What Is Your Fear of Feedback Costing You?

September 14, 2021

What Is Your Fear of Feedback Costing You?

Why does receptivity to feedback differ so greatly between individuals you work with? Why do some people actively seek feedback while others avoid it or immediately turn it away?

My colleague Joe Folkman and I created a scale to measure the extent to which people fear feedback. When we analyzed the results, we discovered that those who fear feedback fear they will be reprimanded for making mistakes or were fearful their performance was being perceived by their boss or superior as poor. When the manager attempts to provide feedback, they automatically assume the message will be negative. Even worse, they report their anxiety about receiving feedback causes them to be very cautious in their work so as to avoid any mistakes. These respondents also avoid giving feedback to others or confine their remarks to praise and reinforcing compliments.

After assessing more than 5,000 people, we found that 12% of the population had a high level of fear about feedback. While fear of feedback cuts across the population, we discovered that females were more inclined to be fearful (females 14%, males 10%), as were younger employees (25 years or less, 25% were fearful versus 60 and older only 8%). The graph below shows the percent of people who fear feedback by position. Note that as people move to higher levels in an organization, there is a lower percentage of fear. Note that even 7% of those in top management positions, however, admit to feedback fear.

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In a related study, we amassed a significant amount of data that allowed us to measure the extent to which leaders ask for and accept feedback from others. The data, which comes from 360 evaluations by others, shows an exceptionally strong correlation between a leader’s willingness to ask for and act on feedback and their overall effectiveness as a leader.

The graph below shows the results of this study of more than 51,000 leaders. Note that leaders who are rated as being very poor at asking for and acting on feedback are only rated at the 12th percentile in their overall effectiveness as a leader. Those in the top 10%, however, are rated at the 90th percentile. We can clearly see that leaders learn to lead better through constant feedback. In contrast, leaders who resist feedback make changes based on their internal assumptions (which are often wrong), or they don’t make any changes at all.


Negative Effects Of Fear Of Feedback

We can measure a profound negative effect from the fear of feedback both on an individual’s performance and on the performance of others. Fear and angst are contagious. Those who fear receiving feedback end up either avoiding the need to give feedback to others or sugar coat their remarks to only the positive. When you fear something yourself, you often send fear signals to others as well. Anxiety begets anxiety.

Now that you know this, has your willingness to receive feedback increased?

—Jack Zenger
Connect with Zenger Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

(This article first appeared on Forbes)

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