Why we crave feedback at work
You started a new job a couple of months ago and you think it’s going fine, but it’s hard to tell. Although your manager is happy to answer questions, they don’t give you much feedback and tend to let you get on with the work. Although you appreciate being trusted, it’s difficult to assess whether you’re on the right track.
We tend to have a complicated relationship with feedback. On the one hand, receiving positive feedback can be gratifying and relieving, particularly in a new job. On the other, negative feedback — even when constructive — can be hard to stomach, leading to stress and anxiety that we are doing a bad job.
No news can be good news, but it’s easy to feel directionless and unmotivated without feedback. According to a TriNet survey, 74% of millennials feel “in the dark” about how they’re performing at work. Another survey by the employee engagement firm Office Vibe found 65% of workers would like more feedback than they currently get, even if it is challenging.
“If we’re not receiving concrete feedback, often our minds will work to fill in the gaps and create a story about what’s happening around us,” explains Gemma Leigh Roberts, an organisational psychologist and founder of The Resilience Edge.
“As our brains have evolved, we’ve become a lot more likely to notice negative stressors around us, which is useful when we need to be alert to danger — although not always so useful at work,” she says.
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“We’ve become experts in spotting danger in comparison to noticing opportunities, so when we create stories without concrete feedback, we’re a lot more likely to create a negative story. For example, this pattern of thinking can mean you haven’t received feedback because your boss isn’t happy with your performance, or your work hasn’t been noticed as it isn’t a priority, which may not be accurate.”
Positive feedback can act as a reinforcement, helping to keep us motivated in achieving targets and goals, which is crucial in challenging and unpredictable circumstances. It can also help us to feel more confidence, helping to build our internal resources to cope with any challenges we might face.
“Positive feedback can help to build confidence and self-esteem, boost motivation, and enhance performance and wellbeing for individuals,” Roberts says. “Positive reinforcement can also help to build strong relationships between the person providing feedback and the person receiving feedback.”
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In addition, certain people may want feedback more than others if they struggle with anxiety or low self-esteem. Receiving an assessment of their work, particularly if it is positive, may provide validation and temporarily calm any fears of failure.
Negative feedback can be difficult to take, particularly if it is delivered in a non-constructive, unhelpful way. However, it is still essential for learning and growth. Managers who regularly offer all types of feedback support a company culture of ongoing talent development, in which people are offered advice and support to improve and become more confident in their abilities.
Some workers may crave constructive criticism if they are particularly driven. Employees with perfectionist tendencies may seek feedback if they want to work on their perceived flaws - although this isn’t necessarily healthy.
Although it can be hard to process constructive criticism, only receiving positive feedback can cause long-term problems. These can hinder career development, particularly if employees overlook mistakes or develop bad habits.
“If a team member only receives positive feedback they may develop blind spots and not understand where they have opportunities to develop and grow,” Roberts explains. “There are however ways of delivering challenging feedback in positive ways, such as following the ‘even better if’ approach. The focus here is improving, tweaking and adjusting an approach or behaviour rather than telling someone they’re just not doing a good job.”
Ultimately, Roberts says, feedback allows us to see our work from other perspectives. Feedback acts a reality check, depending on who gives it and how it is delivered.
“The key is to try to find a balance whereby you seek feedback - both positive and challenging — to help you develop, and then you choose how to use that feedback. Not all feedback is created equal, you need to consider whether you’re receiving feedback from a useful source,” she adds.
“External validation can be incredibly useful when focusing on enhancing performance, the key is to gather feedback that’s objective and accurate — focusing on positive and developmental feedback.”