Why Feedback Goes Awry and What To Do About It

Have you ever offered unsolicited feedback and had it blow up in your face?

Or spent hours preparing what you wanted to say then had it land badly even though you sugarcoated it?

Or tried time and again to get your point across about how someone’s behavior negatively affected you…only to end up in yet another  “groundhog day” argument?

If any of these scenarios are familiar, you may be missing the fact that the whole intent of feedback is to get someone else to change their thinking or behavior.  Whether it’s a performance review, a conversation with your partner about his driving habits, or a request that your teammate improve at meeting deadlines, the underlying aim is for that person to change.

Okay, you say, yeah, I do want someone to change their thinking or behavior. I believe they’d do their job better, be easier to live with, be a more productive team member if they just did what I ask them to do. What’s wrong with that?

Well, the problem is, human beings tend to perceive change as threatening.  Our brains are designed to turn as much as possible into habits and routines in order to conserve our valuable higher reasoning abilities.  Change requires conscious thought and action.  We resist it mightily.

It doesn’t mean people are bad or wrong, it just means change is threatening. And—to repeat—feedback is designed to get someone to change.

What happens when we’re threatened? We put up a fight, we stick our fingers in our ears, we try to defend our current behavior or thinking. How is feedback going to land with that kind of response? Not so well. I know. I’ve given lots of feedback over the years.  Sometimes it’s successful, often its not.

Why does some feedback succeed and other feedback produce bad results? When it succeeds, whether we know it or not, we’ve managed to offset the threat. And probably the most powerful way to offset the threat is to give the other person control over whether, and how, to change. Even the illusion of autonomy is enough to reduce the threat response.

So here’s the bottom line:

Change is hard, no matter what.

Feedback, no matter how skillfully delivered, will not produce thinking or behavior change on its own.

The only way someone is going to change is if they want to.

What does that mean for you?

If you want to stand a chance of seeing the change you’re hoping for, then you have to use influence. A simple definition of influence is “making your point powerful from the other person’s point of view.” And in order to do that, you need to first be able to look at the world from their perspective and then connect your feedback to something that matters to them.

Try it next time you want someone to change their behavior based on your feedback.