Feedback: Turning Awkward into Awesome

By Susan Dawson, LEED AP BD+C

We probably all recognize that being able to give and receive timely, constructive feedback is the hallmark of great leadership. However, giving and receiving feedback has become more challenging with the transition to 100% remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Improving feedback was recently the focus of a GHT Limited Project Management meeting. These meetings, hosted monthly by employees of GHT, focus on hard and soft skills to improve our project management approach.

Simply put, “feedback is the broccoli of any conversation”. Let’s face it, it’s not very appetizing and we’d prefer something else. Deep down, we know it’s ultimately good for us. So, if feedback is vital to members of our teams, and we know that having a feedback culture drives improved project performance, greater employee engagement, and virtually every Key Performance Indicator (KPIs), why is it so hard?

Why We Struggle with Receiving Feedback

According to Google keyword searches, people are 7.6 times more likely to search for “how to give feedback” than how to receive it. Yet studies show that the person receiving the feedback is ultimately the one in control of the outcome and is most responsible for the success of the feedback conversation. During our meeting, we explored the following barriers to receiving feedback:

  1. Our ego – 95% of us believe we’re in the top-performing half of our peer group. You see the problem – we can’t all be in the top 50%. It’s basic math. Feedback threatens our self-perception and our ego. To grow and learn from feedback, we need to become more self-aware and harness control of our ego to stop intrusive thoughts and allow us to practice active listening.
  2. Our brain – Neuroscience gets a large portion of the blame for our feedback resistance. When we encounter something new, our brain seeks to minimize danger and maximize reward – and leading research on the nature of our brains reveals that social situations can trigger a fight or flight threat response. By becoming more self-aware and understanding our tendencies towards these reactions, we can prevent, control, and shift our response from threat to reward.
  3. Our fear – We all agreed: nothing strikes fear into the heart of any employee more than the words, “Can I give you some feedback?” When we hear those words, we tend to go straight to a position of fear and may seek to avoid future interactions like it. Studies have shown that by shifting our mindset and learning to overcome individual fear, feedback can have 3x more impact.

Why It’s Hard to Give Feedback

Armed with a better understanding of our resistance to receiving feedback, our PMs then explored the challenges of giving feedback. Here are some of the barriers we identified:

  1. Our brain – Once again, neuroscience plays an important role in our avoidance of giving feedback and we evaluate each interaction to determine if our sense of status is being threatened. When giving feedback, we often want to please the feedback receiver and thus feel our sense of status is rewarded. When we have negative feedback to give, we risk displeasing the receiver, and ultimately, we want to be liked!
  2. Our personality – How we process information (thinking vs. feeling) plays a part in our willingness to give feedback. Participants were encouraged to take an online assessment to determine if they adopted a “thinking” or a “feeling” mindset. “Thinking” personalities often struggle with feedback because they consider the problem first while placing feelings and emotions second. “Feeling” personalities often consider the person and their feelings first, which runs the risk of deprioritizing the problem and avoiding important corrective feedback. Regardless of your style, awareness again goes a long way in recognizing and overcoming your own barriers to giving feedback.
  3. Our fear – Just as you experience fear when receiving, so too can you worry about giving feedback. You may worry how the other person will react; if your feedback will improve or worsen the situation; or if your feedback will be taken the wrong way. Remember that giving feedback takes courage!
  4. Concerns for the receiver’s ego – Ultimately, we’re afraid to hurt others’ feelings, which prevents us from giving feedback when it is warranted. We know and understand how it can trigger a threat response – acknowledging every word we say could be misinterpreted. Understanding this can help us overcome our concerns and approach each feedback session from a place of help and support.
  5. Lack of skills – We all agreed, giving feedback is a skill and an important one that can drive highly engaged teams on successful projects. However, giving feedback takes skill – and it’s one that’s rarely developed. We avoid giving negative feedback and forget to give positive feedback. As with every leadership and management skill, it’s important to practice and make feedback part of your daily routine.

What Can We Do About It? Both Individuals and Organizations

Once we understood our barriers to giving and receiving feedback, our Project Managers looked at utilizing the SCARF model, developed in 2008 by David Rock, to facilitate feedback conversations and address the potential threat/reward response.

  1. STATUS – Know that we are each biologically programmed to care about our status because it impacts our survival. When we view feedback as a reward, it increases our sense of status – while negative feedback can threaten our self-perception. Transition your mindset when receiving feedback and view each conversation as an opportunity to improve. If you’re the one giving the feedback, make it clear that you intend to help the receiver learn and grow. Model the behavior that feedback is a reward and that growth and education are highly valued at your company.
  2. CERTAINTY – Our brains crave homeostasis, a state where your surroundings feel familiar and balanced. When we don’t understand feedback, what it means or why we’re receiving it, a threat response can be triggered. If you feel your certainty being threatened, seek clarity and understanding. If you’re the giver, explain your expectations and what your feedback means. Help the receiver find a path to a successful outcome by breaking down complex feedback into smaller concrete steps.
  3. AUTONOMY – Autonomy, or the level of control we feel over our lives, can feel threatened when we receive negative feedback, especially on processes and procedures. When we receive feedback on how to properly execute our work, we can feel attacked – which our minds translate into less autonomy and control. If you’re concerned about your autonomy, seek to understand the “why” behind the “how.” Understand processes usually have a purpose, such as assuring quality or increasing efficiency. To reduce threats to the receiver’s autonomy, ask questions of the receiver and allow them some options, or freedom in how they execute their tasks. Be sure to explain the “why” and focus on areas where the receiver has greater autonomy.
  4. RELATEDNESS – Know that building a relationship of trust takes time and repeat interactions. It’s important that team members feel safe with each other before doling out the feedback – when our safety or trust feels threatened, it can lead to less effective feedback. When you’re feeling threatened, remind yourself of the social connection you have with the giver and point to past interactions which suggest trust and empathy. The same goes for the feedback giver – seek to develop a sense of “sameness” before jumping into feedback discussions with newer team members.
  5. FAIRNESS – Feedback can challenge our sense of fairness, which means being respected and treated equally, especially when compared to other people. When our brains perceive a situation or feedback as unfair, it can trigger a threat response and cause us to compare ourselves to others. To overcome this, start by remembering the feedback is about YOU, not OTHERS, and try to block destructive thoughts, as well as acknowledge others who demonstrate the same behavior are likely getting the same feedback. If you’re the feedback giver, check your biases. Are you playing favorites? To reduce the threat response, share information in a timely, transparent manner.

For more information on using the SCARF model to give and receive feedback, check out this article.

Building a Feedback Culture

Imagine your next project begins with all team members agreeing to give and receive feedback in a timely manner. Creating a team culture that encourages feedback loops not only increases the effectiveness of your team but can lead to greater quality, faster resolution of issues, and increased profitability. By providing training to all individuals in your organization, you can encourage team members to give and get feedback with more impact. And by remaining aware of triggers, the threat/reward response, and your personality, you could take the feedback you receive and become a more effective leader.

It is no surprise that companies who are better at feedback outperform companies who struggle with it. As we move forward into this hybrid virtual world, consider setting the tone from the top and scheduling regular conversations with your manager and those that you manage. Help employees understand their resistance to feedback and take those broccoli conversations from awkward – to awesome!

Susan Dawson, LEED AP BD+C is the Marketing & Communications Manager for GHT Limited, a leading MEP engineering firm in the Metropolitan Washington DC region for more than 55 years. During her career, she has led teams and participated in thousands of feedback conversations, both as the giver and the receiver. To learn more and schedule a session on Giving and Receiving Feedback in your offices, please contact her at