Leaders: Tame the Brain’s Fight-or-Flight Response and Give Helpful Feedback

Guest post by Anna Carroll:

every boss recognizes the need to give honest and frequent feedback to their
employees about what they are doing well and what needs improvement.  Yet, according to my research with over 1100
leaders at all levels, almost half of all leaders avoid feedback altogether,
and over 80% don’t do it all that well. Less than 5% are delivering
super-helpful feedback on a regular basis.

Big Impact

especially young and hard-to-retain workers, complain that their bosses deprive
them of feedback. HR professionals spend a lot of time preventing or dealing
with the damage that occurs from avoiders, and companies lose big when talent
isn’t developed and mistakes go uncorrected. 

95% of all leaders have room to grow in the feedback department. Why is this
such a pervasive problem for organizations of all shapes and sizes?

Fear and Stress

are a number of reasons given for the feedback gap. But the most common and
hard-to-budge problem experienced by leaders is the fear and stress they experience
when attempting to talk honestly to an employee or colleague about the need to
improve, why they need to improve, and how they can improve.  Being asked to give feedback is similar to being
asked to physically harm another person. So no one really wants to go there.

The Emotional Brain

it sounds irrational that leaders skip over something as important as feedback,
it quite literally IS illogical. MRI studies of feedback givers’ brains trace
which parts of the brain “light up” as they attempt to give feedback. The task
of giving feedback triggers so much fear and trepidation that brain cells rush
from the frontal cerebral cortex where the brain’s reasoning ability is coordinated
toward the emotional parts of the brain where cortisol and other emergency
chemicals are shot off to fight or escape the feedback “enemy.”

Calm Your Brain for
Success with Feedback: 4 Steps to Success

are already ahead of the game by simply knowing the effects of feedback on your
brain. If you take conscious actions that will tame your brain, you can become
one of the top 5% of great feedback-giving leaders.

Step #1: Recognize your brain states as a natural human tendency and notice when
you are experiencing emotional responses as you prepare for giving feedback. Take
a few deep breaths and continue observing your own thoughts.  Imagine a picture or symbol—such as a blue
ribbon or a smiling, successful employee to focus on each time you feel a surge
of stress during a feedback conversation. Know that at first, there will be an
ebb and flow of stress, but that with practice the stress will lessen.

Step #2: Reframe the meaning of
feedback. Remind yourself why you wish to give excellent, helpful feedback and
what it will do for each of your team members. De-sensitize the old
associations you have with feedback and fears that people will be hurt by it.

Step #3: Redirect your feedback
actions so that it creates more positive associations by you and your
employees. In the past, you probably waited too long to discuss issues which
could have been more readily resolved. Now your team members can trust that you
will initiate a helpful feedback conversation right away.

Step #4: Revel in your success.
This sounds goofy but there is a scientific basis in reveling. MIT researchers
and others have discovered that the brain’s neuroplasticity can be activated
subconsciously through the experience of success. After you and your employee
benefit from the feedback experience, the brain takes note of what it did right
and increases your motivation to give even more helpful feedback in the future.

have begun a virtuous cycle. The more comfortable you are with giving feedback,
the more effective you will become as a feedback giver. Less and less negative
associations will be present to trigger fight or flight brain chemicals. Your
fear will transform into enthusiasm for great feedback conversations!
About the author:

Carroll, MSSW, is an author, speaker, and organization consultant who
specializes in workplace trends and leadership excellence. In her recent book, The Feedback Imperative:
How to Give Everyday Feedback to Speed Up
Your Team’s Success
, she
helps leaders at all levels overcome their obstacles to giving feedback.