What we hear inevitably causes emotional reactions because it’s our emotions that make us who we are. This is why I’ve long grappled with the false notion that work should be dominated by rationalism, objectivity, and results largely free of emotions. Today, organizations with ‘soul’, a.k.a. emotions, are the ones most impacting and enriching the everyday work-life of their employees and customers. They’re also the ones topping the list of best places to work.
Before exploring the issue of handling tough feedback, let me ask a few key questions: Do you ever find yourself emotionally overwhelmed at work? Does criticism press your hot buttons? Do your responses to colleagues or bosses sound more like they’re coming from a child, rather than the adult you really are? Truthfully answering these questions will reveal why we, as much as we try, cannot disconnect ourselves from our emotions.
The psychological reality of work-life
In her bestseller The Man Who Mistook His Job for His Life, author and psychotherapist Naomi Shragai says: “The truth is that we all bring our messy emotional lives with us wherever we go, including to work. Alongside our skills, dedication, and ambition, we bring to the office our ‘inner lives’ – our sensitivities, misperceptions, fears, and insecurities – the strong emotions that at times hijack us. This includes our unconscious, where we bury the experiences from our early life that we find too painful or uncomfortable to face. Our families, particularly our earliest relationships, reside deep in our minds, and, whether we are aware of it or not, find their way into all our subsequent relationships, including those at work.”
Through my years in academics and in corporate life, I’ve met many who find themselves duplicating at work the same undesirable family patterns from their past. So why you may ask, are they repeating the same dynamics that make them so unhappy? The answer simply is that the draw towards familiar territory is strong, and its power often overtakes their conscious desires. Yet, no growth can be experienced in that familiar zone.
We’re most prone to bring up the familiar patterns of our past when we receive tough feedback. The emotional chaos and reactions we find ourselves grappling with, are the result. Deconstructing our emotional reactions will tune down the intensity of our feelings and help in seeing things as they really are. Besides opening ourselves to constructive feedback and being more willing to hear alternative approaches.
All of us face a tsunami of feedback right from our early days. This feedback in turn has its consequences upon us as givers and receivers. Receiving feedback is hard while processing it towards growth is even harder. Most people rank feedback amongst their most difficult conversations, irrespective of gender, business type, or seniority. Ironically, when giving feedback we notice that the receiver isn’t good at receiving it. Conversely, when receiving feedback, the giver isn’t good at giving it.
It’s not about what’s said, but what’s heard
The concept of feedback came into the spotlight post World War II, in the context of people and performance management. It centered around feeding corrective information back to the point of origin, a.k.a. the employee, for better performance. Here’s where the rubber met the road and sparks began to fly.
According to a Globoforce survey, 51% of respondents said that their performance reviews were unfair or inaccurate, while one in four employees dreaded their performance reviews. Even more concerning is another survey wherein 63% of executives revealed that their biggest challenge to effective performance management, was that their managers lacked the courage and ability to have difficult feedback discussions.
Globally, organizations spend billions of dollars training managers on how to give more effective feedback. When that doesn’t work, they teach them to push harder. This pushes results even further, because the receivers are in control of what they absorb or don’t, how they process what’s being heard, and their decision to act upon it, or not.
Another reason why feedback conversations are challenging is that they sit at the crossroads of our desire to learn and our need for being loved, accepted, and respected. Feedback signals to our brain that we’re not quite ok. Yet, ’Nothing impacts the learning culture of an organization more than the skill with which its executive team receives feedback,’ say authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, in their book Thanks for the Feedback.
All feedback activates or triggers different sets of emotional reactions and responses from us. Negative emotions generated by hard feedback are obstacles, as they keep us from skilfully engaging in the conversation. They often result in a ‘shift-in-loci’ syndrome; where the criticism seems less about the project or situation at hand, and more about ‘who I am as a person.’ It also brings up our undesirable family patterns from the past. In parallel, hard feedback functions as an internal GPS system, which if handled correctly, leads us to locate the source of the emotion, helps us to manage our reactions calmly, and engage in the feedback process with skill.
