Using Neuroscience to Make Feedback Work and Feel Better
Research shows that using feedback is how organisms — and organizations — stay alive. Here’s how leaders can make the most of the anxiety-producing process.
by David Rock, Beth Jones, and Chris Weller
Illustration by Lars Leetaru
A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of strategy+business.
Not too long ago, 62 employees at a major consultancy found themselves getting called into a room in pairs, neither person having any prior relationship to the other, for what they were told was a role-playing exercise. Researchers asked them to sit across from each other. Participants then learned they weren’t assigned to be collaborators, but adversaries — opposing sides engaging in a mock negotiation to buy or sell a biotechnology plant. They had six minutes to haggle over the price, and heart-rate monitors would track the ups and downs of the argument.
When the negotiations were finished, each side gave feedback about his or her opponent’s performance. Some participants were told to give the feedback unprompted. Others were instructed to ask for feedback. Quietly, the heart-rate monitors listened.
Here’s what the researchers found: If you want to put people on edge, tell them they will receive some feedback. Or, just as bad, tell them they’ll be giving feedback. Subjects in the study felt equally anxious offering feedback and receiving it, which might explain why so much workplace feedback — particularly in the United States — amounts to a series of polite statements, with few suggestions for improvement.