Psychologist interview: How to overcome fight-or-flight with feedback

We spoke to London-based Clinical Psychologist Dr Anna Janssen, for her perspective on fear of feedback, and how we can better manage it in our day-to-day lives.

You’re not alone if you feel a bit freaked out about the thought of having to get feedback at work (e.g. as part of your performance review), or expecting it to be bad, even if it turns out to be good.  

It’s simply how your brain is wired.

It doesn’t matter how sophisticated our technology and lifestyles have become, we’re still, on a very primal basis, designed to survive. Our brains fire off cortisol, a stress hormone, in response to anything that is associated with anxiety, threat and fear.

Fear of feedback is linked psychologically to when we feel threatened, which means we instinctively have a fight or flight response.

Difficult feedback, even once in your life, can be more powerful than the total sum of the positive feedback you've had. We tend not to remember the good stuff and instead remember the feedback that was upsetting.

That’s because your mind wants to protect you from danger and prime you to run away from it as if it was something in the forest that was about to eat you alive.  Your modern brain doesn’t discern between the fear of getting (negative) feedback and the fear of being eaten alive by a lion. Sad but true.

So to set your team (and yourself) up for feedback success, it helps to understand the psychology of feedback.

We spoke to London-based Clinical Psychologist Dr Anna Janssen, for her perspective on fear of feedback, and how we can help manage it in our day-to-day lives, so we can all set ourselves up for feedback success.

Dr Anna has published 20 articles in international peer-reviewed journals in psychology and health care. She has written several book chapters and presented her work at conferences world-wide.

Dr Anna Janssen
Kim: At what point in your life does fear of feedback really kick in?  

Dr Anna: Your fears come from "lookalike" experiences in the past and kick in, affecting how you feel now, at whatever point the contexts are similar.

Let’s imagine feedback at work next week is causing you a sense of fear and trepidation that makes you feel like you want to avoid it. That might be related back to something that feels similar to the past. For example, to something at school where there was an office involved e.g. going to the head teacher’s office to be told off, or perhaps an exam where you received some negative feedback on work that you’d written down.

Also, the relationship dynamic is important.  

For example, your boss or appraiser at work might be the closest version that you know from the lookalike situation in the past such as a teacher/ pupil relationship. So however that relationship dynamic used to work is likely to shape your expectation of what’s going to unfold in the similar relationship this time.

Kim: How can you overcome the effects of past feedback experiences to make new feedback feel less scary?

Dr Anna: In order to make sure your current experience of feedback isn’t unhelpfully influenced by past lookalikes, it’s important to think carefully about the context of this specific feedback situation, acknowledging how the present and past contexts are different.

So if it’s a performance review, recognise that it’s not a global piece of feedback about you as a whole person and your whole life.  It’s simply a perspective on how you’re going now, in this particular job, in this particular timeframe, and in these particular activities.

Fine tune your focus, thereby acknowledging that this context is very limited in scope and therefore limited in its threat to you. This way, worst case scenario, you didn’t do particularly well at these specific things in this defined context.  It doesn’t mean that you as a whole person are a failure.

So the more specific you can be, and the more you can own your position, and be specific about your role in the feedback process, the less scary it will be.

Kim: In our post on 10 ways to give better feedback we started with ensuring that the person receiving the feedback feels safe.  Why is feeling "safe" such a big deal in receiving feedback effectively?

Dr Anna: Optimising employees’ sense of psychological safety in feedback is key, otherwise we’re simply not receptive to hearing it.

Kim: So how can companies and managers optimise feedback to achieve a feeling of "safety" with their employees?

Dr Anna: To begin with, the company should talk openly about the experience of giving and receiving feedback before it starts. In other words, talk about "doing feedback".

And as the conversations happen, watch for whether there’s a global sense of fear and terror within your team or wider company environment about feedback.

What meaning do employees and teams attach to the notion of feedback? This can make a big difference to how you deliver feedback. Do employees think feedback is inconvenient, pointless, scary, valuable…? Don’t assume you know.

It may be that you first have to deal with the stranglehold of bad feedback experiences in the past, which could have caused significant psychological distress, and would mean your people will want to avoid it at all costs.  

As a manager, you might not think feedback is that bad, but if one person has had a particularly bad experience in the past, even if it was in another environment or context, they could have been really damaged by that so you need to be aware of that and be aware that there’s a reason why they may be feeling really upset.

Kim: What does "talking about doing feedback" mean in practical terms?

Dr Anna: If you feel there is a sense of avoidance or resistance to the idea of feedback, then before you launch your feedback process, simply gather people together to talk about how they think and feel about feedback.

