Why are people afraid of feedback?
Because neurons that fire together wire together.
Imagine: As you walk into a bakery, you are surrounded by the smell of cinnamon and something baking. Immediately you think of wintertime, cold weather, being with family and some of the fun times (or maybe even stressful times) you spent together.
This isn’t just random memories showing up. If you experienced winters with cinnamon laden treats, it’s likely you will have this multiple-sensory recall experience as well. This is because the elements of a scene like this are wired together in your memory. It might be hard to remember one element without the others coming flooding back as well.
Why are memories wired together?
When two events happen simultaneously, the neurons that represent the separate events are created and they physically connect or “wire” together. Then when you remember one event, you will usually remember the other one right alongside it.
This is because neurons wiring together is a fundamental part of understanding the world. Events are complex and the brain collects independent aspects of that event to help you remember it fully. This happens whether or not those different aspects were truly related – the brain doesn’t know or care if something is relevant or not, it’s just connecting the different aspects of an event or object.
Why does the brain do this?
Neurons related to different senses are stored in different parts of the brain but they connect so you know they belong together. When you recall “dog”, you will get pictures in your mind of a dog, perhaps one dog that was special to you. You might also recall the sound of a bark, the colours of its fur, the feel of petting the dog; you might remember its name, how it smelled and you might remember what it was like to take the dog for a walk and how you felt on certain parts of that walk. Those are a lot of attributes, mostly stored in different brain regions, but they are connected together so you can have the full picture.
Why does this matter to us in the workplace?
Because we have associations (neurons that have wired together) about many kinds of events, such as feedback, year-end reviews, product reviews, presentations, proposals, coaching sessions and just about any other event that occurs in the workplace. The associations may be inspiring, or they may be frightening.
For example, the word ‘feedback’ is often associated with feeling criticised – these are likely wired together in most people’s brains. This association then makes it difficult to introduce feedback without the feeling of criticism showing up at the same time.
If people have regularly had fearful experiences in any of those situations, it’s likely their same feelings will occur when coming to the next one. Of course, they will. We shouldn’t expect anything different, although we can change that wiring if we work at it.
How can we begin to rewire some of these associations?
- Find out if people have had difficult experiences in the past, and together, try to create new associations so you can help them exorcise the old memories and make new ones that are more positive and supportive. Figure out together how to do that.
- Be careful what associations you are making for your team members and direct reports currently. Do what you can to make experiences productive, full of learning and opportunities. Even if there is critical feedback to give, it can be done with a growth mindset and an eye towards learning and development.
- Check with yourself: is your feedback always critical? If so, you should expect others to expect that from you and that they will show up in a fear state. And you might want to learn a feedback model that can help you provide feedback in a more productive way.
The concept of plasticity assures us that brains can be rewired. It requires attention, intention, effort and repetition. But it is possible to change how we behave and how we react to different situations.Who is responsible for our responses? It’s complicated!Step 1. Create a sense of belonging