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Cultivating openness to feedback

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Supervisors need to ensure that employees are receptive to criticisms and other forms of adverse feedback.

Preparation before difficult discussions

Preparation before meetings about performance

Step 1. Supervisors should consider some of their unique traits and future aspirations& furthermore, they should imagine discussing these aspirations with their most supportive friends.

When individuals muse over their unique characteristics, they feel independent& they do not feel the need to accommodate the needs of some other collective& they feel they can be more assertive (Zhang, Feick, & Price, 2006 & see also Self construal). In addition, after individuals reflect upon their future aspirations, their attention diverts away from more immediate complications. Consequently, they experience a sense of power (Smith, Wigboldus, & Dijksterhuis, 2008 & see also Construal level theory).

Step 1. Supervisors should reminisce about a nostalgic experience--a sentimental or meaningful episode in the past. In addition, they should imagine a gratifying event in the future.

Whenever individuals reflect upon a nostalgic event, they become more trusting and cooperative. Nostalgia activates memories of relationships, and these memories guide the perceptions and behavior of individuals (Wildschut, Sedikides, Arndt, & Routledge, 2006 & see also Nostalgia).

Furthermore, gratifying images of the future can increase flexibility. Specifically, these images can improve the mood of individuals (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). These positive mood states have been shown to enhance flexibility& individuals can more readily adapt their behavior to accommodate the preferences and priorities of the other person. They can also decipher the unique needs and qualities of each person (e.g., Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003;; Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006 & see also Broaden and build theory).

Step 2. Supervisors should ensure the surrounding environment is warm and cozy& they could, for example, they should even offer individuals tea or coffee, if appropriate.

If these surroundings are warm, memories of closeness and cohesion are activated& that is, individuals associate warmth with protection. Therefore, as research indicates, in warm and cozy environments, individuals become more trusting and cooperative (Ijzerman & Semin, 2009).

Step 2. Supervisors should ensure that both they and their employee have allocated ample time to this discussion, generally an hour or longer.

Individuals tend to be more flexible during discussions and negotiations in a relaxing atmosphere--in a context in which time is not limited. When individuals feel the need to reach decisions rapidly, they become less flexible& they do not like to challenge their provisional thoughts. They are less inclined to compromise (DeDreu, Koole, & Oldersma, 1999 & see also Need for closure).

Step 4. The smell of citrus, such as Windex, should be applied to glass surfaces.

Citric smells elicit memories of hygiene. This sense of hygiene or purity typically evokes charitable and cooperative behaviour (Lilenquist, Zhong, & Galinsky, 2010;; see also Fostering altruism and cooperation).

Introductions to meetings about performance

Step 1. Supervisors should ask employees how they have been working recently.

If people are permitted to characterize their own performance, they regard the discussion as fairer (Conlon, Meyer, & Nowakowski, 2005) & they are more inclined to behave with integrity as a consequence.

Step 2. Supervisors should ask employees to discuss the colleagues at work who they regard as particularly supportive and understanding.

When individuals reflect upon a person they perceive as supportive, they become more likely to interpret the behavior of another person as supportive as well& their judgments are more favorable. Indeed, even when they hear the name of a cherished and supportive relative or friend, they become more trusting of other people (Huang & Murnighan, 2010).

Step 3. If applicable, supervisors should briefly refer to some of their own emotions and difficulties. If a colleague mentions their stress, supervisors could also say "I've also felt tense lately".

Whenever supervisors and managers disclose their feelings, their employees are more likely to forge a sense of empathy and closeness. Consequently, these employees become more inclined to sacrifice their own immediate needs to fulfill the interests of someone else. They become more compromising, for example, during negotiations (Galinsky, Maddux, Gilin, & White, 2008 & for further evidence of the benefits that disclosure can elicit, see Barrett & Berman, 2001;; see also Negotiating more effectively).

Instil resilience and receptivity to feedback

Step 1. Supervisors should ask employees to describe the aspirations they want to achieve over the next few years and to discuss why they perceive these goals as so significant.

