BusinessDictionary.com gives us an extremely simple and comprehensive definition: feedback is the process through which the effect of an action is transmitted back (fed-back) with the scope of modifying future actions. In a work environment feedback can be formal, as part of the evaluation process, the objective being the alignment of behaviors and attitudes to the organizational standards of the company where we work, or informal, as one-off reactions to our daily activity (expressed directly or indirectly…). Nothing too complicated so far. But we are only human. And nothing is as simple as a dictionary definition when it's about people because emotions always get involved. We'll get to that a bit later.
We are social beings, therefore we cannot live among other people without communicating and without receiving confirmation, or the opposite, regarding our behavior. Since our early childhood we rely on input we receive from the outside (parents, school, our peer group) on our behavior in order to adapt and be accepted in society and we are more or less receptive to it. These inputs come towards us in different forms: praise - which makes us feel good -, criticism - that can demotivate or encourage us -, but we also read reactions from others' behavior - tormenting silences, openness, anger or trust that is given to us. The problem with these messages is that they are easily misinterpreted, we are susceptible to misjudging them and, also, we can feel rather uncomfortable lacking certainty. We can see here how important our need for clear feedback, from which we can extract useful information, really is. I will not speculate on how our culture shapes the way we communicate to each other, but from my observations so far I can conclude that most of us are not really champions of expressing our opinions or suggestions in a constructive way, nor in accepting feedback from others.
As I mentioned before, emotions 'complicate' our lives. We all felt at certain points in life the need to speak when something was bothering us but we hesitated because we weren't sure how the other person would react. Or, maybe more often than not, we felt ashamed, disappointed, infuriated when we received criticism or just plain suggestions. These aspects don't depend on the context, it can be all about work (annual evaluation, one-on-one discussions) or about personal life, where feedback is not that clear and structured.
This article is not the place for a discussion about how to give feedback, but I feel the need to get into this briefly, especially regarding feedback in the workplace (nonetheless, everything here is perfectly applicable in our daily lives as well). The most common and accepted classification is: negative feedback - showing the negative aspects, criticism; positive feedback - praising; non-feedback - lack of any clear information on our behavior and, the most recommended: constructive feedback - which offers us an objective insight on the consequences of our actions, good or bad, together with suggestions for improvement. An extremely important aspect, that is, unfortunately, often forgotten and that compromises the whole purpose of feedback: you give feedback for a specific behavior and not related to how a person is or isn't. It's none of my business to judge how somebody is or isn't. My goal is to inform the other on the consequences of his or her behavior and the impact it has on me or on my/ the company's activity.
So, why is this such a drag? Why is it so hard to receive feedback and not to let a sea of negative emotions drown us? In the end, it's all about input that can help us become better.
Whether we like it or not, the emotional side of our brain dictates our decisions in many circumstances. The brain has a series of very strong defensive mechanisms which proved to be extremely useful in time. Identifying a threat very quickly saved us as a species - through our automated reactions. It's just that our internal radar system is extremely sensitive and in a world where our physical integrity is no longer at risk every step we take, we focus on much more subtle clues. When we receive feedback, regardless of its nature, our mind gets into a state of automated response where emotions get triggered by these thoughts. Because many of us are not really well trained in having honest and difficult talks, these thoughts will slip on the bad side - patterns of dysfunctional thinking which create negative emotions: anger, shame, fear and uncertainty (this is the underlying principle of a very popular and widely accepted form of psychotherapy - cognitive behavioral therapy, developed by A. Beck a while ago).
This merry-go-round of dysfunctional thoughts and negative emotions is triggered especially when the information we receive is not in congruence with our self-perception. This is why it's so difficult to accept feedback and to initiate difficult conversations.
There are a few types of mental traps in which we fall when we hear things we don't like or agree with. Below you can find a few explained and how to switch to a healthier alternative.
Catastrophizing - exaggerating the importance of a negative event, thought or emotion. Feedback example: "You were late for our meeting and this made us all late and losing precious time. Please be more careful next time." My thoughts: "I made a mistake, I will lose my job!" And the emotion I feel is fear.
An alternate, healthier interpretation: "I don't know anybody who's been kicked out of a job for being late at a meeting. I didn't realize that my being late can cause so much trouble and it's uncomfortable to accept this, but I'll get over it and the chances of serious consequences are rather small". In short, we do a reality check.
Overgeneralization: transforming a negative event into a general and permanent rule. Feedback example: "I would have liked this report to look different, please redo it!" My reaction: agitation and confusion. Triggering thoughts: "I screwed this up, as I always do… "- interpretation that makes me less inclined to accept doing a similar report in the future.
An alternate, healthier interpretation could be: "I probably made a mess, but I can make it right. Apart from that, my work here is generally appreciated." The warning signs for this dysfunctional pattern are words like "always", "never", "all the time" etc.
Emotional reasoning - when you believe that something is true just because you "feel" it. This pattern triggers especially when we don't receive a clear feedback. For example, after having a successful path in a previous company I am newly hired in another firm. Here, I did not so far receive any appreciation for my valid interventions during meetings. I think that the others do not appreciate my inputs or want me to shut up because they feel threatened or envious.
An alternate interpretation could be: "Actually my colleagues are very busy and focused on their own ideas. Nobody was hostile and they seemed interested in what I have to say." To check these assumptions I should, surprise, surprise…ask them! This way I can verify if my thoughts correspond with reality.
It is essential to pay attention to the dirty games our mind plays with us and try to stop and break them by doing reality checks. If you receive an unclear feedback, ask for details! If I do not understand where the problem is - if there is one -, I cannot solve it.
Apart from these thoughts that complicate things, we should talk about the decision to take action after a feedback. As you may suspect by now, this decision is mediated largely by emotions. According to Sargeant's model (2008), if the feedback I receive is not compatible with what I believe about me, the time I take to reflect on it will be longer and the chances to accept it, smaller (but not non-existent).
No matter how uncomfortable it may be, feedback is the mother of development! So, ask for it as often as possible, pay attention to the thoughts that go through your head in those moments, ask for clarifications, be thankful for openness and honesty, and show it. These are valuable gifts
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