Feedback is a curious thing. The intention behind offering it is to bring about positive change, to modify behaviour. However, when criticism is offered, even when it is skillfully embedded in a non-judgmental tone, sounding supportive and authentic, persons on the receiving end can still feel attacked or embarrassed so responses like withdrawal, defensiveness or anger can result. When criticism is condescending, or even bullying, organizations stand to lose good people or cause top performers to hold back.
Studies have demonstrated that critical feedback causes persons to go inward, becoming preoccupied about the critical feedback, allowing the emotion associated with that information to lower productivity because it is difficult to focus on anything else.
Neuroscience has proven there are two portions of our brains that affect how we process critical feedback: the amygdala and neocortex. Each of us have two amygdalae and they are located in the vicinity of the emotional brain. Our amygdalae help us perceive and react to threats with fight or flight strategies. There are persons who respond to criticism as though it is a threat, and when this happens, they can shift into survival mode.
The neocortex helps us manage our responses to criticism because it helps us understand why we are experiencing the emotions that are surfacing. It helps us reign in excuses or defensiveness and allows us to respond in a way that demonstrates self-regulation.
So why is it important to understand the impact of criticism? It’s because we have been taught to offer something called constructive criticism. When criticism is offered according to the constructive criticism formula, it is sandwiched between two positive statements. This often does not work because it can feel inauthentic to persons receiving the sandwiched feedback or it can backfire because regardless how the criticism is couched, persons can become preoccupied by anything that resembles judgment.
In some workplaces, criticism is a normal part of conversation. It shows up during sessions that should be dedicated to coaching, or it emerges in when errors are made. When criticism is offered, the intent can be to correct a situation or develop an employee or both. When there is no intention to develop others, oftentimes the criticism is devoid of empathy. When this is the case, it can show up as impatience, disgust, or judgment.
People process criticism in different ways. As I already mentioned, some internalize the feedback and blame themselves. Some get angry or fearful and reject responsibility by making excuses or blaming others. Another group seeks to understand why the feedback was offered so they can course correct. It is rare that I encounter persons in the workplace who belong to the fourth group and when I do, there are some who still experience the initial amygdala response despite their actions. Others do not tie their value or worth to a mistake and the ensuing criticism. They tend to work in environments where mistakes are used as a learning tool, a source of empowerment , not to shame or communicate failure.
There are other types of feedback that build trust. One effective, alternative strategy is positive reinforcement. This is a strategy where you highlight an employee’s strengths by rewarding those strengths in an effort to build and sustain them. Rewards can range from bonuses to developmental opportunities. The goals of positive reinforcement are to shape behaviour and improve the self-image of your team members. Positive reinforcement has the exact opposite effect of criticism.
Positive reinforcement works best when it is done immediately after an employee has done something that should be reinforced. Reinforcement can be in private or it can be publicly highlighted so the behaviour can be highlighted for the entire team. Positive reinforcement increases the confidence of employees helping them to become more engaged. Empirical evidence shows that actively engaged employees are more productive so shifting from a culture that transforms behaviour through constructive criticism to one where positive reinforcement is a dominant value, can have profound effects on morale, engagement and profitability.
Coaching is another opportunity to make the shift to higher engagement levels. When leaders use an ineffective coaching model they tell employees what they should do and they do not explain why it is important, so these leaders are unable to gain employee buy in and commitment. Instead they explain why it is important to the company.
Another challenge I encounter with ineffective performance coaching is managers do not support employees with how to do something. Instead, they provide abstract instructions that lead to ineffectiveness and inefficiencies. Another sub-optimal practice occurs when a manager tells an employee how to do something based on their style and way of seeing the world, not taking the employees’ differences in thinking and execution styles of the employee into consideration.
Solution focused coaching is based on the understanding that employees already have the resources they need to solve a problem creatively. As a leader, your role in solution focused coaching is to adopt a tone of curiosity, and use questions to tap into the inner resources of your direct reports.
Solution focused coaching keeps the momentum going because the process helps employees buy into what they are being asked to do. The person being coached defines why it is important. The leader/coach help team members shift into a creative mode by honing their questioning strengths. I once heard a speaker say a question always has an answer built into it, so the more thought provoking and curious the question, the more thoughtful the answer will be if there is a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.
As you consider feedback and its effects, I invite you to give thought to how you can achieve meaningful changes in how you provide feedback to your team and also, how you can influence how they communicate with each other. Supportive language is integral to creating high performance.
Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner. If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at www.yvettebethel.com or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.