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Feedback is an essential tool in the workplace. It helps employees understand how they're performing, how they can grow professionally, and identify key areas for improvement.
But what happens when feedback doesn't land as intended? Despite a manager's best efforts to communicate effectively, feedback can often be received differently than expected, leading to confusion, frustration, and even conflicts.
So, who's the culprit behind this breakdown in communication? It turns out there might be a common factor between the world of physics and feedback—the refractive index. Just as light bends and refracts when it passes through different mediums, feedback can bend and distort when it enters the complex landscape of the human mind.
Basically, feedback can be subject to a "refractive index" of sorts, causing it to be received in ways that may not align with the giver’s intentions.
Let’s look at the science behind this phenomenon, the various ways feedback can be received in your organization, and some practical strategies to help you ensure that your employees receive feedback just as intended by managers.
The dynamics behind giving and receiving feedback
Giving and receiving feedback is a complex interpersonal dynamic that involves both communication and emotional intelligence. To be effective, feedback should be delivered in a way that is constructive, specific, and respectful while also being received in a way that is unprejudiced and non-defensive.
Even if feedback is shared with the best of intentions, it can be challenging to receive objectively. Our perception of feedback is often refracted by a range of factors that affect how we interpret and respond to it. This is what we like to call the feedback refractive index.
How we receive feedback may be distorted and influenced by various factors, such as:
- Insecurities: Insecurities can make people more sensitive to criticism, causing them to take feedback personally and feel attacked. They may also struggle to accept constructive criticism and may become defensive or dismissive of the feedback given.
- Emotional triggers: If the feedback giver says something that triggers an emotional response, such as anger or defensiveness, the receiver may not be able to hear or process the feedback fully.
- Cognitive distortions: Our thinking patterns affect the way we receive feedback as well. If the receiver is prone to cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing, they may be more likely to interpret feedback in an extreme way.
- Frustrations: If we are feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, we may be less open to hearing feedback, or we may take it more negatively than we would if we were in a more positive frame of mind.
- Self-doubt: Finally, our level of self-doubt can alter our perception of feedback. If we lack confidence in our abilities, we may be more likely to take feedback as a sign of our own incompetence rather than an opportunity to learn and grow.
We’re hardwired to perceive criticism as a threat
There’s some sociological truth to the fear and anxiety we associate with feedback that causes us to perceive criticism as a threat. In the course of our evolutionary past, threats to our social status or acceptance by our own kind could have had life-or-death consequences. This may be one of the reasons why we are more likely to take critical feedback personally or let it affect our peace of mind.
Cognitive biases can also play a role in how we perceive and remember feedback. For example, individuals prone to the self-enhancement bias tend to remember positive feedback more accurately than negative feedback and may even exaggerate it in their memory. On the other hand, those prone to a negativity bias are more likely to remember negative feedback and may exaggerate its impact. These biases can distort our perception of feedback and make it more difficult to assess our strengths and weaknesses accurately.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
— Winston Churchill
The seven archetypes of feedback receivers
Every individual has their own unique set of personality traits and experiences that influence how they receive feedback. Some may be more open-minded and receptive to feedback, while others may be defensive or resistant to change. Here are seven different types of feedback receivers you’re likely to come across:
1. The Non-committals
The non-committal feedback receiver is reluctant and unwilling to make a firm commitment to the feedback they receive. They do not give any clear indication of their opinion or feelings. Instead, they may give vague or neutral responses, such as "okay" or "thanks for letting me know," without providing any real indication of whether they found the feedback useful or not.
Non-committals may also avoid giving a direct response or taking any action based on the feedback they receive. As a result, it can be difficult to gauge their level of engagement and to know whether the feedback has been effectively received and incorporated. This behavior can be frustrating for others who are trying to work with them, as it can create uncertainty and make it difficult to move forward on a project.
When providing feedback to non-committal receivers, HR leaders can train managers to aim to ask open-ended questions to encourage discussion and further reflection. For example, "What aspects of the feedback do you agree with or disagree with?" or "How do you plan to apply this feedback in your work going forward?".
Managers can also provide actionable feedback with clear steps or goals to help the receiver understand how they can improve and feel more confident in their ability to take action.
2. The Deflectors
They are defined by their tendency to minimize or deflect criticism rather than taking it seriously. Deflectors may focus on external factors and blame others or the circumstances instead of examining their own behavior or performance. They may also downplay the significance of feedback or make excuses for their actions, rather than taking responsibility and making the necessary changes.
Their lack of accountability may hinder their ability to evaluate their performance or make corrections objectively. However, deflectors may also be more resilient and less likely to be emotionally affected by criticism, which can be an asset in certain situations.
To get the deflectors to respond, managers can provide specific and objective examples of the behavior or performance that needs improvement rather than making generalizations or assigning blame. They can also be encouraged to take ownership of their performance and to develop a plan for improvement that focuses on specific, measurable goals.
“As a business owner, I’ve found that knowing how to share feedback is as crucial as receiving it. Handling difficult feedback receivers is an essential skill for managers and owners. It involves approaching each person with empathy and understanding. By listening to their concerns and perspectives, we can help them overcome resistance and foster a culture of continuous improvement.”
