Feedback – it’s all in the delivery

27 April 2015 | Feedback

In a high performance culture, feedback is sustained, motivating, and supportive. It is part of a continuous cycle of improvement which maintains the standard of performance set by leadership. Feedback invariably involves a reflection of how others perceive an individual; which is often unexpected. It can stretch to a direct, or indirect request to change behaviours.

As one of many difficult conversations a manager needs to feel equipped to handle, its success lies in how it’s delivered. Neurobiology can support us in determining how to manage feedback, to ensure it achieves objectives of pushing improvement without discomfort, and motivation without defensiveness.

New neuroscientific research tells us how poorly managed negative feedback can be emotionally harmful because it acts as a stressor, which induces a threat, and the brain and lymphatic system responds in a particular way. The well-known ‘fight or flight’ hormone, cortisol, elevates to a higher level than in non-interpersonal situations, and takes longer to go back to its baseline state. This can have quite an effect on the body, and can cloud judgement, promoting erratic responses, and generally causing discomfort.

Does feedback cause pain?

Within the field of behavioural change, Avraham N. Kluger and Angelo DeNisi’s review of performance feedback found that feedback intervention has a significant effect on performance. However, the effect is not always positive. In 33% of their sample of more than 600, that effect was negative and performance declined. Even more significantly, where negative impact was experienced, individuals experienced feelings of hurt, demotivation and upset.

Further research carried out in UCLA by Naomi Eisenberger PhD has identified the proximity of emotional to physical pain. In fact, the brain uses many of the same neural pathways in response to emotional stressors as it employs in response to physical pain. Long term or repeated exposure to either kind of stressor causes other complications; fatigue, depression, inflammation.

Eisenberger’s theory taken with Kluger and DeNisi’s work would suggest that poorly delivered negative feedback can lead to people becoming unwell. The key is to understand how feedback can have such negative effects, and how therefore to avoid them.

It’s about balance

Research has thrown up interesting analyses aimed at identifying the ‘tipping point’ between the level of positive to negative feedback, at which negative effect is felt.

A 2004 study by James Smother focussed on the impact of feedback rating and narrative comments for 176 managers during a one year period. It found that those who received a small number of unfavourable behaviourally based comments improved relative to other managers. However those who received a large number of negative comments (relative to positive comments) significantly declined in performance relative to other managers.

It works in marriage too - another close partnership. John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, followed 700 couples for 10 years and found that when there was less than a five-to-one positive-to-negative interaction ratio in a videotaped interaction of 15 minutes, it predicted subsequent divorce with a high level of accuracy (81 percent to 94 percent).

There are other studies, using varying techniques which also underline the importance of balance – perhaps something we know intuitively but understanding its scientific basis is useful. Therefore careful attention to the nature of comments to be delivered, and even accentuation of the positive-to-negative ratio of emotions and behaviours, seem to be fundamental in any planned feedback by a manager to a report.

Feeding back – every day & outside of the formal Performance Review

Current thinking and research points very strongly to feedback being an essential component of productivity and growth. It is fundamental to a culture of high performance. It is the means by which the individual understands the standards expected of them, as part of a team, as well as the means to support them in attaining and maintaining those standards. Feedback allows individuals achieve their potential.

However, research from the Corporate Leadership Council indicates that delivering all feedback in the context of an annual, bi annual or quarterly performance is generally detrimental to establishing a culture of high performance and often has a negative impact on performance. The same research indicated that when individuals receive ongoing, regular, constructive guidance on their performance of tasks, and work, it has a significant and positive impact on performance.

Therefore, a manager’s role is to engage in ongoing dialogue with his/her team to identify and manage mutual expectations and provide feedback on performance. To be effective, this feedback must be regular and balanced but there are also a number of techniques, rooted in science, that managers and leaders can utilise to ensure that feedback achieves its objectives.

The most significant of these is Marshall Goldsmith’s feed forward technique. Rather than focusing on what people have done in the past, which raises stress levels and encourages feelings of defensiveness, feed forward focuses on the behaviours that are likely to increase performance. Goldsmith has found that by maintaining a future focus on all feedback i.e. framing it as advice on what the report should start doing, or continue doing, that discomfort is diluted. In addition, individuals are more likely to act on the feedback as they appreciate tips for future success from a trusted source.

To be more effective as managers and leaders, we must understand the neuroscientific research which explains emotional pain, discomfort and the responses it evokes in every human. As we have seen, feedback, by its nature, falls into the category of difficult conversations which have the potential to cause emotional pain.

Feedback is rarely entirely positive, but can be delivered in an entirely positive manner, as part of a strong and continuously collaborative culture of high performance. Feedback can empower individuals, enrich working relationships and is a key skill for confident managers. It is indeed all in the delivery; the application of insights from neuroscience has showed us just how.

Co-authored by hpc with our research partner, Ken Nowack, pHD of Envisia Learning.

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