Overcoming the fear of feedback

Mary considers herself to be a good manager. Whenever one of her employees is struggling with an assignment, she swoops in to help them put things into order and give pointers. Her company is now introducing a new 360-degree performance management system based on continuous feedback, and as a manager, she’s been encouraged to lead the transition by asking for feedback from her team.

She’s excited about this new change because she thinks it’ll help a few of her team members open up more and resolve conflicts amongst each other.

However, when she receives her feedback, she’s surprised to find that several people said she needed to let go more and allow people to work out assignments in their own way. One person even used the term ‘micromanaging’. Even though she’s supposed to be setting an example, her first reaction is to get angry. She sets aside a lot of time to help her employees solve problems and only gets criticism in return. She’s now supposed to act on the feedback she receives in order to encourage employees to do the same, but she’s still feeling betrayed…

Most people have difficulty receiving feedback. For others, the only thing worse than receiving constructive feedback is giving it. But when given correctly, feedback is not meant to harm or criticize people. Rather, it’s meant as a way to improve.

Yet even when we know feedback is good for us, something still holds us back from accepting and sharing it with others. What is it?

What are the psychological factors that make us afraid of feedback?

The most common answer is tied to our natural negativity bias. Prominent psychologists and neurobiologists have found that our brains are hardwired to react to negative stimuli faster, which was originally necessary for our survival. Sensing an attack would trigger our body’s natural fight or flight mode, increasing the amount of adrenaline released to the bloodstream, elevating reaction time and heightening our emotions. The experiences that trigger these reactions become etched into our brain so we can react to dangerous situations faster, which is why we tend to remember negative experiences more than positive ones.

In an office setting however, our negativity bias and fight or flight reaction can actually work against us. Even when receiving mostly positive feedback, it tends to be the constructive feedback that we recall most acutely. Though feedback doesn’t constitute a physical attack, in their separate research Psychologist Peter Gray and Management Professor Neal Ashkanasy both explain that criticism can signal a sense of exclusion. For this reason, constructive feedback can sometimes trigger our fear of being excluded.

Is the fear of giving feedback more about yourself than others?

A study by Dr. Carla Jefferies of the University of Southern Queensland discovered that a failure to give constructive feedback may actually be more about protecting ourselves than others. In her experiment, participants were told to give feedback on an essay either face to face, anonymously or to give feedback that would not be shared with the author.

She found that participants with lower self-esteem gave more positive feedback face to face and more critical feedback in the other two situations. People with high self-esteem gave the same feedback in all situations. According to a researcher on her team, "If one accepts that people with relatively low self-esteem are expected to place greater emphasis on wanting to be perceived as likeable or attractive to others, then this lends support for the self-protection motive."

Supporting this research, a study conducted by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman found that 74% of employees who received constructive feedback already knew there was a problem. This shows that employees aren’t necessarily blind to the things they need to improve, they just aren’t sure how to improve or aren’t fully aware of the impact on the rest of the team. In fact, in their previous research they found that a majority of employees actually want constructive feedback.

The caveat is that people don’t want to receive top down instructions on what to do better. In their study, Zenger & Folkman also found that the more managers carefully listened to their employees ‘point of view' before giving feedback, the more honest and trustworthy their feedback was perceived. They suggest that the best way to give constructive feedback is to first give the other person the chance to explain the situation and what they think went wrong. Before sharing feedback, allow people to formulate their own plan of action.

If you listen carefully up to this point, when you give your own feedback, it is much more likely to be well received. Finally, offer to check in over the following weeks so you can lend further advice if needed. Read our article on how to give constructive feedback for more examples.

Changing your mindset towards feedback

Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s studies of the ‘fixed and growth mindsets’ also provide valuable insights. According to her research, people with fixed mindsets view their skills as personal traits, while people with growth mindsets view their skills as malleable abilities which can be improved.

When we associate abilities with a part of our identity, receiving constructive criticism can feel more like a personal attack. People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, are more likely to take risks and overcome obstacles by seeing failure as a signal to try harder, rather than time to give up. The good news is that we are not naturally divided into fixed and growth mindsets, so developing a growth mindset towards feedback is possible.

According to Dweck, the first step is recognizing your fixed mindset. If you catch yourself placing blame on others for the feedback you receive, this is your fixed mindset speaking. Once you recognize it, you can start counteracting it and responding with a growth mindset.

See Dweck’s TEDTalk, ‘The power of believing that you can improve’, for more inspiration.

Overcoming fear of feedback through habit

An important part of overcoming your fear is creating a feedback habit. In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, he describes how neuroscientists and psychologists discovered the impact of habits on rewiring the brain towards certain behaviors. Duhigg contends that by creating a routine and reward system triggered by certain cues, we can rewire our brain to create new habits and behaviors.

For example: if you want to start exercising more, leaving your running clothes next to your bed will trigger a cue to go for a run in the morning. If you get into the routine of going for a run every morning your body gets used to the routine. The incentive can be a reward, such as having a big breakfast when you get home. Eventually, the habit kicks in and your body will become accustomed to going for a run when you wake up, even if you forget to leave your running clothes out or don’t have time for an elaborate breakfast.

See Duhigg’s thought-provoking TEDTalk detailing more insights from his book, below.

Creating a feedback habit

You can also use this method to create a feedback habit in your company. Amongst our customers we’ve seen that as employees share more and more feedback through a purpose-built platform, it starts to become ingrained in their behaviours. As the habit forms, people become more comfortable expressing feedback face-to-face. In the long term, this leads to an increase in the exchange of spontaneous feedback and better professional development conversations.

When creating your own feedback habit, keep in mind the three elements to habit forming. For example, your steps could be:


Receiving a feedback notification from a colleague.


Analyze the feedback:


Using feedback to reach the professional goals you’ve set for yourself.

Putting this into context

Let's go back to Mary, the manager who just received surprising feedback from her employees.

Step 1.

When her thoughts of betrayal and exclusion start to set in, she should recognize her fixed mindset and respond with: “It’s not that my employees are ungrateful for my help, they just want more opportunities to grow professionally.”

Step 2.

After receiving her feedback, Mary should automatically read through it and note any keywords and patterns she sees.

Step 3.

She should then respond to her feedback to fill in the gaps: “What can I do to better support you when you reach an obstacle?”

Step 4.

Finish by thanking them for their feedback.

Based on the answers she received, it’s time for Mary to come up with strategies for improvement. Maybe her employees would like her to ask if they need her help. When they do ask for help, she can make sure to adjust her language and tone, so that she’s providing suggestions rather than instructions.

She should also offer individuals opportunities to take on more responsibilities. For example, suggesting that an employee take the lead on a new project. Another option is committing to having more regular 1-on-1's with her reports, so she can check in and offer her assistance when needed.

Finally, Mary can map her professional goals against this feedback: “Becoming a better leader by providing more autonomy to my employees”. She should then check in from time to time and ask her employees for feedback on her management style and what she could do to more effectively reach her goals.

Keep the momentum

To learn more about how to give and receive feedback as a manager, download our Manager's Guide to Effective Feedback, below.

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