Why do we fear feedback?

Nervous man in performance review

Why do we fear feedback?

Feedback is a vital tool in helping us develop and progress in our careers. However, even within organisations that promote a culture of free-flowing feedback, I often find that the ‘F’ word is still feared.

So why is it difficult to receive feedback?

Neuroscience might hold the answer. Our brains are hardwired to scan the environment for potential threats and rewards, and when we are threatened, our brain launches the well-known fight or flight response.

Early on in our evolution the trigger for this threat response might have been a predator, but nowadays the trigger is more likely to come from social interactions. However, our brain still responds in the same way and, once a threat has been identified, a chain reaction of physiological changes occurs: heart rate increases, breathing quickens and butterflies are felt in the stomach.

As you might imagine, this is not the ideal state to be in for someone receiving feedback! Not only are they unlikely to digest the feedback and do something different as a result, but a bad experience may result in future mentions of the word ‘feedback’ triggering a threat response before it’s even been given.

Research in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology has focused on trying to understand the different types of threat that might trigger this response in a social interaction so that we might address and prevent them. David Rock’s SCARF model is widely cited in this field and identifies 5 key factors relating to social interactions:

  • Status – our need to compare favourably with others
  • Certainty – our need to predict the future and reduce ambiguity
  • Autonomy –our need to have influence and make our own choices
  • Relatedness – our need to feel we belong and to bond with those in our group
  • Fairness –our need to be treated fairly and justly

3 ways to minimise threat responses when giving feedback

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to minimise these threat responses, these are just three of my suggestions:

  • Agree how feedback will work (increase people’s certainty)– including how frequently to expect it and the structure that it will be delivered in and stick to this when delivering your feedback. When people understand the process and frequency of feedback, this will help to reduce any ambiguity around giving and receiving it.
  • Encourage people to self-assess (increase people’s autonomy) – give people the chance to evaluate their own performance before giving them feedback as it allows them to feel more in control of the feedback and consequently in control of any choices they make to act upon the feedback.
  • Give specific examples (increase the feeling of fairness)– ensure feedback contains specific examples and that you distinguish between someone’s intent (which was probably positive) versus their impact (which may have been unintentionally negative). This helps feedback feel more ‘fair’.


Feedback is not something that should be feared but rather embraced as a valuable tool in helping people to develop. However, the reaction to a piece of feedback may not always be what you expect. It’s important to remember that someone’s reaction to feedback might be driven by one of these innate threat responses and it’s our job when giving feedback to manage and prevent these reactions as far as possible.