Delivering Effective Feedback with Self-Affirmation

Ever heard the expression “don’t shoot the messenger”?

It exists for a reason. Research has shown that no one likes the bearer of bad news. But, like it or not, managers do sometimes have to deliver negative feedback to their subordinates.

So, how can managers give negative feedback without the blowback?

The Psychology of Self-Affirmation can provide some important insights as to why negative feedback stings so much, and how to defuse this reflexive response. Self-affirmation gets mixed up with some pop psychology silliness sometimes (as SNL famously spoofed with the Stuart Smalley character), but there’s actually a lot of research behind it. A key insight of Self-Affirmation Theory is that negative feedback doesn’t just hurt our feelings – it fundamentally undermines our sense of self. We put a lot of value in being good at certain things, and information that contradicts these self-views can be destabilizing (and, of course, upsetting).

Some managers may not mind causing this kind of hurt, but they really should!

Research finds information that undermines our sense of self is actively resisted. People become defensive, and that means the negative feedback may not lead to the desired improvement.

It’s the worst combined outcome: hurt feelings, poorer relationship, and no attempts at improvement.

How can managers reduce their subordinates’ defensiveness about negative feedback?

Self-affirmation research finds that when another aspect of our sense of self is affirmed, we become less defensive about information that threatens our self-views. This self-affirmation often comes in the form of endorsing important, personal values (e.g., kindness), or reflecting on times when we acted consistently with an important personal value. These seemingly simple efforts have real impacts, shutting down the threat/stress reaction in the brain.

When we don’t feel threatened, we can absorb information that our actions are harmful and make necessary changes. This can reduce more short-sighted responses, such as self-handicapping, and even reduce workplace hostility.

Great! So how do I help my employees self-affirm?

A critical element of self-affirmation is the “self” part. This is not another recommendation for managers to combine criticism with a “spoonful of sugar”; Individuals need to mobilize these self-resources…themselves. But you can help.

One brief self-affirmation technique recently developed has been used successfully in the workplace. The key is training individuals to activate their self-resources when stressed (such as by negative feedback). Have them complete an exercise where they form a plan on how to respond to anxiety (“think about the things I value about myself”, “think about what I stand for”), and commit to employ it.

So, what is the takeaway here?

Your employees are complex individuals with self-views formed by a lifetime of experiences. Most want to do well, but also fear judgment and threats to these self-views. When you understand this, you can plan to deliver feedback in ways that achieve your supervisory goals, and help your employees grow in ways that should improve their workplace productivity.

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