For example, you could ask questions like:

- "What does feedback mean to you?"
- "What’s going on for you when you think about feedback?"
- "What types of feedback would you like to hear more of?"
- "When they think about feedback, what are they afraid of?"
- "What would make it easier to give and/or receive feedback?"

It’s nice for us as managers or appraisers to think that feedback is meant to help you rather than harm you, but going through a talking process first helps us to see beyond our own assumptions and become aware of how our teams are really feeling.  It also helps to normalise the subject of feedback and helps people who struggle with it to realise they are not alone.

Kim: So once you’ve talked about feedback as a team, what’s the next step?  

Dr Anna: Managers often have 1:1 meetings with the people in their teams. So in each 1:1 situation, start by talking about the fact you’re going to be providing feedback in this session.  

As a manager, your intention might be to make it helpful or interesting, but that might not be what the person you’re working with expects or assumes. But unless you ask, you won’t know what each other thinks, so talk about talking about feedback to begin with.  

Don’t forget that feedback is likely to mean different things for different people.

Ask people individually about their prior experience with feedback processes (rather than content). Then acknowledge that the past has happened, and it could have caused all sorts of implications, but what you’re going to be doing now is separate from those past experiences - even though they can’t be completely unrelated.

For example, you could ask questions like:

- "How have you found feedback processes in the past?"
- "What does it feel like to be in a feedback meeting?"
- "Where are we right now on the spectrum of your past experiences?"
- "What would make this session most manageable for you?"
- "If it’s scary, why is it scary? And how can we make this one different?"

If you’re about to give feedback to someone who hasn’t had any bad feedback experiences before, and especially if you have some difficult feedback to share with them, then it’s especially helpful for you both to know in advance where you’re each coming from.  

Kim: Some companies are full of high-performing teams and individuals, and rank people based on a model e.g. a bell curve. What’s the best way to give feedback to those high performers who still don’t make the top grade?

Dr Anna: As part of "doing feedback", you could normalise how the feedback process works in this organisation by explaining the structure or model that you adhere to.  

For example it might be that you explain that in this organisation we aim to give at least 50% feedback on ways to improve. It’s important to normalise the process in advance of giving the feedback itself in case the person receiving the feedback doesn’t understand that or isn’t aware of it.

Another example is, if there are grids or scoresheets, you might want to say in advance (if this is the case), you never give full marks because you believe there is always room for improvement - and that that’s normal. So if the score is out of five, and you’ve stated you never give fives, then a four is absolutely top drawer, and the person can feel great about that score.

Setting the scene in that way can help the person who has been given a score of three to feel safe to be curious about it and treat it as a learning experience, rather than being upset.  

Kim: If you’re giving someone feedback and it’s all positive, how can you say it with impact and help them sustain their high performance?

Dr Anna: It’s nice to give positive feedback as that’s a lovely thing to be able to do. But to avoid inadvertently encouraging the person to rest on their laurels or get complacent, think about asking how you or the company can help them maintain that level of performance.

"How come?" questions are good here. For example:

- "How come you have been able to achieve this level of performance?"  
- "You’ve achieved really well. What’s it taken to be able to do this?"

Unless we understand the factors that enabled us to do well, we can’t necessarily replicate them in the future.  

One way of helping someone recognise what they’ve done well, harness it and replicate it is to get them to discuss it with you, which can help them identify how they achieved it and enable them to consciously harness their tools and continue to use them in the future.  

Another option is to encourage them to mentor someone who needs help in the area that they’re doing well in, so they can teach it to someone else.  

Continuing to work with people where the feedback is good helps their ongoing development and reduces the risk of them falling off a cliff next time.  

Kim: If you’re the one receiving positive feedback, what can you do or say yourself to maximise what you get out of it?

Dr Anna: If you’re receiving positive feedback, don’t just say thanks and walk away.  

Again, ask "how come?" For example:

- "What difference will it make and in what context(s)?"
- "If I was to achieve that standard next time, what would I need to do?"  
- "When is it good enough?"  

Kim: Why is it important to discuss high performance vs what’s "good enough" with someone who is doing exceptionally well?

Dr Anna: It’s important to understand that if someone got great feedback but the process required them to work in ways that are unsustainable (e.g., unhealthy amounts of pressure, overtime or stress), then they don’t know what "good enough" is. They won’t keep it up if the process to get there was harmful to their wellbeing or to the detriment of other responsibilities.

So you want to talk about whether what they’ve achieved is manageable next time and do they want to continue to work in this way? What was the compromise they had to make to be able to achieve what they did to that standard?

Kim: In the spirit of being "good enough", this sounds like a perfect place to wrap up the chat. Thanks so much Dr Anna!

Dr Anna: My pleasure - great to speak!