“Can I see you in my office please?” Most of us would experience a sinking feeling if we heard those words from our manager. That sinking feeling actually comes from our brains – it’s a threat response.
There is good neurological evidence that most of us (and our children) want to flee or fight back if we receive unsolicited feedback on our performance. Most of us believe we are pretty smart, work hard, and are talented in several areas.
When we receive unsolicited feedback, we feel a strong threat to our status, our security, and our relationship to the person who is giving us the feedback.
Yet in today’s fast changing world, we need to be able to learn and improve quickly. Getting feedback from others is the most efficient way to do that.
How Feedback Works
In 2016, the NeuroLeadership Institute spent a whole year studying how to make feedback more reliably successful. They started by asking, “What happens in the brain when feedback works?”
They defined quality feedback as information that leads to positive behaviour change.
Why do our brains feel a threat so easily? Well, only 60,000 years ago our ancestors left Africa and began to spread around the world. For the next 48,000 years, our ancestors survived by hunting and gathering and fighting competitors. Only 12,000 years ago, did we begin to domesticate plants and animals and live in permanent settlements. Only about 500 years ago did we start seeking scientific knowledge and a mere 250 years ago did we begin to change from making things by hand to using manufacturing processes.
Each of us is alive today because our ancestors were able to flee or fight physical threats, and to socialize successfully with members of their tribe. According to brain scientists, the structure of our brains has not changed much at all in 60,000 years.
Today, the way our brains interact socially can be understood best by using the SCARF model which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.
The concept was introduced by Dr David Rock in 2008 and brings together important discoveries from neuroscience.
Status is about your relative importance to others, your seniority, or pecking order. Winning a race, a card game, or an argument probably feels good because of the perception of increased status and the resulting reward circuitry being activated in your brain. Being left out of a social activity or being criticized feels like a drop in status. It lights up our threat response in the same regions of the brain as physical pain.
Status threat: Being told of our weaknesses; thinking we look bad
Status reward: Being told of our strengths; getting better
Certainty is about being able to predict what is going to happen next. Even a small amount of uncertainty causes us to lose focus. Notice how you feel when you think somebody is not telling you the whole truth or is changing something you previously agreed upon.
Larger uncertainties, like not knowing your boss’s expectations or feeling that your job might not be secure, are really upsetting.
Certainty threat: Not knowing what an outcome will be; ambiguity
Certainty rewards: Knowing what’s about to come; feeling well informed
Autonomy is when we tend to seek control to create our own outcomes. People who feel autonomous experience greater self-esteem and emotional stability, as well as the belief in one’s own ability to succeed.
Autonomy threat: Being told what to do
Autonomy reward: Having choices in what to do. Feeling trusted to make a good choice
Relatedness is about our need for a sense of belonging. Whether we are included within a group or excluded from it has deep roots in survival, and correlates directly to our well-being and performance.
Relatedness threat: Feeling rejected by others
Relatedness reward: Feeling accepted by others
Fairness – we are sensitive to how appropriately we are treated. This is the need for fairness. When we experience unfairness – for example, when one person receives a lower reward than someone else for completing the same task – the brain processes the experience as painful.
Fairness threat: Having one’s contribution misinterpreted or ignored
Fairness reward: Having one’s contribution recognized
NLI’s research found it is not that people dislike receiving feedback; rather, they dislike having their status threatened. Likewise, people don’t dislike giving feedback; rather, they dislike upsetting other people.
Employees do like learning, and managers do like coaching people. If feedback could be provided without triggering the threat response, it could occur far more often.