Share the Emotion Behind the Feedback

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Regarding constructive feedback communication at work, hiding emotions seems to be an unwritten role. Here’s why it can be a rule worth breaking.

In several blogs, we’ve covered how giving negative feedback can create so much anxiety for the giver that they refuse to do it. We’ve also shared stories about how leaders have contacted their executive coaches about their fear of giving feedback. All of these data points, plus countless more, suggest that, whether you are giving or receiving feedback, each party spends a lot of energy ensuring the other can’t see how they’re feeling.

And yet the most authentic and memorable conversations I’ve had throughout my career have been when emotions were revealed.

And yet “feeling your feelings and investigating why you may be feeling them” is a critical part of processing challenging feedback.

And yet research going back decades suggests that suppressing emotions doesn’t cause them to go away; it often causes people to feel them more strongly.

Modeling emotional expression at work

In Manage Your Emotional Culture, professors Sigal Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill write the following:

“Cognitive culture is undeniably important to an organization’s success. But it’s only part of the story. The other critical part is what we call the group’s emotional culture: the shared affective values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work and which ones they are better off suppressing.”

In other words, while an organization’s intellectual culture is often centered, emotions play a vital role, and leaders play an outsized role in modeling which emotions are acceptable to share at work.

Imagine if, as a leader about to provide feedback, you said something like this:

“I want you to know I’ve thought about this feedback a lot, but I do feel a ton of anxiety because I’m not sure how it will land for you. So, here goes.”

How radical. How open-hearted.

That emotional breakthrough may mean you shared feedback you otherwise wouldn’t have. It also means your colleague will know how you’re feeling instead of only your executive coach knowing such things. And, perhaps most importantly, it shows your colleague that you are a human being willing to be emotionally vulnerable at work. It also opens the door for them to do the same.

These are the types of brave moves that can positively bend a culture toward being more psychologically safe. After all, is a culture in which everyone pretends they aren’t human, that their emotions don’t exist, actually a psychologically safe culture?

Suppression has other side effects

While there may be times when you need to suppress emotions, making it your default robs you of the ability to model healthy emotional expression. It also basically doesn’t work. What you are suppressing will likely come out in other ways, either at work or elsewhere.

As Harvard Business School professor Amit Goldenberg writes in Managing Your Team’s Emotional Dynamic:

“Therefore, a leader who suppresses their emotions to try to influence their team is likely to express those emotions in other ways through their behavior, tone, or reaction to others — and people are very good at detecting emotions, even when they are well hidden. Not expressing emotions may work for a little while, but is not likely to be a good long-term solution.”

Expressing feedback emotions

During a quarterly performance review, my early-in-career but emotionally wise direct report told me:

“Before we start here, I just want you to know I’m pretty nervous. I believe I had a great quarter, but I also haven’t had good experiences in performance review calls like this.”

Wow, that comment set the stage for the rest of our call. And it was one I will never forget.

I told my teammate that I was sorry they hadn’t had good experiences with these, that I greatly appreciated their willingness to be vulnerable in this way, that my style is to have provided enough feedback throughout the quarter that nothing I say will be surprising. I assured him that he did have a great quarter and part of our conversation will be about how we can keep him growing so he can keep achieving at this high level.

Leaders who are in the position of giving feedback are risking less than early-in-career feedback receivers when they share the emotions they may be feeling around feedback, so I encourage them to take ownership of this when it feels right. But, as you see in that example, feedback receivers, even if early-in-career, can benefit as well — if they have an emotionally intelligent leader capable of holding what they share.


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