable rater of my behavior, you are an extremely reliable rater of your own feelings and emotions.’’ Thus, while you cannot necessarily trust your own judgment of my performance or behavior, you can trust the impact it had on you.

Thus, as we’ve probably all experienced, feedback is tricky business. To be most effective, we have to be highly aware of the other person’s emotional state and manage our own emotions as well. We also need to be cognizant of our biases and beliefs, and focus primarily on the impact of the actions. Even so, the feedback may or may not work to motivate different behavior.

And so, in the BEabove team, we’ve started working with a model we call unpacking. As much as possible, we work together to “unpack” things Unpackingcollaboratively, rather than one person giving feedback to another. Using our model of the Seven Levels of Effectiveness, we look  both “above the line” and “below the line” to see what was present in the situation. To manage our own biases and completely avoid amygdala hijacks, we each own what we did to contribute (positive and negative), and commit to at least one thing we can see for ourselves that we need to do to improve in the future.

This non-blaming dialogue creates a powerful, open space for innovation and emotional intelligence. While we don’t require this in the model, we often end up asking each other about our blind spots and what we might be missing, from a true space of curiosity and desire to improve.

When we decide for ourselves where and how we want to improve, we activate areas of the brain that are not activated when we are told what to do. We stay connected to each other, and curious about what we can do to be more effective members of the team. And we’re motivated to make changes and to grow because we want to, not because someone else — with their own biases, opinions, and emotional reactions — wants us to.

Reference: Buckingham, M. (2011), ‘‘The fatal flaw with 360 surveys’’, Harvard Business Review, October.