Sheila Heen, a Partner at Triad Consulting Group and a lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, explains the psychology behind feedback and criticism. Heen is co-author of “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.”
Sheila Heen: If you look at the neuroscience, the way that we're wired has a profound effect on how we hear and respond to feedback. Now, we took a look at three variables that are particularly important in terms of your reaction to feedback. The first is your baseline. In the literature this is called set point sometimes. It's sort of a how happy or unhappy are you in the absence of other events in your life. Where's that level that you come back to?
If it's a scale of one to ten. Some people just live their lives at nine. They're just so unbelievably happy and cheerful about everything, you know from like a cup of coffee to a promotion they're just thrilled. This research comes from looking at lottery winners. A year later they're about as happy or unhappy as they were before they won the lottery. And people who go to jail, a year later they're about as happy or unhappy as before they went to jail. Now, the reason this matters for feedback, particularly if you have a low set point or baseline, positive feedback can be muffled for you. The volume is turned down; it's harder for you to hear it.
Now, we look at the second variable, which is swing. When you get positive or negative feedback how far off your baseline does it knock you? The same piece of feedback can be devastating for one person and, you know, kind of annoying for another. And then the third variable is how long does it take you to come back to your baseline. How long do you sustain positive feeling or how long does it take you to recover from negative feeling. So taken together that's where the big variation in sensitivity comes from that some people are extremely sensitive and other people are pretty insensitive, or maybe I should say even keel. But I suppose if you're insensitive you don't really care what I call you so it doesn't matter.
Here's why this is particularly important. There are two reasons. One is your own footprint or feedback profile, not only influences how you receive feedback, it also influences how you give feedback. So if you're pretty even keel it could be that you're more likely to be pretty direct or other people would describe you as harsh in your feedback because you think like this isn't that big of deal; you're overreacting to it. Other people who are very sensitive are likely to tiptoe around issues. And if they're talking to someone who's pretty even keel like they're not even understanding that you're giving them feedback. Like you have to be pretty direct to even get through to them.
The second reason it matters is that particularly if you swing negative it can actually distort your sense of the feedback itself and your sense of yourself. So in terms of distorting your sense of the feedback itself, it's almost like it super sizes it. You know, one piece of feedback triggers sort of an overwhelming flood where the feedback itself overruns its borders. It's not one thing it's everything. It's not now it's forever. And you could fall into what we called the Google Bias. It's as if mentally and emotionally you Google everything that's wrong with me and you get like 1.2 million hits. All your past mistakes, failed relationships, bad judgment, you know, there are sponsored ads from your father and your ex and it's suddenly everything you can see about yourself. The challenge in the book is how do you dismantle the distortions so that you can see that's feedback itself at actual size and it doesn't become so big and overwhelming that you're actually not in a place to learn and you’re not hearing the feedback for what it does represent and what it doesn't present.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton