When Constructive Feedback Isn’t So “Constructive” (and How to Do it Better)


In David Rock’s groundbreaking book “Your Brain at Work,” the reader travels inside our brains in which we learn how to use our brain to become more productive at work. In several chapters, Rock shares powerful techniques on how to effectively change other people’s behavior.

The primary way we facilitate change is giving others feedback. Yet, surprisingly, giving feedback is rarely the right way to create real change. 

Rock makes a wise observation: People miss the basic reality of feedback: feedback creates a strong threat for people in most situations. 

One of the ways feedback has been mandated and institutionalized is in the form of performance reviews. 

“Essentially  just reduce performance for six days each year: three days while people prepare for it, and three days recovering from it.” – Mike Morrison, Dean of Toyota University 

Senior leaders tell managers to give “constructive feedback.” The overarching problem with “constructive feedback” is that, like a wolf sniffing a meal across the field, even a subtle status threat is picked up unconsciously by our deeply social brain, no matter how nicely its couched. Rock says, ‘as “constructive” as you try to make it, feedback packs a punch. The result is people defending themselves. 

The reason why so much feedback doesn’t work is we think people are rational. We use logic and reason to “persuade” someone else. If you’ve tried this with your spouse or significant other when you are in a heated debate, you know how futile this approach is. 

Focus on Solutions instead of Problems

When you focus on an outcome instead of a problem it impacts your brain functioning in several ways. Focusing on solutions can significantly increase the likelihood of having insights, and even make you feel happier. 

1) When you focus on an outcome, you prime the brain to perceive information relevant to that outcome, rather than to notice information about the problem. You can’ t be looking for solutions and problems at the same time. 

2) Looking for solutions enables you to scan your environment widely for cues which activates more of the right hemisphere of the brain which is helpful for having insights, rather than drilling down into information that actives the left hemisphere. 

3) When you focus on problems you are more likely to activate the emotions connected with those problems, which will create greater noise in the brain. 

Who Comes Up with the Solution? 

Not only it is the focus on solution important, but also who comes up with the solution is even more important. When people turn into the expert and doctor mode of giving solutions, diminishes the other person’s sense of autonomy and creates a “a-duh” experience. Instead, empowering the person to come up with his or her solutions creates an “a-ha” experience.

You want to help people reflect in a quiet way. You want people to look inward but without dwelling on the details of the problem. Rock is right. The goal is to “facilitate the state of mind that you have when you first wake up, when you easily connect distant ideas, and subtle thoughts can rise to the surface.” 

Here are several questions that are helpful:

1. If you stop and think more deeply here, do you think you know what you need to do to resolve this? 

2. What quiet hunches do you have about a solution, deeper inside? 

3. How close to a solution are you? 

4. Which pathway to a solution would be best to follow here?