In today‘s fast-moving world, we are always under pressure to act now, rather than spend time reasoning things through and thinking about the true facts. Not only can this lead us to a wrong conclusion, it can also cause conflict with other people who may have drawn quite different conclusions on the same matter. To understand what makes giving and delivering effective feedback difficult, we need to shed some light on the challenges and barriers, that is predominantly the process of human interaction, perception and how our brains process information.

Source: Fotolia / User: adogslifephoto

Source: Fotolia / User: adogslifephoto

The information out in the world comes in through our senses. We select what we will pay attention to by running that information through filters. We all have a unique way of selecting what we pay attention to and what we ignore. In order to deal with the multitude of sensory information, we put ourselves through a three-step process:

  1. We select or choose something to pay attention to, we filter the incoming information.
  2. We organize and slot this piece of information into the overall scheme of what we know.
  3. We interpret and make sense of what we’ve taken in.

We organize and interpret. From our interpretation, we think something. Because of our thoughts, we feel something. Because of what we have thought and felt, we do something.

Barriers to effective communication can be thought of as ‘filters’. The message leaves the sender, passes through the filters (delete, distort, generalize), and is then interpreted by the receiver. These filters can muffle and scramble the intended message. There’s a lot going on around us at any given moment. We can perceive only a limited amount of information. Even within that limited amount, we fail to see everything that is there. Effective communicators overcome these filters or barriers by incorporating active listening and feedback and by employing full two-way communications.

The process of communication is influenced by many factors. Communication is the sharing of meaningful information between two or more people with the goal of the receiver understanding the sender’s intended message. Anything that prevents the receiver from understanding the message poses a barrier to impactful feedback. For example: Different energy or behavioral preferences, culture, background and bias, depth of listening, environmental distractions, differences in perception, interpretation of message content, stress and overload.

There is no guarantee of the accuracy of our perception process. This may come as a shock to some of you. You may be thinking, seeing is believing, I know what I know, I follow my gut. Perception is a complicated process. How we filter what we pay attention to, how we organize and interpret that information, leads to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that say everything there is to say about us as communicators.

„I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.“

~Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States

Research suggests that on average, from the 100% intended communication, only 17% get actioned due to the sender‘s and receiver‘s filtering systems.

Although a job is often regarded as a purely economic transaction, in which people exchange their labor for financial compensation, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. People who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work – for example when they are reprimanded, given an assignment that seems unworthy, or told to take a pay cut – experience it as neural impulse, as powerful and painful as a blow to the head. Most people who work in companies learn to rationalize or temper their reactions. But they also limit their commitment and engagement. They become purely transactional employees, reluctant to give more of themselves to the company, because the social context stands in their way.

Your own brain and the brains of the people you interact with each day are strongly influenced by how it perceives the social environment in which you operate. When it perceives a social threat (real or not) it automatically goes into defense or stress mode – functioning below its best when needed to make decisions, remember, solve problems or collaborate with others. When it perceives a social reward the opposite happens – it goes into high engagement mode where it is best able to think creatively, plan, remember, memorize, solve problems, and communicate. In a world where employee engagement has probably become the greatest single success factor for any organization, leaders who are serious about accomplishing success cannot afford to ignore this.

Let me briefly summarize the key feedback challenges:

  • Your own thoughts and feelings, your intentions and behavior create an impact on others. They have or will form their story about you based on their perceptions and experiences. What they decode and understand is not necessarily what you originally intended to convey. The communication process is prone to errors.
  • Our brains have a built-in negativity bias that triggers us to be very cautious when feedback comes in. Recipients could be in resistance before you have a chance to engage them in a constructive discussion.
  • You set the intention to action on some deliverables based on your personal values and your objectives.
  • Your behavior has an impact on others who provide you with their feedback. They make a judgment based on what they experience whereas we often judge ourselves by our intentions. Those of course are always good.

Without feedback, we have no chance to learn and grow.  Feedback supports creativity and innovation. Eventually, feedback provides us with a sense of security as we know where we stand and what our strengths, weaknesses and blind spots are. Remember: Failure does not exist, there is only feedback.

How can we trigger more “reward-engage” responses, and avoid “threat-disengage” responses as relates to feedback? Here is some food for thought:

  • The fundamental goal of giving feedback is to help the other person. Be transparent about the motivation behind your feedback. Do not give feedback because someone is screwing up, holding back or not making enough progress. Take time to reframe your message so its benefit becomes clear to the other person.
  • People are most creative and productive when they feel secure enough to take risks – to push limits.
  • Empathy begins with deep listening, which helps people feel understood and engaged. Where people feel that someone cares for them and is looking out for their progress they are substantially more engaged, and it positively affects the bottom line.
  • Use a feedback model to prepare for, structure, and conduct a feedback session. Consider the context, current situation of the recipients, describe the impact of their actions and behaviors, set goals and commit to next steps. There are numerous feedback tools and frameworks available. We have compiled our favorites in this downloadable document.
  • Make giving and delivering feedback an integral part of your leadership development activities. „Why feedback matters“ was a workshop I delivered for a Swiss client a while ago. Read more about it here.

If you want to turn feedback into a source of positive motivation, contact us. We are just an email or phone call away.

Lead fearlessly, Annette.

P.S. Your feedback is as always welcome. We consider it to be a gift that we genuinely appreciate. Please leave a comment or thought below. Thank you.