People hate feedback, and it is an extremely ineffective method of causing people to change.  Think I’m joking?  Go up to someone and utter the words in the title above – “I have some feedback for you.”

Watch their non-verbals.  Typically you will get a deep look of concern.  The person will be looking at your face, anxiously trying to figure out your emotional state – anger, dominance, accusation?  They may well blush or turn slightly paler – both signs of an Amygdala response.  The words alone are enough to cause people to turn to a defensive, “old brain” mindset, totally unconsciously.

The amygdala response is bad for what happens next, because it signals a switch to “fight or flight” mode.  The person will want to argue with you or to withdraw from this new, unanticipated threat.  If you truly want the person to change in some way, you need to avoid the amygdala response at all costs.

Recent findings of neuroscience have shown us that change is learning.  You cannot change anything in a person’s behaviour without them learning:

  • New skills – so they are able to do the new thing
  • New experience – so they have the confidence to do the new thing
  • Or new attitudes – so they believe that the new thing is worth doing and so they do it in the right spirit.

This makes change management a very different task from how it has historically been regarded.  Change management has been viewed as an issue of:

  • Logic – “I have great ideas, so people have to join in with them”
  • Persuasion – “I will make them see the benefits of this”
  • Coercion – “They had better do it or else”
  • Or a range of other personal perspectives

The problem with feedback is that it turns on the amygdalae which makes it almost impossible for people to learn.  The amygdalae are all about protecting the person from harm and extricating him or her from the threatening situation.

So, do we give up on giving people guidance about what they are doing wrong?  Yes, we do.  We forget feedback and we start giving “feedforward”.

Feedforward is a technique where we do not tell people what they have done wrong, we give them very assertive and specific guidance about how they need to act in the future.  Instead of:

  • “Mary, your approach to that customer was inappropriate” (feedback)

You say,

  • “Mary, when you deal with customers I need you to..” and then give very specific guidance about what you need her to do. This is feedforward.

Feedback turns on the amygdalae, feedforward turns on the prefrontal cortex, because it is only this part of the brain which can conceptualise the future.

So, the next time a challenge of this sort turns up, park the feedback and practice feedforward.  The difference in defensiveness and ultimate behaviour change will be stark.

If you want to measure leadership behaviours  Click here to find out about SACS 360 measurement tool.

Andrew Marty
Managing Director

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Andrew Marty