The Data Is In: Your Organization Should Be Asking for Feedback

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Authored by

NLI Staff

Think back to your last feedback conversation at work — how did it go?

Chances are, you and your partner felt uneasy, maybe even threatened. The reason is hardly a mystery. Feedback conversations as they exist today activate a deep-seated threat response in the human brain. Even if it’s just a chat, our brains want us to flee.

According to a recent article in the NeuroLeadership Journal, research may be able to fix this broken aspect of professional life.

In a study led by NYU psychologist and NLI senior scientist Tessa West, 62 participants at a major consultancy engaged in a mock one-on-one negotiation over the price of a biotechnology plant. Then they gave each other feedback on the other’s performance. Heart rate monitors listened all the while.

In follow-up analyses, West and her colleague, fellow NYU psychologist Kate Thorson, discovered that giving feedback and receiving feedback were equally anxiety-producing. This was big news: It signaled managers, too, feel the pain of criticism.

Even bigger news, however, was that people who responded to a request for feedback — rather than give feedback unprompted, as per typical conversations — experienced significantly lower heart rate reactivity and reported feeling much less anxious.

According to West, asking for feedback is better for long-term improvement because it gives people more control over the conversation and certainty in what will be discussed. If people can start small, she says, the initial pain of inviting criticism will eventually lose its sting.

“When you ask for feedback, you’re licensing people to be critical of you,” West recently told NLI for Strategy+Business. “It may feel a little more uncomfortable, but you’re going to get honest, more constructive feedback.”

Leaders can use the new study as a tool to create more of a growth mindset at work. If everyone begins seeking out ways to improve, instead of shying away from them, entire organizations can adapt more quickly and edge out the competition.

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