How to deal with the fear of giving negative feedback?

One of the most integral parts of a manager’s job is providing performance feedback and engaging people. So much so that it cannot be ceded or delegated to anyone else. And yet managers often avoid these kinds of conversations. The mere prospect of providing feedback on someone else’s performance leads to an immediate increase in heart rate – a sign that the body is going into “fight-or-flight” mode. The resulting fear can be especially stressful when the intended recipient of feedback has more knowledge and experience than the person giving it.

Such was the case for one of my former coaching clients, Maria, a high-potential manager at a US-based multinational robotics company, with direct reports of different generations and experience levels. A newly minted Ph.D. in System Dynamics, and a millennial with only four years of professional experience, Maria dreaded the conversations with her more experienced team members, where she would have to provide developmental feedback that she said would be perceived as “negative and condescending.” As a result, she put off such meetings for months and then only gave vague feedback that didn’t provide a clear direction, or she skipped them altogether, leaving some of her team wondering where they stood with her and if their performance was up to par. , while others simply continued with a “no news is good news” attitude.

However, the business impact of her reluctance to provide clear development feedback ultimately made: hair the recipient of a blistering performance review from her boss, which pointed to instances of toxic behavior by members of her team toward other co-workers, as well as missed delivery deadlines that resulted in costly delays to scheduled software releases.

Over several months of executive coaching, I helped Maria understand and put into practice the following emotion regulation strategies that made anticipating and providing developmental feedback to more experienced colleagues easier for her and more productive for her team and the larger organization .

Set expectations from the start

To avoid the emotional build-up to giving feedback in situations where you lead a team of experts, it helps to address the elephant in the room from the moment you join the team. Rather than let your insecurities lead you to be more knowledgeable than you are, acknowledge the experience and expertise of your senior team members beforehand and ask for their help to get you up to speed.

At the same time, clarify your expectations and check your individual team members’ ability to meet them before agreeing on milestones and what the success of a particular project or initiative looks like. Let them know that you provide regular feedback so that people know where they stand on their performance, and that you ask for theirs too, to learn how you can help them more.

Managers who hold people accountable and provide timely feedback gain the respect of their team and avoid the emotional buildup that comes from persistent assumptions and lack of communication.

Short your emotions

According to James Gross, a psychology professor at Stanford University, we can reduce the intensity of negative emotions by using science-based emotion regulation strategies to intervene in the four-step process that generally gives rise to emotions such as fear, anger, and fear. sadness.

The process starts with a situation– real or imagined. In the case of my client Maria, the typical thought was to provide performance feedback to more experienced team members. One strategy for controlling your anxiety at this stage in the emotion generation process would be what Gross calls avoid situation. In most cases, by choosing not to get involved in a threatening situation, you avoid the resulting fear, such as driving to a destination when flying makes you anxious. However, this strategy isn’t really an option for a manager whose job requires regular feedback to subordinates. You can adjust the situation by choosing a more optimal day and time for giving feedback, for example, when team members are not under increased pressure to deliver within a deadline. This allows you to gain some control and imagine the stressful situation in a more relaxed environment, alleviating some of the anxiety you might feel when anticipating the event.

The second step is the attention paid to a particular, often threatening aspect of a situation. Maria had focused primarily on the expected negative reaction team members would have in response to her feedback, fueling her fear. The intervention strategy in this step of the emotion generation process involves deliberately changing your focus, and instead of mulling over something negative that might happen, focus instead on positive aspects, such as a person’s leadership potential. feedback recipient or the value they contribute to the team and the organization.

The third step is what Gross calls valuation† So if Maria thought about giving negative feedback (the situation), and focused (attention) on what she expected would be strong negative reactions from her team, the meaning (rating) she assigned to giving was of feedback that her team would resent her “incompetence” and hate to work for her. Our assessment of a situation then leads to the fourth step in the emotion generation process, the emotional answerwhich for Maria was a debilitating fear that kept her from performing her managerial duties.

After understanding the neurological process that generated her fears, Maria learned that she could take control and change the meaning she assigned to giving feedback, rather than failing the automatic assumption that her brain made her team resent her.

With practice, she managed to reformulate the meaning of the fear-provoking situation in productive ways, such as:

my team will appreciate my honesty no one wants to be in the dark about their performance by not giving certain feedback, i cheat my team the opportunity to grow we cannot win as a team if we are not aware of our strengths and weaknesses

There is no limit to the more productive frames we can generate to change the meaning of a threatening situation. I had asked Maria to generate as many as 30 different positive frames for the task of providing feedback to her team. As a result, she weakened the initial negative framing that she would automatically use when thinking about giving feedback, and adopted a more positive and productive view of the practice, which not only relieves her of her fear, but also earns her the respect of her team, and her boss.

Harrison Monarth is the CEO and founder of Gurumaker and author of Executive Presence: the art of commanding respect as a CEO

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