Managing the emotions that trigger provoke
Here are some tried and tested pointers that have enabled me to manage my emotions, while receiving hard feedback over the years.
1. Hear, but also listen
Hearing and listening are not the same things. Listen for the content of what’s being said. Take notes if you must. Evaluate and sort out objective facts from personal opinions. Separate tonality of delivery from the accuracy of feedback. Sometimes, negative feedback may be delivered badly but maybe accurate in content. Consider the intent of the feedback. Was it for your growth or the betterment of the project? Was it to satisfy the ego, or get attention?
All throughout, remember that both your thinking brain and feeling brain are at work. Observe, but do not react to the emotions you’re experiencing. Making sense of your reactions, will lessen the intensity of your feelings and help you make better decisions.
2. Watch for unconscious defense mechanisms
Most of us function between two realities at the workplace. The external one motivates us to achieve, succeed, and get rewarded financially. The internal one is the unconscious collection of repressed memories, unfulfilled desires, and broken expectations from our past. Our secret agenda is to hide these while working on our external agenda. But they still form part of our psychological makeup, viz. our identity, insecurities, and misperceptions. They drive our defense mechanisms.
We’re neurologically hardwired to listen defensively, especially when feedback is inaccurate or factually wrong. Even as the feedback is being given, we tend to listen from our pre-programmed past, to justify our actions, or prove the giver wrong.
It’s critical to listen to feedback intentionally, without planning our reply in the subconscious. Authentically acknowledging what’s been said and waiting until the giver has finished, works wonders. Politely seek clarification on certain areas if you need to.
3. Taking time out, allows you more time in
When our attempts to avoid bad feelings create more problems than they resolve, it’s wise to ask for time; to sort out things that need fixing and to sort out our emotions. This prevents the situation from getting out of control; thereby avoiding the resultant shame, blame, guilt, or regret.
Unless the negative feedback concerns something that is right-on-target and resolvable, asking for time to consider has several benefits. It restores calm to the immediate situation and signals respect for the giver and their feedback. Remember the giver experiences the same unpleasant emotions speaking, as you do while listening.
4. The greater good is always the goal
Being overcome by strong feelings might mean that your past has taken over your present. Yet it’s not only your emotions that influence the way you receive hard feedback but you can often be led by the imagined scenarios that these emotions create.
Let’s not forget that the goal of every business is primarily to turn a profit. Amidst the psychological melting pot that the office can become, with the smorgasbord of hidden emotions at play, focusing on the business of business should be our primary goal.
When you bring the common good and growth of your co-workers to the fore, while intentionally looking for behavior drivers within, you’ll find it easier to recover from derailed emotions. Most importantly, people who previously seemed hard to work with, begin to appear amiable.
It’s when we overcome strong and uncomfortable feelings while distinguishing their source, that we summon up the courage, determination, and imagination to create the results we’ve committed ourselves to. In the end, our spirits only want that there be flying. As to how this is achieved, is only a minor detail.
To conclude, here’s one of my favorite shame researchers brilliantly summing up a core practice we can all learn from while receiving feedback:
“Another thing I repeat to myself, particularly when I’m sitting across from, or with, someone who does not have great feedback delivery skills, is “There’s something valuable here, there’s something valuable here.”
~ Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
“If you’re going to say what you want to say, you’re going to hear what you don’t want to hear.”~ Roberto Bolaño, The Insufferable Gaucho
About Dr. Latha Poonamallee:
A professor, researcher, tech entrepreneur, Fulbright Fellow, and thought leader on Management and Social Justice, Dr. Latha Poonamallee is Associate Professor, Chair of the Faculty of Management, and University Fellow at The New School in New York City. She is Co-Founder and CEO of In-Med Prognostics Inc., the first company to provide ethnicity-specific neuro assessment reports, biomarkers, and surrogate endpoints relevant to all people, everywhere, and is the author of Expansive Leadership: Cultivating Mindfulness to Lead Self and Others in a Changing World: A 28 day Program.