When individuals reflect upon their broader values, they do not feel as concerned with more immediate concerns (Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg, & Dijksterhuis, 1999). Their perception of themselves becomes more resilient& they can thus more readily withstand criticisms (see also Self affirmation theory).

Step 2. Next, supervisors should ask employees to reflect upon some of the skills they would like to acquire and the qualities they would like to develop over the next few years.

When people reflect upon the skills they could acquire, they experience a profound sense that change is possible& they believe that competence is malleable. In contrast, many people assume, sometimes unwittingly, their core intelligence or ability is fixed. They do not perceive feedback as an opportunity to improve& instead, they resist criticisms (Robins & Pals, 2002 & see also Implicit theories of malleability).

Difficult discussions

Direct the conversation to negative feedback

Step 1. Supervisors should ask employees to identify some of their deficiencies or errors over recent times--and then to uncover the common theme to these deficiencies. Perhaps all their limitations relate to confidence or inflexibility, for instance.

When people consider the common theme that underpins distinct events, their mindset shifts from an orientation to specific details to an orientation towards more intangible concepts. Therefore, they do not direct their attention to more immediate concerns. Because their attention is shifted to the future, they become less impulsive. Outbursts, for example, become unlikely to transpire (Fujita & Han, 2009 & see also Construal level theory).

Step 2. If possible, supervisors should attempt to relate their own criticisms of this person to this common theme. They might state "I feel you sometimes seem irritable to patients& perhaps that relates to this inflexibility as well".

People are more likely to accept criticisms that are consistent with arguments they had emitted earlier. They feel a sense of ownership towards these criticisms. This sense of ownership increases the credibility of these arguments (Huang, Wang, and Shi 2009).

Step 3. Otherwise, supervisors should mention they felt the person demonstrates another limitation and refer to three tangible examples. They might state "I also sometimes feel you could show more initiative. For example..."

Several benefits arise when managers refer to three tangible behaviors. First, three distinct examples are perceived as appreciably more convincing than two distinct examples. That is, three examples are regarded as a pattern or streak and, thus, are almost as convincing as, but more efficient than, four distinct examples (Carlson & Shu, 2007;; see also Persuasive arguments).

Second, when individuals are told they demonstrate a limitation, they can feel overwhelmed. They question their capabilities in all facets of their life at work--or even in their life in general. Allusions to specific, tangible examples can reduce the likelihood of this possibility (e.g., see Watkins, Moberly, & Moulds, 2008).

Step 4. Supervisors should ensure they express their criticism as a confident hypothesis--and not as a definitive assertion.

Most people seek a sense of autonomy and independence, at least in some contexts. Unqualified assertions, such as phrases that include the word "must" or "always", can infringe upon this autonomy. In response to these phrases, individuals often become defensive. In contrast, phrases that seem more balanced do not provoke these problems (e.g., Quick and Stephenson, 2008 & see also Psychological reactance theory). Likewise, managers and supervisors should maintain a supportive, understanding demeanor, rather than showing disappointment or anger (Gaddis, Connelly, & Mumford, 2004).

Overcome disagreement with persuasive arguments

Step 1. Whenever they are uncertain how to respond, supervisors should defer any important judgements, decisions, recommendations, or responses. Subsequently, they should trust any hunch or intuition that evolves gradually.

Whenever individuals trust their intuition, rather than apply formal rules or principles, their decisions tend to be appropriate (Dijksterhuis, 2004;; see also Unconscious thinking theory). Nevertheless, the initial instincts of individuals, especially in stressful environments, are often unsuitable (Baumann & Kuhl, 2003). Instead, intuitions are most effective--and more likely to diminish the probability of regret--when they evolve gradually over time, perhaps over the course of 10 minutes. Likewise, intuition is most effective when individuals experience positive affective states, such as happiness (Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003).

Step 2. Supervisors should recognize these meetings with employees represent opportunities to challenge themselves--to experiment with a diversity of practices and behaviors and to extend their gamut of skills and experiences. Complications should not be perceived as failures.

