Updated: Apr 9, 2021
An organization´s success in an ever-changing environment requires something more than just a smarter strategy. It requires that people from all levels of the organization continuously develop and deploy higher levels of capability to match the rate of change in their environment.
People from “Deliberately developmental organizations”, as Kegan and Lahey call them, engage in frequent and effective feedback conversations as part of their daily work. Although many organizations claim to emphasize the value of feedback in their existing work processes, my experience is that self-serving behavior and competition between silos are more often rewarded than supporting colleagues to realize their full potential.
Given the powerful influence of the social environment on habit formation, the first step towards a feedback-friendly culture should involve senior management. As learning occurs by observation as well as by specific instruction, role modeling the desired behavior by those with a higher status will help to recognize feedback as an important value.
What is the role of senior management in creating an environment of constant learning and development?
Neuroscience 101 on change Before any person can commit to a change, he or she needs to be aware that there is a disparity between their current and desired behavior. When cognitive dissonance - a sense of discomfort that results from experiencing a conflict between beliefs/values and behavior occurs, individuals seek a way to reduce dissonance by changing or adding new attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs or adjusting the importance of any of these. In the brain, feeling dissonance is registered as conflict; the higher the sense of discrepancy that is experienced, the more intense the activation of the insula and anterior cingulate cortex. The strength of the activation in these brain areas can predict the change in the attitude of the person.
Creating an optimal state of psychological safety
For feedback conversations to be useful, we must assure a state of moderate 'arousal' in all involved so that information can be honestly shared by the giver and processed effectively by the receiver of the feedback. Because these conversations can easily threaten one´s idealized sense of self, the likelihood of getting into an overly aroused state is high. When this happens, working memory capacity is decreased, and attending to the information that is communicated becomes more difficult. This does not only negatively impact the accuracy of the information that is encoded into memory, but it also makes it more challenging to recall the correct information later.
Studies in social neuroscience have shown that social pain activates the same neural networks in the brain as physical pain does. In the often-used methodology of giving feedback versus asking for feedback the probability to experience social pain is almost as high for the giver as for the receiver. One reason for that is that we have a basic need to sustain positive relationships and avoid behavior that would eventually threaten these connections. Being vulnerable and willing to be open about someone else´s areas of improvement requires an environment of psychological safety. David Rock describes five domains in which social threat must be reduced in order to create this kind of environment: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness (SCARF).
Minimizing social threat in feedback Status To attend to our need to be perceived as better than others or to ourselves in the past, any change program must include the acknowledgment of strengths and the measurement of progress over time.
A person´s sense of certainty can be increased by defining a well-defined process, and by having clarity about when, and with who, feedback sessions will take place. In addition, the participant decides which specific areas of improvement will be addressed.
To assure a sense of control and the ability to impact our own outcomes, a person must have the choice to select from the feedback that they received what specific behaviors they want to work on.
On one hand, the need for relatedness will be addressed by the increasing sense of trust in the regular interactions that a person has with his or her stakeholders. On the other hand, by showing the vulnerability and willingness to improve behaviors that impact the interaction with stakeholders, relationships are very likely to be strengthened as well.
By creating equal conditions for all, no matter what formal position people have, so can address the need for fairness. People might also experience a sense of reward when feeling fully understood by the people that they most interact with.
Minimizing threat by asking for feedback versus giving feedback
A science-based strategy to decrease the threat response that is triggered by feedback is asking for feedback. In addition, we´ll focus more on the methodology of feedforward, by asking for suggestions on how to improve a skill or capacity in the future. Specificity – asking for the information one needs and deciding what specific behaviors to focus on - increases the reward for certainty in the person who asks for feedback as well as for the giver. This also creates a stronger motivational pull to work on the desired behaviors – a toward state - and learning outcomes will likely be increased because the learner feels more in control of the content and context.
Specificity also reduces the giver´s uncertainty about what kind of information is needed so that they can dedicate their neural resources to concentrating on the question and responding in a more natural and effective manner.
Finally, the status of the giver is increased by a sense of responsibility and honor towards the person who has asked for the feedback.
Promoting a learning mindset By asking for feedback a person elicits a growth mindset in him- or herself as well as in their counterpart. As the brain focuses on the opportunity to improve and learn, the natural tendency for error detection and focus on mistakes, loses its grip. We become better at encoding and retaining information about how to correct the error.
Error signals are generated by the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, and when those areas are activated, they draw energy away from the prefrontal regions which results in diminished higher cognitive functions.
People with a growth mindset are more accurate in their evaluation of others, are better at predicting a decline in performance, tend to be more data-driven, and are less biased by initial impressions.
Creating insights for change to happen For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within. Although stakeholders provide suggestions on how to improve in a certain area, the wider set of perspectives requires work to synthesize which can lead to insights. Research indicates that the set of new neural connections that are created during a moment of insight have the potential to enhance mental resources and overcome resistance to change. But that is not enough to hardwire the insight so that it becomes habitual behavior. Focus and repeated attention are required to make that happen.
For HR-initiated programs, the active participation of stakeholders in an executive development program is key for sustainable change, not only for the leader involved but also for the team as a whole. We hope that this article from Lead4Agility has given more insight into which factors to take into account when designing such a program.
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