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Three Brain-Friendly Approaches to Feedback

“Can I give you some feedback?”

What’s your reaction to hearing that question? It probably depends on who the person is and the circumstances, but most people will say they feel nervous, anxious or a sense of dread. This happens because our brains are hardwired to keep us safe and any perceived threat activates our “fight/flight” response.

The Threat Reaction

Put very simply, the human brain has evolved  to perform three distinct functions;
Running the Engine - The brain stem looks after all the automatic functions of the body such as heart rate, breathing and blood pressure.
Keeping us Safe - The limbic system is the seat of our emotions and memory and manages the “fight/flight” response.
Rationalising – The neocortex is responsible for rational processing such as planning, decsion-making, analysing and problem-solving.

When we hear the words “can I give you some feedback?” we perceive a potential threat. The limbic system then hijacks the rational brain and activates our “fight/flight” response.
But why do we perceive feedback as a threat?

The Neuroscience of Threat

The SCARF model (David Rock, www.neuroleadership.com) describes the five strongest neurobiological drivers of the threat (and reward) response;

Status is about our relative importance
Certainty concerns being able to predict what is going to happen
Autonomy involves a sense of being in control over events
Relatedness is a sense of safety with others
Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people

So, it doesn’t take long to work out what could be happening neurologically when someone offers us feedback. What do their actions say about their status relative to ours? We have no idea what they are going to say and have no control over it. What is our relationship with the giver? Are we safe? How do we feel about the giver’s right to give us feedback?

Anticipating that we are about to receive feedback can activate multiple drivers to activate our “fight/flight” response. This leaves us in the worst possible state for receiving the feedback since our ability to be rational is diminished.

The Feedback Dilemma!

So we have a big dilemma;
• Feedback induces a neuroscientific state that potentially leaves us in the worst possible emotional state to receive it
• But we also know that feedback is critical for learning and development
What does a leader do with that?

Three Brain Friendly Approaches

1. Design it in
Designing feedback into the way the team works reduces the need for leaders to give it. It takes work and time; but then so does feedback. Designing feedback in means working with the team on a clear purpose, defining what success and failure look like and crafting performance exposure measures. Then putting structures and processes in place to ensure that everyone knows how they are doing in a timely and transparent way.

Stacey is department manager in a professional services firm. She has a 30 minute “huddle” at the beginning and the end of each week where the team manage their “If we do nothing else this week we must…..” whiteboard. The intention is to clear the board at the end of each week and the measure is the number of weeks this is achieved (both for the team and individuals). Stacey’s team has also benefited from increased teamwork as the whole team takes ownership for what is on the board whether or not it is their role responsibility.

You can design-in behaviours too.

Mark runs the Quality team in a food manufacturer and designed-in behavioural feedback. Mark’s team closes their monthly team meeting with “appreciation”. Each team member comes prepared to offer one piece of appreciation to a colleague. By focusing on the positive, Mark is sending strong, reinforcing messages about the behaviour that supports the team’s work.

2. Self-feedback
Self-feedback is a coaching approach leaders can use to support development and can also be used for both task and behaviour. It is very simple and will transform your one-to-ones and performance reviews.

Jonathon is a Programme Director who uses Self-feedback with his Project Managers in their monthly one-to-ones. He simply uses coaching style questions:

To reinforce the successes/ positives:
“What’s going well? What else? What else? (Until there are no more)
“What behaviours are bringing results? What else? What else? (Until there are no more)
To surface the difficulties:
“What is proving tricky or challenging (task and behaviours)?”
To embed learning and focus on the future:
“What will you do differently next month?”
Finally, to open up any blind-spots, Jonathon might ask:
“Would you like some feedback from me?”
He only offers feedback if he notices something that the Project Manager has not mentioned. Jonathon reports that most of the feedback he would have offered the manager already knows. He also notices that the managers are very comfortable giving themselves feedback as an alternative to getting it from him.

3. Feedforward
Feedforward is another coaching-based approach, but this one happens before the event/ task. It sounds something like this;

To ensure clarity and understanding of the task:
“Tell me what you have just taken responsibility for?”
“What are the key deliverables and activities you will need to address?”
“Who are the main stakeholders you need to contract with/ build relationships with?
To build commitment, motivation and accountability:
“Tell me why this important to the organisation? To the team? To you personally?”
To build confidence:
“Describe what you are most confident about this task?”
“Let’s discuss what you are less confident or even worried about and how we can get to higher confidence”
To remove excuses and ensure the right level of support:
“What resources, help or support do you need from me or others to be successful?”

The leader will fill any blind-spots throughout the dialogue. This style of dialogue can be successfully combined with Self-feedback into regular one-to-ones.

Growth Mindset

Finally, these approaches encourage “Growth Mindset” (Dr Carol Dweck). People and organisations with a Growth Mindset believe that their talents, skills and abilities are not fixed. They actively work on themselves and are always learning and developing their talents. They also tend to be more resilient and creative.


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