— Shawn Stack, Business Owner And CEO
3. The Non-demarcators
The non-demarcators may have a strong sense of personal investment in their work and may see feedback as a reflection of their value as a person rather than just their performance in a given task. This causes them to experience feelings of self-doubt or even shame when receiving negative feedback. They may have a tendency to personalize feedback, interpreting it as a reflection of their character or abilities rather than simply a critique of their work.
While emotional investment in work is a positive trait, it can negatively affect the non-demarcators—the fear of the emotional impact of feedback may also deter them from seeking out feedback. However, despite their emotional responses, they are likely to act on the feedback in order to grow as a result of this personal and emotional investment.
They are most likely to respond to feedback that is separated from their identity or self-worth. It helps to emphasize that the feedback is not a personal attack but rather a means to improve performance. Specific examples and actionable steps for improvement help non-demarcators understand how they can improve without feeling like their character is being attacked.
“In any field, it's a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than as a personal attack.”
— Chris Hadfield, a Canadian Astronaut
4. The Reflective Listeners
The reflective listener is open to feedback, actively seeks it out, and uses it to improve themselves. They are introspective, have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to acknowledge and address areas for improvement. They also understand the impact they have on others and value the insights and perspectives of others.
They are self-aware and this self-awareness is a critical factor of their confidence and creativity. They are willing to ask questions, seek clarification, and actively engage with feedback to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their impact on others. They are also willing to experiment with new approaches or behaviors and seek out ongoing feedback to track their progress.
They benefit from specific and actionable feedback in which their strengths and weaknesses are highlighted. They can be encouraged to continue seeking feedback from a variety of sources and to use that feedback to set specific goals for improvement. Praising and recognizing the efforts and progress they made reinforced their commitment to personal growth and development.
“An open-minded person running a business might catch a problem faster than a closed-minded person. And when they identify a problem, they can fix it much faster.”
— Adeo Ressi, CEO of The Founder Institute
5. The Goal-focused Listeners
Goal-focused listeners are action-oriented and results-driven. They are individuals who are highly motivated to take action and achieve their goals, and they are willing to put in the effort required to make things happen. They are often highly organized and efficient, with a clear sense of purpose and direction.
While they may be highly focused on results, they may lack the personal growth or self-reflection that drives the reflective listener. Goal-focused listeners are often driven by a desire to accomplish specific tasks or achieve specific outcomes, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
HR leaders can ensure that managers of such individuals provide specific feedback that is tied to achieving their goals, where the impact of their behavior on others is highlighted. They benefit from feedback that is framed to highlight how it can help them achieve their desired outcomes. Providing opportunities for learning and development helps goal-focused listeners see the value in self-reflection as a means to personal development.
6. The Superficial Listeners
Superficial listeners may be quick to respond to feedback and make immediate changes, but they may struggle to make fundamental or lasting changes to their behavior or performance. They may be more focused on surface-level changes, such as modifying their behavior or habits to please others or achieve short-term goals, rather than engaging in deeper introspection or personal growth.
They may also be more susceptible to external validation and may prioritize the opinions of others over their own values or beliefs. They may be more concerned with maintaining a certain image or reputation rather than genuinely striving for personal growth or improvement. As a result, they are more likely to repeat past mistakes or fall back into old patterns.
HR leaders can train managers of superficial listeners to give specific and concrete feedback that is directly related to the behaviors or actions they want to see changed. Managers can also provide clear expectations and offer support and resources for the receiver to develop deeper self-awareness and facilitate long-term change.
7. The Late Responders
The late responder struggles to make changes or improvements even when they acknowledge the need for them. This may be due to either positive or negative factors. In the case of the former, they may prefer a thoughtful, analytical approach to feedback. They may be cautious and deliberate and may take longer to make decisions or implement changes.
On the other hand, they may also struggle with motivation or feel overwhelmed by the recommended changes. They may have a fear of failure or may struggle with self-doubt or indecision, making it difficult for them to take action even when they know it is necessary.
They benefit from actionable feedback, in which the required changes are broken down into smaller, more manageable steps. Regular check-ins and follow-ups can also be helpful in keeping the late responder accountable and motivated. Providing resources or support to address any underlying issues, such as fear or overwhelm, can help facilitate progress.
“My strategy for dealing with feedback receivers who act on feedback for a while but revert back to their old ways or those who delay acting on their feedback is to provide continuous feedback. Continuous feedback is a less intimidating, more collaborative process that gives employees immediate feedback on their work. It creates a sense of urgency to improve since employees know more feedback is coming soon. The result is rapid improvement as they are provided achievable short-term goals to work toward on a regular basis.”
— Erin Ouellette, Product Manager at COGZ Systems
Taking it all in good faith
Receiving feedback can be a tricky process. It’s easy for the intentions behind your message to get distorted upon interpretation as a result of the receiver’s personal character traits. And this can make way for a hoard of unnecessary misunderstandings, resentments, conflicts, and delays.
Feedback is not always easy to hear, but it can be the difference between stagnation and progress, mediocrity and excellence, and failure and success. Encouraging and facilitating employees to embrace feedback with an open mind and a willingness to learn is the first step toward personal development.
“Make feedback normal. Not a performance review.”
— Ed Batista