The ‘Gift’ of Feedback

The Gift of feed back

“Feedback is a gift,” the old cliché states!

In seeking to maximise their potential, many people hold onto statements like this, attempting to use the opinions of others to contribute to their development.

As we all know from any occasion when actual gifts are exchanged however, not all gifts are useful and not all gifts should be held onto, and this includes the ‘gift of feedback’.

Gone “off the boil”

A few years ago during a talent review session I was facilitating with a team of leaders, the conversation turned to an individual, Sarah, who was a middle manager within one of the leader’s teams. As the conversation unfolded it appears that Sarah was once considered to have the potential to continue progressing up in the organisation, but something happened 18 months ago that caused her to “go off the boil”, as her current manager described.

After the review session I decided to spend some time with Sarah to find out what happened. Through the conversation, Sarah revealed that she had received some particularly cutting feedback from her previous manager. Without giving the detail, this feedback eroded her sense of confidence, resulting in her shrinking into a lesser version of what she was capable of being.

Exploring the feedback, it appeared on the basis of her description that what she was told was not only unfair, but it also seemed like the projection of her previous manager’s insecurity and wanting to position Sarah as the scapegoat for their own poor performance.

Negative Feedback = Threat

What many of us don’t realise is that our brains are constantly scanning our surroundings to assess whether something will be threatening or rewarding to us. Linked to our desire to survive, when we perceive that something will be threatening our brains are flooded with certain neurochemicals which change how we process the memory of an experience.

In processing the memory of threatening events, due to the neurochemicals which are released, the brain fails to appropriately store these events into long term memory and as a result the memory just‘floats’. This is why we can so quickly forget about a great holiday when returning to work, but we’re haunted by negative feedback for days, weeks and even years!

Re-processing negative feedback…

Recognising that the memory of negative feedback is ‘floating’ means that we need to re-process the memory so it gets appropriately stored. In essence, this means finding what is useful from the feedback and using this to support our development, and then appropriately discarding the rest.

Through the conversation with Sarah we started to re-process the feedback she had received. This first involved her better contextualising what was said to her with a simple question:

“On a scale of 0 to 1, where 0 is none and 1 is completely, how much did you respect the person giving you the feedback?” I asked Sarah.

Without hesitating she stated 0.2. Sarah then went on to explain how the individual was disorganised, belittling and dismissive to all her staff.

“So, let’s now multiply the feedback by 0.2,” I challenged.

In doing this the significance of the feedback immediately diminished.

“You’re right,” Sarah said looking as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. “Why would I beat myself up so much over feedback from someone I had such little respect for.”

We then explored the 0.2 element of the feedback. This was the bit where there was something useful to focus on going forward.

Through this simple approach, Sarah took something someone said 18 months ago which had been holding her back and learned to let it go.

We all give feedback

As leaders it’s part of our job and responsibility to give those we lead feedback. Hopefully this is delivered both thoughtfully and consciously through effective conversations. However, as we all know, as leaders we also give feedback unconsciously through our behaviour – what we say and do.

As leaders we also receive feedback from others, and so we know what it feels like to receive useful and potentially harmful feedback.

Recognising this, and the impact that giving feedback can have, it’s important that we are each conscious of our responsibility for giving feedback and thus seek to do so in a way where it becomes a gift people want to keep, rather than one they should throw away.


Something to consider…

Think of a time when you received feedback that you dwelled on and which held you back. How can you re-process that feedback to use it more effectively?

Something to try…

What feedback should you be giving to those you lead? How can you do this in a way where the feedback becomes a gift that supports each person with fulfilling their potential?

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