Why you're getting feedback all wrong

The sh*t sandwich, beloved of management training courses, causes far more harm than good, says digital agency CEO Ita Murphy.

by Ita Murphy
Last Updated: 30 May 2019

I was leading a large complex new business pitch; my first at the agency where I worked. Feeling nervous and exposed, I shared my initial draft with my CEO. It must have been pretty rough, but he put me at my ease and assured me it had promise - it just lacked a few ‘wows’. I went away with a spring in my step, found those wows and subsequently won the pitch.

I often reflect on how he could have made me feel instead. With one thoughtless comment he could have eroded my confidence.

As a certified practitioner and coach in neuroscience, I’ve spent time exploring how people react to feedback in the workplace. Humans are hard-wired to be anxious. In pre-historic times if you didn’t have a touch of anxiety then your chances of survival were slim to nonexistent. When threatened our amygdala is activated. The result is flight, fight or freeze. Our focus becomes on survival not learning.

Now apply this to the workplace and the "sh*t sandwich". By this I mean the classic "Here’s what you did well but…", finished off with a positive note. The but triggers fear – resulting in people losing focus on everything else and only absorbing the negative.

Not only does this type of feedback impair learning, but it actually physically hurts us. This is because the part of the brain where we feel emotional pain – the anterior cingulate cortex - is the same part where we feel physical pain. In order to learn and grow, humans need to feel psychologically safe. For this to happen blood needs to flow from the amygdala to an area of the brain called the ventral striatum. When this happens, we are able to be creative, positive, and imagine all possibilities.

This is why it is so crucial to build up your staff. It’s important that they give themselves - and that managers give them - space to try new skills and fail. People who have space to fail become less afraid of failure – and in the long run are more successful than people with a fixed mindset.  

As a coach I was taught to trust the innate wisdom of the coachee, to ask questions and let them figure out their own solutions. A great manager creates psychological safety, asking probing questions, encouraging self-explorations and then standing back. We are all brighter than we think, we just occasionally need someone to help us realise that – instead of smothering us with sh*t.

Ita Murphy is UK CEO of digital agency Syzygy

Image credit: Jan Prokes/Pexels

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