For all the bad rap that follows critical feedback, the most common complaint leaders get is that we could all do with more of it.

Time and again, feedback comes up as one of the lowest scoring factors in engagement surveys. Data shows that we either don't get enough of it, or it's often too vague and generic to help us improve. Still, being fully honest with ourselves, do we really want to invite more negative feedback? 🤔

Individual differences are significant in tolerance to criticism. Some people are perfectly fine with being pointed towards their mistakes. The cartoonist and writer Scott Addams claims to be delighted to admit that he's failed at more challenges than anyone he knows. Our receptiveness to criticism has a lot to do with how we frame failure and attribute causes to events — some of which can be learned and developed.

For most of us, though, being criticised is uncomfortable at best, and de-stabilising or even devastating at worst. On a rational level, we all know feedback powers growth. Essentially, feedback is information to how other people perceive us. Taking in other perspectives helps us develop a more holistic understanding of our behaviour and the impact we're having on others. Emotionally though, we can't help feeling discouraged in the face of criticism. For something that's supposed to be helping us improve, corrective feedback can feel quite disheartening.

As it turns out, our emotional reaction to criticism might have roots in evolution. Being socially accepted is one of basic human needs, and criticism can put our social standing at risk. It can also impact our sense of self-worth, which is heavily influenced by how others perceive us. Neurologically, there's little difference between our reaction to a negative critique and an actual life endangering situation. As Daniel Goleman puts it:

Threats to our standing in the eyes of others can be remarkably potent biologically, almost as those to our very survival.

For better or worse, our brains are incredible at protecting us from negative influences from the outside world. We've developed neural mechanisms to block or filter out stimuli that could potentially harm our self-image and social status. It follows that defensiveness and denial in reaction to criticism are natural responses, triggered automatically by the amygdala — the part of our brain responsible for interpretation of experiences, memory and emotional reactions.

What amygdala does essentially is scan the incoming information for the level of threat. If the data is interpreted as non-threatening, it gets a safe passage to neocortex — the rational part of our brain — where it can be processed, stored and integrated into our long-term memory and perception of the world. The feedback received can be taken in as valuable input and we can reflect on how our behaviour needs to change in order to achieve better results.

If, however, the information is labeled as a threat, the amygdala activates survival responses in the lower parts of the brain, overriding the conscious control, and giving us emotions of fear, distress and confusion. This might explain why reactions we sometimes get to critical feedback can seem inadequate and over the top.

If you just skimmed through the parts on the brain structures, that's alright. The key take-away is that some defensiveness is perfectly normal in the face of criticism. The neural reaction chain helped preserve our species for millions of years. However, what was once advantageous and significant from an evolutionary perspective, is now all so frustrating and damaging in the work environment. 💔

There are very few things more challenging for a manager to deal with than defensiveness to criticism. Often times these uncomfortable conversations get avoided or postponed until the very last moment. Needless to say that employees often get caught by surprise to learn they're being put on a performance improvement, or yet worse, that termination is being mentioned as a possibility. This can only reinforce the reaction chain described above, and when it comes to that, improvement is a very unlikely outcome.

In conclusion, criticism can feel emotionally draining, but withholding it from others, we deprive them of valuable opportunities for improvement. As leaders, our most important job is to do everything in our power to enable people to grow. So we need to get out there and get uncomfortable, knowing that we're doing a good thing, even if hurts some feelings. Fortunately, there are ways to make feedback a different, better experience for everyone involved. We'll explore these in our next article on how to offer criticism in the right spirit and make sure it gets to travel to neocortex. 🧳

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