Giving feedback is as stressful to the giver as it is to the recipient, a recent neurological study has shown. That explains why feedback is so seldom given even when badly needed: it evokes the same fight or flight responses as any dangerous situation.

Brittle smiles

To progress in any activity requires some feedback, and it is essential in business that this happens. Yet even unsolicited and genuinely helpful feedback causes stress. Everyone may look happy, but underneath, hearts are racing, and blood pressure is rising. It’s called brittle smiles. Apart from all the anxiety it induces, we shut down to negative ideas, so the feedback isn’t constructive on any level.

Can stress be reduced?

Feedback stress can be leavened by various techniques, designed to make the message more acceptable. One is the sandwich method – praise, criticise, then praise gain. Another is the start, stop, continue method – someone starts a new behaviour, stops an unwanted one, and continues a third. Almost all such tools are artificial and all are tools for the giver not the receiver.

Or you can spend on learning initiatives, to try and ensure feedback isn’t needed. That’s seems hopeful, at best.

But how to deal with feedback in a way that is natural and not heart-stoppingly hard? And make it useful?

Ask for feedback

One way is to ask for feedback. And make it specific. Not a simple “how did that go?” But more like ”could I have made the presentation shorter, or used a different medium?” When people ask for feedback, they feel much more in control, and if the question they ask is specific, they have some assurance that the answer wont stray off the topic too much. Which is a hint to the feedback giver – don’t use the answer as an excuse to add in more thoughts of your own on their performance. You will never be asked again, and rightly so. It’s called kitchen sinking. Stick to the point. You will get another chance if the enquirer thinks that they will be treated fairly.

Get them to ask too

The next obstacle to overcome is to get your people to ask. That is easy – ask for feedback yourself. If the owner asks for feedback, it allows the team to be comfortable with it. They know they won’t get unfairly treated. Start with small things – “I’m thinking of changing the brand of coffee. What do you think about using X?” You are sending a signal that feedback is important, and if you can ask, so can they. It also is a much more inclusive way of acting, so all in all it should produce benefits.

More feedback pointers

Getting more broad feedback also helps. So ask people at different levels and experiences to create an overall picture. Also make it explicit – keep to the point. And lastly, make it often. If its not often its unlikely that talk will translate into actions. It’s far better for the business to make frequent, small course corrections than have to make big changes, which is always unsettling and usually costly.

You have to start with some creative discomfort, but it will lead to better decisions in the long term.