Why Your Feedback Sessions Are Terrifying Your Employees

And how to liberate their potential instead

Microsoft, Accenture, Gap — the list of companies ditching annual performance reviews continues to grow.

Why? Each of these companies realizes that annual reviews are too expensive, too ineffective, and too time consuming—they take up two million hours a year at Deloitte!

In lieu of annual reviews, many companies are instead implementing “frequent, informal check-ins between managers and employees.”

This is a step in the right direction. But if the goal is to help employees learn, these “informal check-ins” are still problematic. It’s like Peter Block wrote in Stewardship:

“Performance appraisals are an instrument for social control…If the intent of the appraisal is learning, it is not going happen when the context of the dialogue is evaluation and judgment.”

What happens in the brain when we receive feedback

When humans perceive a threat, our “threat response” kicks in. Research shows that our brains can respond in the same way to “social threats” as they do to actual threats to our physical safety. And the average office has more social threats than it does free meeting pizza.

One of those threats is feedback. If feedback isn’t delivered skillfully, we go into fight or flight mode. Our emotional brain hijacks our ability to think rationally, so it’s very difficult to process the information effectively or do anything with it.

This observation, by the way, is the basis for executive coach David Rock’s SCARF model (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness):

Status: Feedback often comes from leaders and managers who occupy a position of higher status in the relationship. And when feedback comes from a peer or subordinate, you may interpret their behaviors as the temporary assumption of a higher status role.
Certainty: You may know little about the content of the feedback, particularly in an organization or a relationship where feedback is rarely offered. Even if you have a sense of what the conversation will be about, you can’t be certain about its specific content.
Autonomy: You may feel required to participate in the conversation, especially if a manager has initiated it. And the increasing prevalence of a “feedback-rich culture” (which I’ve helped to promote) may make you feel obligated to participate in a feedback conversation anytime anyone wants to have one. This makes your participation feel less like a choice.
Relatedness: As with status, when someone is providing feedback you may perceive them as temporarily assuming a more distant role, resulting in an diminished sense of personal connection or closeness.
Fairness: You may well view feedback as unfair, particularly if the feedback giver makes inaccurate assumptions about the motives behind your behavior (as they often do.)

So with SCARF in mind, here are three key things we need to change about how we “do” feedback in the workplace:

1. Create a feedback culture

In practice this means everyone (managers and employees alike) taking responsibility for giving each other feedback for the purpose of learning, developing and creating a sustainable business — every day. It also means taking responsibility for receiving feedback, i.e., not being a victim of the situation but being responsible for how you relate to it. Ask clarifying questions, or even give feedback on how that person gave feedback!

“We already know how to be good parents at work. The alternative… is something we are just learning about. Our difficulty… is that parenting — and its stronger cousin, patriarchy — is so deeply ingrained in our muscle memory and armature that we don’t even realise we are doing it.”
~ Peter Block, Stewardship

2. Develop a coaching leadership style

Again, this applies to everyone. Learning to give feedback in a coaching manner means unlearning all the parent-child behaviours that are so ingrained. When you give feedback in a coaching manner, you don’t have an agenda of trying to “fix them”. Instead, your outcome is for the collective good of the team and for that individual’s development. Crucially, you give the other person a choice — a choice about whether they are willing to have a feedback conversation, which is a choice about what they choose to do with the feedback. This is a novel idea in business but massively important. We all crave autonomy.

3. Stop using feedback as an instrument for social control

Both points 1 and 2 require us to think about feedback differently. It’s not a tool for social control — neuroscience shows us that when we try to give feedback in this context, it triggers our threat response and nobody wins. If your employees are in threat response mode, you can forget about them being able to think critically, solve problems, or be innovative. But when we see feedback as a gift and treat it (and people) with respect, it can do wonders.

For fantastic examples of “Deliberately Developmental Organizations”, read An Everyone Culture. You won’t be disappointed. And neither will your employees.