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Want Feedback?

| August 22, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Then, Ask for It!

Over the past years I’ve written a number of Tuesday Readings about feedback.  (See here and here for example.)  In this set of readings, I explored both why and how we should give and receive feedback as well other aspects of the subject.  And, I have particularly encouraged leaders to give feedback to their staff when appropriate.
Almost all of us have been encouraged from a young age that it is better to give than to receive.  After all, the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran all encourage giving over receiving.  And, some scientists believe that giving to, or helping, others helps to relieve stress in the body and is therefore beneficial to your health.
Feedback, however, may well be an exception to this rule.  Recent work by the NeuroLeadership Institute suggests that feedback is better received in response to you asking for feedback than when someone asks, “May I give you feedback?” and you respond “Yes.”
Why might this be so?  As I noted in the August 2, 2016 Tuesday Reading referenced below, David Rock and others have demonstrated that an individual’s brain experiences the workplace as a social system.  He writes:  “Leaders who understand this dynamic can more effectively engage their employees’ best talents, support collaborative teams, and create an environment that fosters productive change.”
I noted there, “Our brains are constantly, subconsciously scanning for stimuli – both physical ones like the ‘saber-toothed tiger’ and social ones like not being valued – and comparing the new stimuli against past experiences and our responses to them.”  If the stimulus is recognized, the brain will likely take the same action that it took when that stimulus was last experienced.  If the stimulus is new, it will be subconsciously classified as either a ‘threat’ or a ‘reward’ and forwarded to other areas of the brain for action.
The SCARF – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness – model summarizes important ideas from neuroscience about the way people interact socially and is built on three central ideas:
1.  “The brain treats many social threats and rewards with the same intensity as [it treats] physical threats and rewards.
2.  “The capacity to make decisions, solve problems and collaborate with others is generally reduced by a threat response and increased under a reward response.”
3.  “The threat response is more intense and more common and often needs to be carefully minimized in social interactions.” 
As noted earlier, the model involves five domains of human social experience:
       •  Status – relative importance to others.
       •  Certainty – ability to predict the future.
       •  Autonomy – sense of control over future events.
       •  Relatedness – sense of safety with others.
       •  Fairness  – is it fair.
So, with this as background, what happens when someone comes up to you and says “I have some feedback for you,” or, perhaps better, asks, “May I give you some feedback?”  Research suggests that the immediate reaction is for a threat to be detected in all five of these domains.  The person offering the feedback is seen as positioning himself/herself higher than you.  You see your future as less certain and you as having less control over it.  You question your “safety” with this individual and you ask if it is fair.  All threats.  This is particularly true, if you don’t get feedback from this individual frequently, have no idea what the feedback is related to, have little relationship with the individual offering the feedback, or have received “not helpful” advice from that individual in the past.
Studies conducted by Heidi Grant, author and senior staff member at the NeuroLeadership Institute, and others have demonstrated that staff engagement is highest with weekly feedback.  Yet fewer than 20% of the staff surveyed received feedback weekly and of those only 2% said that the feedback was useful.  And, that’s not all.  Many, perhaps most, of the managers don’t make giving specific, frequent feedback a priority.  They hate doing it and think that staff members hate receiving any feedback.  Research suggests, however, that what staff members hate is feedback that is not helpful and receiving it when it is unsolicited.
Fortunately, there is an answer to this situation – each individual takes responsibility for getting his or her own feedback.  First of all, going back to the SCARF model, it’s seen as much less of a threat in all of the model’s five domains and may even be seen as a reward in some.  (I.e., Jo always gives me very helpful feedback.  I’ll ask her.)  Second, you can ask for feedback in the moment, on specific issues.  And, you are not limited to receiving feedback from just one individual.  You can ask for feedback on a topic from multiple people – managers, peers, your staff, others – thereby providing multiple points of view and additional information.
Asking for feedback, in reality, is an opportunity for you to take control of a segment of your development and seek information that will be specifically helpful for your growth.  If you run a meeting, be sure to do a +/∆ about what worked in the meeting and what didn’t.  And, you can go beyond that with directed questions, seeking feedback about specific segments of the meeting.  If you give a presentation, get feedback from several in the audience.  Don’t ask the “softball” questions that lead to “you were great” answers.  Ask the harder questions pointing to sections of your presentation, or how you responded to questions, where you felt you were a little “rough.”  It’s all about learning what you need to do so that you will grow and do better work in the future.  And, do say, “Thank you for your feedback.” and don’t make excuses for your shortcomings, etc.  It is what it is.
Based upon this, I propose that you make getting feedback a daily practice.  Commit to developing a habit whereby you ask at least one person each day for feedback on something specific.  Put it on your calendar as a reminder and for “extra credit,” make a journal entry indicating what you requested feedback about, what the feedback was, and what you are going to do as a result of getting the feedback.  Going back over these entries after several weeks will be very informative.
As we say, feedback is a gift.  And, at least in this case, it I’s more than OK to ask for the gift.
Make it a great week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Heidi Grant, The Neuroscience of Better Feedback, NeuroLeadership Institute Webinar, July 2017 (video and slides available here).
James Bruce, Neuroscience and Change – Part 3:  SCARF :: A Users Guide, Tuesday Reading August 2, 2016. 
(Source unknown), Understanding David Rock’s SCARF Model, July 18, 2014.