Learn How People Really Respond To Feedback

The predictable ways in which people react to feedback

James Wright
Nov 22, 2019 · 6 min read
Basejumper — source

people’s instinct can be to change the information rather than change themselves

Being aware of the most significant, and damaging, responses to feedback is vital. Successful leaders learn to recognise these patterns, prepare themselves and others, and avoid getting hung up on them so they can better lead with empathy rather than blame.

This blog is a quick-fire review of five such responses. Each looking at why they occur, what to look for, and some general advice and tips on how to manage them when you do come across them.

The Responses

Receiving feedback can be a deeply psychological experience, and as such there are common and recognisable human responses, all of which, in some way are used to protect the inner self.

Generally, there are five common and predictable behaviours:

  1. Treat feedback as a threat
  2. Change the information
  3. Shoot the messenger
  4. Shop for confirmation
  5. Replay it

Treat it as a Threat

Constructive feedback can make us feel threatened

Constructive — that is negative — feedback can produce a strong response that “inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment”. i.e. your brain narrows its focus. Why does that matter? People more often reject information, such as criticism, as patently untrue when they are in a threat state.

When we look at brain scans of people exposed to threats to their social standing, such as critical feedback, the resulting brain activity looks the same to those exposed to imminent physical threats.

Feedback conversations, if they are to be productive, must have a goal of minimizing this threat response.

Treat disconfirming¹ negative feedback seriously and carefully. If you see someone ‘closing down’, be sensitive to it, it is natural, and you may need to tread lightly, or take more than one session to provide the message.

One of the strongest models for understanding social threat and reward is what psychologists call the SCARF model.

¹disconfirming: information that challenges or violates our self-evaluation of ourselves e.g. “I had always thought I was great at public speaking, now I’m not so sure”. Whereas, confirming would be “He is telling me something I already know, I’m just not good at public speaking”.

Change the Information

We’ll change the information before we change ourselves — CC0 Public Domain

In Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work, author Charles Jacobs describes how, when confronted with information that violated their self-evaluation, people’s instinct is to change the information rather than change themselves.

Expect that you may be debated, challenged and the information dismissed during the feedback process. And afterwards, the message is likely to be picked apart in search for weak points.

It is good practice to follow-up in person, maybe even in writing (especially in low-context cultures, or if the message was nuanced), to ensure the message has not been misconstrued or misinterpreted.

Shoot the Messenger

Shoot the messenger by changing the focus — by Devin Avery on Unsplash

Responses don’t just happen in-situ, but also is the hours and days following. This, and the next two reactions are examples of that.

People can protect their inner-self from the fault-finding by discrediting and disparaging those who are critical of them.

That is, we switch the focus towards the provider of feedback in order to shift the conversation away from a bruised ego.

Research has shown the dislike is targeted specifically towards the messenger. In contrast, recipients do not tend to disparage those who are peripheral or merely present at the time feedback is given.

Be careful to manage the relationship with them and those likely to be on the listening end of the ire.

Shop for Confirmation

Getting another opinion, one that we like better— by Trung Thanh on Unsplash

The next response is another classic behaviour that will involve the recipient’s social or professional network. This is where they look for other people to connect with to offset the feedback. This is called “shopping for confirmation.” People — quite literally sometimes — move away from those who critical, and look for new relationships who provide them with affirmation that counteracts the stinging criticism.

Anticipate others will hear about the feedback in a way the receiver is seeking the message to be refuted.

Research points to this characteristic almost disappearing if the recipient is provided with affirmation about their broader value and goodness at the same time. This suggests people who feel good about themselves are more likely to intrinsically act on negative feedback without resorting to this negative tactic.

Try providing a backstory of positive feedback (in private) and recognition (publicly) as a way to build up a vault of positive self-evaluation, that acts as a buffer for any knocks, including when you really do need to have a constructive feedback conversation.

Replay it

It can be hard to stop thinking about negative feedback — by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Finally, negative emotions are generally processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Moreover, compared to positive impressions of oneself, they are faster to form, more lasting, and have greater resilience to disconfirmation.

Clifford Nass, Professor of Communication at Stanford University, says “almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”

This phenomenon is called negativity bias. Our brains have evolved seperate and sensitive brain circuits to handle negative information and events.

This means we process the things that hurt us more thoroughly than those that are merely affirmative.

Receiving criticism will always have a greater impact than receiving praise. Try to empathise with the recipient. Depending upon the mental resilience of the person, receiving feedback, however skilfully done, can be a miserable experience.

Don’t overload critical feedback, allow time to heal, however robust the person is. And be aware of the emotional state, and the effect of mindset (growth v fixed) of the people you are giving feedback too?


All constructive feedback elicits some negative responses. It is just to what degree, and how well those are managed by the leader, if it is not to derail the feedback given.

To recap:

  1. Be sensitive to the threat response and tread lightly
  2. Expect that they may seek to shoot the messenger amongst their and your peers
  3. Anticipate that they could engage others and shop for confirmation as a way to refute the message
  4. Understand that there is a desire to change the information rather than change themselves
  5. Empathise how much that this can hurt someone as they tend to replay the negative feedback received and original events

Understanding these responses is crucial. Managing them is both essential if you want to see ensure a positive outcome from the feedback you give, and to alleviate the possible psychological hurt that it may throw up for the receiver.

After reading this, I hope you aren’t put off, but more aware. Giving feedback can be incredibly beneficial. If you see these reactions, you should be confident knowing they are common, understandable and expected.

James is a Software Delivery Manager at SEEK, an online career and recruitment company based in Melbourne, Australia. He has spent a good part of his career leading small cross-functional software development teams. And prior to that was a long-term Software Architect and Engineer in London, Zurich and Melbourne. He has a Master in Computer Science and published fundamental research on 4G technologies.

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James Wright

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I write about leadership and organisational psychology topics applied to agile teams

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At SEEK we’ve created a community of valued, talented, diverse individuals that really know their stuff. Enjoy our Product & Technical insights…

James Wright

Written by

I write about leadership and organisational psychology topics applied to agile teams

SEEK blog

SEEK blog

At SEEK we’ve created a community of valued, talented, diverse individuals that really know their stuff. Enjoy our Product & Technical insights…

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