Your Brain on Feedback

Last month I praised Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz's head-on approach to giving and receiving feedback.  I never said that what she did was easy. A commenter, M., responded to the post by articulating just how hard it has been for him to open himself up to feedback.  M. wrote:

For a long time, it was enough for me just to be able to hear criticism without getting incredibly defensive and shutting it down – actually soliciting feedback where there was a risk it wouldn’t be entirely positive was tantamount to masochism for me.

M. is not alone.  Who among us wants to invite criticism that makes us feel bad?  In fact, there are both psychological and physiological reasons why asking for feedback is so hard. Organizational theorist Chris Argyris says that our aversion to negative feedback is why it is so hard to teach smart people how to learn.  Smart people are accustomed to getting positive feedback for their behavior, and lack practice in dealing with their own failures. As a result, Argyris says, smart people "become defensive, screen out criticism, and put 'blame' on anyone and everyone except themselves.  In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most." Sound familiar? (Argyris quote from this book.)

Meanwhile, a little part of our brains called the amygdala is taking over at the first sign of threatening feedback.  The amygdala is the walnut sized area of the brain that produces that fight/flight/freeze response that makes our palms sweat, our breath quicken, or our feet want to run out the door at the first sign of criticism.  A leadership training I did likened the triggered amygdala to a fire alarm.  Imagine trying to hold a conversation -- and graciously take in feedback -- with an alarm blaring in your ear. Not the best conditions for a thoughtful response, much less learning.

Consciously avoiding feedback, though, can be even worse.  Commenter M. writes,

What I realized was that in the absence of feedback, I was already filling in the blanks with my very worst fears – that I wasn’t doing a good job, that I was a crappy friend, that I was unfit, incompetent, and so on down the line.  If I don’t ask for feedback, I am assuring that the haters in my head will be the only voices I hear.

Oh, those voices in our heads!  Prolific business book guy Seth Godin says those voices are our overactive "lizard brain" speaking up to intervene whenever we get too close to completing something that could garner criticism or ridicule. (The amygdala is the soul of the lizard brain.) If you have ever asked yourself if you should really submit that article, make that speech, or show that painting for fear of negative feedback, that is your lizard brain talking. A life lived at the mercy of the lizard brain is a life of self sabotage and never-ending self doubt.

So how do we overcome our aversion to learning from failure, our hyper-sensitive amygdalas, and our annoying lizard brains?  That's a topic for another post.  For now, here is how commenter M. finally came around to see inviting feedback as a good thing:

I [think] about it from the perspective of “what would my best self want?” If I’m firing on all cylinders, if I’m being the premium me, as it were – that means that I am someone who is strong enough to hear feedback and make necessary changes, and to have that be a positive and productive experience. Every time I choose to put myself on the line and ask for it, I’m choosing to be the better me and to invest in my own growth.

Pretty smart for a lizard.

Feedback From The Corner Office

Each Sunday, the Business section of the NY Times runs "The Corner Office," an interview by Adam Bryant with a prominent CEO about his or her leadership and management style.  What is striking about this week's interview with Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz, is Ms. Bartz's commitment to giving and receiving regular, timely feedback.   Ms. Bartz views herself as talkative to a fault, and admits that sometimes she has trouble listening.  To counter  these bad habits, Ms. Bartz asks for feedback:

I also ask simple questions, like 'How am I doing? What should I do differently?' At first, people are shocked when you ask them that. They won’t answer right away because they actually don’t think you’re genuine about it, so you have to kind of keep probing and make it safe. They eventually will come around and say, 'Well, just this.'

How many of us are this conscious about asking for regular, in-the-moment feedback?  It is an interaction that carries a certain amount of risk for both parties, and can be uncomfortable because it disrupts conversational norms.  But the potential benefits -- including being able to make minor adjustments before  full-blown problems emerge -- are huge.  

Ms. Bartz is also committed to giving regular feedback.  She describes what she calls her "puppy theory":

When the puppy pees on the carpet, you say something right then because you don’t say six months later, 'Remember that day, January 12th, when you peed on the carpet?' That doesn’t make any sense. 'This is what’s on my mind. This is quick feedback.' And then I’m on to the next thing.

If this regular feedback cycle were the norm, Ms. Bartz suggests, organizations could do away with the formal performance review process altogether.  I would suggest that regular, timely feedback is a good way to go but that a performance review focused on the bigger picture, looking backward and forward, can be a useful compliment.  

As for me, while I feel pretty confident in giving feedback that is specific, timely, actionable and relevant (the "STAR" method), I often gloss over asking for direct feedback.  Especially now, as I juggle a number of group projects, I find myself wondering from time to time, "How am I being perceived by my teammates? Am I being a good team member?"  Not translating these worries into an explicit request for feedback is a missed opportunity for growth.

Ms. Bartz's approach is a good reminder that when we find ourselves with questions about our own performance, the best way to address them may be to simply ask them aloud to others.