The Hidden Leverage of Feedback

By David Rock, Beth Jones, and Chris Weller

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Feedback is essential for organizational (and organismal) growth, but what’s the best way to give it?

Typical feedback conversations are painful and extremely stress-producing. Managers who try to avoid offending their employees risk over-correcting, giving feedback that is polite but ultimately unhelpful. Billions are spent each year in an attempt to solve these feedback problems.

A feature story in strategy and business could hold the key insight: Asking for feedback , rather than giving it unprompted, may be the smartest way to develop a growth-oriented culture .

“We’re not promising it’s going to feel good right away, but it will be better for you in the long term,” says New York University psychologist and NLI senior scientist Tessa West.

Putting the brain in the right state

West and her colleague Katherine Thorson, also of NYU, recently ran a study at a major consultancy that tracked people’s heart rates during mock negotiations. Afterward, each participant took turns giving and receiving feedback. Certain groups were instructed to ask for feedback, while others gave it unprompted.

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The findings showed giving feedback was just as anxiety-producing as receiving feedback. However, when people received feedback that wasn’t asked for, their heart rates jumped around erratically. (Equivalent spikes have been found during some of the most stressful events, such as public speaking.)

Our brains suffer in these moments of duress. Stress causes a decline in cognitive function and a narrowing of the senses, limiting our ability to think critically or learn. To serve their crucial function of helping employees improve and grow, feedback conversations should avoid this threat response.

Based on her recent study, West believes asking for feedback could hold the power to make discussions less painful. When people know to ask for feedback, they feel in control, West says. They feel psychological rewards of autonomy and certainty. They can steer the conversation wherever they choose and feel confident about which topics will get discussed. Givers also feel more certainty because they no longer have to guess what kind of information will be most useful.

Creating the habit of asking

To make an asker-led culture a reality, West says to start small.

“It’s like going on a diet,” she says. “You don’t want to cut out everything that’s delicious. You have to gradually replace the unhealthy with the healthy.”

Leaders can take the first steps by asking for feedback themselves—perhaps about the temperature in the last meeting. Gradually, West says, people will feel safer asking for feedback if they know the resulting discussion will be productive, not threatening.

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Over time, organizations that take up the strategy should expect to have regular feedback conversations more often, which means avoiding errors earlier and innovating more rapidly.