Career Testing
Career Testing
Career Testing
LEADERSHIP / SEP. 21, 2014
version 2, draft 2

Why It's So Hard To Hear Negative Feedback

In life self delusion is almost endemic, and it’s a topic I’ve touched on a few times in my blog here on Career Addict. In psychology terms it’s called an illusory bias. It explains for instance why 91% of American drivers believed they were above average at driving.  It is also evident in the workplace, with most believing themselves to be good managers, with a severe blind spot when it comes to their own failings.

So why is this?  After all, I’m sure most of us wouldn’t willingly display signs of hypocrisy, yet so often we do anyway.  A recent paper by Kate Sweeny and her team attempts to shed light on the matter.  Her team outlined three main reasons that cause people to avoid information that could shatter their own self-image:

  1. It may demand a change in beliefs.  For instance people usually look for information that confirms their beliefs, not that causes them to re-evaluate.
  2. It may require us to take undesirable actions.  Humans often look to avoid pain, be it physical or mental, so if ignoring a flaw means we don’t have to undergo painful analysis of our personalities, many choose that easy route.
  3. It may cause unpleasant emotions.  No one likes to feel bad about themselves, so ignoring flaws is a common defence mechanism against this.

I’m sure you’re familiar with all of these three defence mechanisms. What factors can we use to overcome these mental biases and start on the path to self-enlightenment? Sweeny et al suggest that our decision to choose ignorance or enlightenment depends on the following:

  1. Expectation.  The more we expect information to be bad, the more effort we make to avoid hearing it. So we do in some ways know our negative traits, but the more we know, the more we try to cover them up.
  2. Lack of control.  If we don’t have control over the consequences of information, we’re more motivated to avoid it.
  3. Lack of coping resources. If people are under stress already then further bad news is unlikely to be received.
  4. Ease of understanding the information. If it takes effort to really understand then often the effort isn’t taken.

All of which makes sense, but how can this impact upon us in the workplace? How can it influence how we give feedback to others, and how we receive it ourselves?

  1. Frame feedback positively.  Too often feedback is seen as criticism with negative consequences.  Instead, frame feedback as a positive means of improving performance.
  2. Provide reassurance. Times are tough right now, so make sure you reassure people that feedback won’t be accompanied by negative repercussions.  So if you’re a manager, seek feedback from your team without them fearing a strict telling off if they give it to you honestly.
  3. Keep it simple. Make feedback simple to understand and easy to give. The simpler and more punctual the better.
  4. Provide the tools to improve. So someone needs to improve a particular area? Give them the tools and support to do so.

Hopefully these tips will prove useful when it comes to giving (and receiving) feedback in your own workplace.



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