Giving feedback can be uncomfortable. So much so, that many of us lean towards avoiding it altogether.
When leadership development company Zenger Folkman conducted a survey of over 7,000 managers, 44% of them said that providing critical feedback was difficult or stressful. In another survey by the same team, 21% of respondents reported that they avoided it completely.
This isn’t a situation that’s unique to leaders. Whether we’re concerned about overstepping boundaries or about causing offence, many of us avoid offering the constructive feedback people need to do their best work.
Why We Avoid Giving Feedback
Here are some of the reasons why giving constructive criticism as feedback to coworkers can be an anxiety-inducing experience.
The Social Threat
According to the Neuro Leadership Institute, one major reason for this stress response is that critical feedback represents a social threat. As they explain: “It’s a vestige of how survival has largely depended on appeasing group members. Among our ancestors, eviction from the group led to a dangerous, isolated existence in the wild.” Part of the stress surrounding feedback is panic about doing something that feels fundamentally anti-social and might lead to reprisals.
The social fear relating to one’s place in a group goes both ways. The giver of feedback doesn’t want to be exiled from the group for creating a hostile environment and the receiver doesn’t want to feel their place in the group is under threat.
It’s not only between the giver and receiver but your wider team and organization. You might be concerned that pointing out areas for improvement in someone’s work might upset a team dynamic.
This was a situation CEO Kim Scott once found herself in. In a talk for Stanford University, she explains that one of the most painful instances in her career arose because she decided against sharing critical project feedback with a team member not only because she liked him but because his popularity with her team made her worry about what they would think of her. The messy situation culminated in the employee leaving the company, completely humiliated.
Fear of Confrontation
Closely related to this social panic is the fear of how someone might react. A Johns Hopkins University self-evaluation form (see more below) for supervisors states that “Fear of how an employee will respond to feedback is one of the top reasons managers avoid or delay giving feedback.”
This isn’t surprising: if we subconsciously interpret feedback as an attack, it’s logical to expect that someone will retaliate in kind. This is reinforced by our own firsthand knowledge of how unpleasant receiving negative feedback can be and how natural it feels to respond defensively. So, many people avoid offering constructive feedback out of a need to avoid conflict.
Even if someone doesn’t push back, there’s always the possibility of hurting their feelings to worry about. Many people avoid emotionally charged situations because they fear that things will become awkward or uncomfortable. Particularly empathetic people would be hesitant to offer constructive feedback due to the personal cost of experiencing the recipient’s emotions.
Offering critical honest feedback can feel unkind. The potential emotional impact might clash with your view of yourself or with your moral compass. People often avoid honest conversations because they believe the need to be honest conflicts with the need to be benevolent.
This need to be compassionate leads to a destructive tendency that Scott, author of Radical Candor, dubbed “ruinous empathy”. We prioritize someone’s immediate feelings over their long-term well-being. We choose not to tell them something that’s potentially hard to hear to protect their short-term feelings, even if the truth could really benefit them and save them from harm in the future.
Status Quo Bias
We’re hard-wired to want to keep things the same and to see any change as a potential loss, even if it could really improve things. This can be explained by a cognitive bias known as “the status quo bias”. That’s why we often persevere with a suboptimal situation when there are solutions we could implement.
If what someone is doing is adequate (but not great), it’s really tempting to keep things as they are rather than risk making matters worse by asking them to make changes. You might also fear the consequences of discouraging or demotivating them.
Challenging Assumptions About Feedback
Becoming more comfortable with giving critical feedback involves challenging your assumptions about the process.
Firstly, it’s important to remind yourself that when given for the right reasons (or received, for that matter), constructive feedback isn’t an attack. While it might be uncomfortable in the moment, it’s highly beneficial in the long term. It helps people grow, improve, and avoid preventable failures in future.
Constructive feedback is also a necessary part of effective collaboration. If you’re not able to speak candidly, the quality of the work will suffer. That could have consequences for your team (or even the wider organization) that are far more serious than some ruffled feathers.
The good news is that whoever you’re giving feedback to is probably more eager to make those improvements than you might think. The American Psychological Association found that people consistently underestimate how keen others are to receive constructive feedback. While our first instinct might be to shy away from apparent criticism many do genuinely want to improve and avoid making the same mistakes in future.
We also seem to inaccurately predict people’s reactions to feedback most of the time. Studies by Experimental Psychology Journal found that people overestimated how negatively someone would respond to honest feedback. As the academics explain: “focusing on honesty … is more pleasurable, socially connecting, and does less relational harm than individuals expect.”
Finally, useful feedback can just as easily motivate people, rather than demotivating them. Gallup found that people who had recently received meaningful feedback were almost 4 times more likely to be engaged with their work than people who hadn’t. When people know exactly what it is they need to do to improve, (and that the people around them are there to help them make those improvements) they’re empowered to act.
How to Make Feedback Feel More Comfortable
As with developing any skill, the best way to become more comfortable with giving feedback is to do it more often and with intent. That way, you can simultaneously challenge your assumptions and hone your technique. People will also learn to expect constructive feedback from you, meaning they’ll be more prepared and (hopefully) more receptive.
Here are some specific strategies you can use to make it as smooth as possible:
- Make it expected: Research shows that giving unasked-for feedback was as stressful as receiving unexpected feedback. Whether this means regular feedback sessions, or putting it in a calendar (not too far to create anxiety) can soften any ego blows.
- Be clear about your intentions: Remind yourself why you’re giving someone feedback (to improve the work, to help them, etc.) and make sure you share those intentions with the person – research has shown that verbally stating your intentions can significantly improve how someone receives constructive feedback.
- Consider different outcomes: Writing for the Harvard Business Review, executive coach Melody Wilding advises using the worst-case/best-case/most likely tool when predicting someone’s reaction to feedback. Consider how you’d deal with the worst and best-case scenarios, then remind yourself that their response will most likely be somewhere in the middle.
- Be timely: If you need to give someone some feedback, do it as soon as possible. That increases the likelihood that it will be relevant and actionable for them. It also means you’re not agonizing over it for an extended period.
- Be clear: Unclear feedback can make the feedback process more difficult and frustrating for everyone. Follow our tips for avoiding misinterpretations to ensure it’s as smooth as possible.
Don’t Fear Giving Feedback
From deep-seated worries about alienating people to more practical concerns about discouraging them, there are plenty of reasons why you might bite your tongue when it comes time to offer someone some constructive feedback. However, meaningful feedback is an essential part of effective collaboration, achieving optimal results, and enabling people to hone their skills.
Getting more comfortable with feedback involves challenging your assumptions about how someone else might react and reminding yourself of the positive impact it can have. You can also work on your delivery to make sure the act of feeding back is as frictionless as possible for everyone involved.
The more often you offer constructive feedback, the more natural it will feel.
Johns Hopkins has a great evaluation form to help you self-evaluate why you avoid giving feedback with a discussion on each point. Check it out!