Skip to content
Big Think+

The feedback frights: Why something so important to growth seems so difficult

New research from Big Think+ sheds light on why employees can find the act of providing feedback to be intimidating, and how L&D can ease this fear by elevating feedback beyond pure evaluation.
Feedback frights
Infographic from Big Think+ Research

The concept of feedback often conjures negative premonitions of lectures, reprimands for honest mistakes, and uncomfortable performance appraisals. Anxiety, even dread, isn’t uncommon on either side of the conversational table.

Such fear stems, in part, from the perception that feedback is inherently adversarial. Employees feel the need to protect themselves from censure, while leaders assume any criticism will lead to hurt feelings or resentment. At the same time, organizations tend to over-rely on annual performance reviews as the primary feedback tool, leaving sparse opportunities to develop healthy communication norms.

Given the self-defense mindset and scarcity of meaningful engagement, is it any wonder why leaders and employees alike are resistant to engage in the regular feedback necessary for organizational and individual success?

What employees think

In a recent Big Think+ survey of full-time US employees, the importance — and challenge — of effective feedback came through clearly.

Of 288 managers and senior leaders surveyed, 86% agreed that providing regular, targeted feedback is essential for the growth of their teams.

However, in a separate survey of 198 individual contributors, more than a third said they found “providing constructive feedback to peers and subordinates” intimidating or scary. As organizations strive to develop their leadership pipelines, this trepidation surrounding feedback may induce potential leaders to avoid opportunities to practice and hone these critical skills.

One reason for this reluctance is simply that few people relish giving negative feedback. Another is the perception that such interactions represent stand-alone confrontations rather than single exchanges in an ongoing conversation designed to help them succeed. 

The challenge then is to “flip the script” on how leaders and employees perceive and practice feedback. In other words, cultivate a mindset that links feedback to growth, improvement, and ongoing support. Learning and development will be essential to laying this groundwork and fostering the skills to incorporate effective feedback into daily routines.

4 L&D strategies to ease the feedback fears

Create a feedback culture

Leaders and employees alike have a vested interest in developing a feedback culture – an environment in which employees and leaders alike are empowered to provide meaningful, supportive feedback regardless of position. However, without a total organization approach, your effort is likely to be piecemeal and ineffective.

Communication and guidance surrounding feedback will be important, but most critical will be for leaders and other influencers to demonstrate and reinforce effective feedback behaviors consistently. Such behaviors include asking thoughtful questions, co-developing the next steps, and making criticism constructive rather than combative.

L&D’s organizational savvy, coaching, and targeted on-demand learning can help pave the way here.

Empower employees to seek out feedback

Too often, feedback is perceived as top-down and provided at the leader’s discretion. A critical component of feedback culture is encouraging employees to proactively seek out guidance, too.

Unfortunately, many aren’t sure how to approach the conversation. One barrier is a reluctance to ask for time on a busy manager’s schedule. Another can be a lack of exposure to, and experience with, effective feedback interactions.

L&D can help by providing easy-to-access tools and guides, learning, and ongoing reinforcement.

Prioritize true feedback over evaluation 

Annual performance evaluations are a rite in most organizations. However, research shows that formal reviews are not only intimidating, they’re not very effective in actually improving employee performance. 

Part of the issue is that annual reviews are only one touchpoint, with ratings and raises paramount. True developmental feedback is more naturally embedded in work processes throughout the year. Such opportunities include on-the-job coaching, one-on-one meetings, conversations around skill development, and project preparation and review.

L&D is a powerful catalyst for promoting the breadth of feedback opportunities. Your targeted communications, learning, and coaching help leaders be prepared to take advantage of them.

Encourage senior leaders to model openness

Senior leaders create the conditions for a robust feedback culture to grow roots. In light of the trepidation employees have voiced about providing and receiving feedback, senior leaders must be proactive and transparent in leading the way. 

By modeling effective feedback techniques — and exposing their own vulnerability to the process — leaders demonstrate not only their expectations but that employees can feel safe following their example.

L&D’s influence and impact with senior leaders are essential for a strong, sustainable focus on feedback. Through a strategy of consultation, coaching, and continuous reinforcement, you can help ensure that a feedback-rich culture remains a priority.

Final thoughts

L&D can help mitigate feedback frights by cultivating an understanding of feedback as an ongoing process of discussion and mutual problem-solving, not purely evaluation. Complementary skill development focused on core capabilities such as listening, empathy, insightful questioning, and managing conflict can help build the confidence and competence leaders are seeking.

Join the #1 community of L&D professionals

Sign up to receive new research and insights every other Tuesday.