Feedback is a word that causes many to cringe internally. The strange thing is that it’s meant to be a resource for improvement, rather than a source of discomfort.
The main issue is that the ambiguity surrounding the word easily gives way to assumptions. If your team lead comes to your desk and says, “I want to give you some feedback on your last presentation,” what is the first thought that goes through your mind?
While feedback can also be positive, when we hear those words we almost always assume some harsh criticism will follow. There are a few reasons for this.
One is our brain’s natural negativity bias. We are hardwired to remember negative experiences over positive ones. In his book, Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, explains:
“The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. By shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, this circuit improves the animal’s odds of living long enough to reproduce.”
While it may not signal a critical danger, psychologists have found that negativity bias also comes into play when we receive feedback. Even if coupled with positive feedback and encouragement, we have a natural tendency to focus on the negative.
The interesting thing is that it’s not just the act of giving and receiving feedback that can trigger these kinds of reactions. The word itself, though seemingly harmless, can automatically elicit negative associations. In a study conducted by the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California, researchers found that this phenomenon, known as ‘semantic prosody’, can actually have a major impact on our subconscious. David Hauser, a doctoral candidate in the U-M Department of Psychology explained:
"Some words tend to occur in a certain context and that context bleeds into the word's meaning. Those same words can frame our judgment."
To find out the impact that this phenomenon can have they tested the seemingly synonymous words “produce” and “cause”. They found that although the word “cause” is not directly linked to a negative connotation, because it is often followed by words like "death," "problems," "pain," "cancer," "harm" or "disease," in a medical context, respondents were more likely to associate it with a negative outcome.
Together, negativity bias and semantic prosody are wreaking havoc on our need to grow and develop in the workplace. But are there ways to trick our brains into getting comfortable with feedback?
Changing up the wording
For example, once CEO was finding it hard to get feedback from her board. Every time she'd ask for it silence would follow. After failing to make any headway, she decided to change it up a bit and ask for “advice” instead of feedback. She found that just by making this small change people automatically started sharing their thoughts and opinions.
So what's the difference between "feedback" and "advice"? While synonymous with asking for feedback, the word “advice” is often much less intimidating as there’s a clear intent behind it. If you ask for advice, you’re directly asking if the person can give you suggestions to help you improve.
Feedback, on the other hand, gives the other person a choice between positive and constructive, often steering people towards sharing overly positive feedback. Popular feedback tactics, such as the feedback sandwich, can sometimes lead constructive feedback to be completely diluted by the praise being given. The recipient then leaves thinking there's nothing that could be improved on and continues to follow the same pattern.
Similarly, in an article by INC contributor Jessica Stillman, she tackles the difficult task of sharing constructive feedback with people. She suggests that simply by adding the word “yet” you can change the way a person takes in your feedback. For example, saying, “You’re not ready to take on your first sales call yet,” signals to the person that it’s not that they’re simply not adept to take on a certain task, but by implementing the following improvements they’ll be ready to take this on in the future.
Praise & Tip
Working to help people give more frequent and effective feedback, we’ve noticed the struggle managers, peers and especially reports often face when sharing or asking for feedback. To tackle the “f-word” bias in the workplace we began prompting our users to share either “praise” or a “tip”.
Rephrasing feedback in this way cuts out the ambiguity, facilitating a clearer exchange between both sides. For feedback sharers, it curbs the tendency to drown out constructive with positive feedback. People who receive feedback, get a clear understanding of the intention of the person they receive it from and what it’s meant for.
If people in your workplace have the tendency to run and hide when they hear the word “feedback”, it may be time to try changing up your word choice. Feedback doesn’t have to be scary.