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July 18, 2013

Why We Fear Feedback And What We Can Do About It

Written by Claire Lew

Do you have feedback you want to give at work, but are holding back?

We all know the value of feedback in the workplace. But speaking up at work can feel taboo, even stressful.

Why?

I think it's fear. We fear the cost of feedback more than we desire the benefit.

The cost of giving feedback is judgment. When we voice a dissenting opinion, others might look at us differently, or worse, treat us differently. This cost of giving feedback feels personal, immediate, and certain.

Meanwhile, the potential benefit of giving feedback is completely unclear. Maybe the feedback we give helps the company, maybe it doesn't. Even if the feedback is helpful, we would only see the impact in the distant future.

When we weigh the personal costs against the uncertain benefits of giving feedback, it doesn't feel worth it. We fear the conversation could be more destructive than the outcome. So we don’t say anything.

How do we get over this fear?

We must reframe how we think about feedback so that the benefit outweighs the cost. We must believe that giving feedback is worth it - that our feedback will be listened to, and has the potential for impact. We must assure ourselves that we have more to gain than we have to lose when we speak up.

Here are a few ways to break down our fear around feedback:

(1) Call it something else.

"Feedback" is a word full of implication. Some view feedback as an excuse for complaining, or as an avenue for sugar-coated BS. Avoid the term "feedback" completely. Frame the conversation as a call-to-action. You want to take ownership over what could be better in a company. You're not just passively stating your observations, but outlining your own role to solve the problem.

(2) Make your intention clear.

People are reluctant to listen to feedback when the reason behind it is misread. State your intention clearly. Giving feedback at work is one of the greatest signs that someone cares. That's why you're choosing to speak up - you care about making your company better. You're on the same team as everyone in your company. You all ultimately care about the same thing.

(3) Disclose your assumptions.

Your feedback is based on your own perspective, which includes your assumptions, biases, and preferences. Admit this. You might not have all the information. Your opinion is not absolute. When voicing your opinion, say "I'm basing this off X,Y,Z…what do you think?" The more you reveal what's behind the curtain, the more that others will want to listen to your opinion.


When we reframe the way we think about feedback, we can overcome our fear of it. We can solidify that we are giving feedback for the right reasons, and that it can make a difference.

And hopefully, we can hold back our honest feedback a little less.

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