Nov 17, 2022

How to give brain friendly feedback

We’ve been hard at work designing our Leadership Unleashed programme (sign up for dates in Jan here if you’re into it 👀), and a lot of our conversations have involved talking about feedback. In particular, how fundamental feedback is as a skill for effective leadership and to get the best out of high performing teams… as well the why, when, what, and how of doing it right. Here’s a little sneak peak on our workings…

When you give corrective* feedback, it almost always elicits a threat response. That means, neuroscientifically, that the recipient goes into freeze, flight or fight mode. Our amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for identifying threats and reacting to them) has been hijacked and our ability to use our cerebral cortex to process things calmly and rationally is taken away from us, in an instant.  This means that the nodding of the other person's head and the “ok, I understand,” could be genuine, or it could be the masked face of someone experiencing a threat response. And that is potentially just the first face of that response… 

Consider this from the perspective of the person receiving the feedback.  

Hearing something that is corrective, is centred in being judged, assessed or confronted to a certain degree, potentially with information you’d otherwise rather have avoided hearing. Therefore, as leaders, how we deliver the message is critical. 

In order to ensure we are listened to, heard, understood and that what we are saying is acted upon, we need to ensure that we are taking the effects of our threat responses seriously. In order to do that, we need to understand that as individuals we all have certain interpersonal needs. These can be bucketed into 5 different groups, or ‘domains’, from a neuroscientific perspective: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relationship and Fairness (Rock). Each of us will ‘need’ these in different priorities but we all have these needs.

Status: Our status is about where you feel you are in the pecking order and whether you compare favourably to others. You need to consider how someone perceives their status all the time, not just when delivering feedback. It isn’t only people who are senior that have a need for status, often people who have been in businesses ‘longer’ or who are ‘specialists’ may have a stronger need for status than the person delivering the feedback. 

Certainty: This is about our need to predict the future and reduce ambiguity. In a fast-changing environment, it’s very easy for people to begin to feel uncertain about the future. When we're uncertain of something, the orbital frontal cortex of our brains starts to work overtime as it attempts to make sense of the unknown. The what’s coming fear: when someone says ‘can I give you some feedback?’ even if you have a sense of what the conversation will be about, you can’t be certain about its specific content.

Autonomy: This is our need to have influence and make our own choices. You may feel forced into the conversation and be caught off guard. Just not choosing if/when to have the conversation can make your participation in it feel less like a choice. Often just asking someone how they thought something went first, enables people to have additional autonomy.

Relatedness: Our need to feel that we belong and to bond with those in our group. When we connect with others, our brains release the hormone oxytocin (also known as the "love hormone"). The more oxytocin that's released, the more connected we feel. On the flip side, a lack of relatedness can leave us feeling isolated and lonely. Both receiving and giving feedback can threaten relatedness. 

Fairness: All about our need to be treated fairly & justly. You may well view feedback as unfair, particularly if the feedback giver makes assumptions about the motives behind your behaviour (as they often do). When someone believes something to be unfair, it will activate their insular cortex – the region of the brain that is linked to disgust. This results in a powerful threat response. Minimise the impact of this by being open and honest with the person about what's going on, and why. Explaining the ‘why’ clearly is so important to minimise threat responses as they relate to fairness. 

So with all of this stuff, and our reasons as to why we may respond the way we do (as humans, not as leaders or employees) we need to actually be making feedback more brain friendly. If our defences help us to survive by protecting us from threats, our strengths help us to thrive.

Check out this animation on the SCARF model for more theory on the matter, do a free assessment to understand your most ‘important’ domains and join us in our next Leadership Unleashed development programme starting January 24th  if you’re dead set on becoming the ultimate feedback pro.

*This is often called negative, developmental or constructive feedback. But we see all feedback as developmental and constructive even if positive and no feedback in itself is negative - just how we give it can be. 

Rock, David. “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.” NeuroLeadershipjournal, 2008, Accessed 16 November 2022.

Written by Founder @ Unleashed.Company Anouk Agussol.

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