When supervisors or managers perceive these meetings or discussions as a challenge, rather than as a potential threat to their reputation or relationships, they become more resilient. In response to unexpected complications, they experience a surge of adrenaline rather than cortisol (Tomaka, Blascovich, Kibler, & Ernst, 1997;; see also Biophysical model of challenge and threat). They remain absorbed instead of worried (Alter, Aronson, Darley, Rodriguez, & Ruble, 2010). Their decisions are more appropriate and creative (see also Goal orientation).

Step 3. Supervisors should highlight how the context and setting has changed, with statements like "I think their approach was ideal before. But now, because of recent changes to the team, you might need to show more initiative".

Individuals will, occasionally, feel ashamed when encouraged to change their behavior. Any change to their behavior implies their previous approach was incorrect--a realization that evokes a sense of regret and shame. To curb this shame, individuals become defensive and reject the suggestion to change.

To curb this prospect, individuals should be encouraged to consider how the setting has changed. Consequently, they can convince themselves their past approach was applicable in the past, but might not be suitable now. They become more willing to change (see Brockner, 1992;; see also Escalation of commitment).

Step 4. Supervisors should invite employees to envisage some change, with questions like "Can you imagine the consequences if you showed even more initiative?"

Occasionally, individuals imagine a behavior they have not enacted before or an event that has not actually transpired. Nevertheless, if they form this image vividly, the behavior or event immediately seems more familiar. Indeed, studies indicate that individuals are more inclined to like some event after they imagine this situation (Eidelman, Crandall, & Pattershall, 2009), called an existential bias.

Step 5. Supervisors should concede and summarize the evidence that both supports and contradicts their argument. They might say "I can remember times during which you did not show initiative. But, I can also remember times in which you did show initiative". Nevertheless, present the evidence that supports their argument first.

When individuals convey evidence that both vindicates and contradicts their arguments, they seem more balanced and credible. Nevertheless, if they first present information that supports their arguments, the listener initially forms a favorable impression of this position. This favorable impression will bias the listener& they become more inclined to reject contradictory information and accept the initial argument, called leader-driven primacy (Carlson, Meloy, & Russo, 2006).

Monitor their emotions and feelings

Step 1. For a moment, supervisors should consider and discuss an altruistic act they could undertake to help this person.

If people consider how they could help someone else, they experience a state called empathic leadership or power. This state has been shown to direct the attention towards the subtle behaviors and mannerisms of other people. Managers in this state, therefore, become more sensitive to the needs and emotions of other people. They can decipher moods and intentions more readily (see Mast, Jonas, & Hall, 2009;; see also Perceived power).

Step 2. Supervisors should rotate their position slightly, to ensure their left rather than right shoulder is closer to the other person. These practices improve the capacity of individuals to decipher the emotions of someone else.

Supervisors and managers can more readily decipher the emotions, feelings, and intentions of an individual who is located nearer to their left rather than right shoulder. That is, the right hemisphere of the brain usually evaluates and analyses people or objects that are located on the left side of the individual. The right hemisphere tends to decipher emotions and feelings more effectively than does the left hemisphere (Puccinelli, Tickle-Degnen, & Rosenthal, 2004).

Resolve negative emotions

Step 1. Supervisors should ask employees to consider their performance from the perspective of an independent onlooker. They might ask "If someone was watching you, how would this person describe their performance" or "Imagine yourself in 10 years time. How would that person describe you now".

Occasionally, individuals experience a sense of distance from an upsetting or distressing event. Rather than experience all the feelings, emotions, sensations, and urges that coincided with this episode, they direct their attention to the broader themes of this event& they intellectualize the episode. Their anger thus dissipates.

Various mental activities increase the likelihood that individuals will forge a sense of distance from some upsetting event. For example, individuals experience this sense of distance if they imagine the event from the perspective of someone else (Kross, Ayduk, & Mischel, 2005). This perspective, therefore, contains their anger.

Step 2. If this person seems angry, supervisors could ask, sincerely rather than sarcastically, "How would you have behaved differently".

Individuals are typically less likely to feel anger and hostility after they express the word "I". Specifically, whenever difficulties arise, some people immediately assume a sense of responsibility. That is, they ascribe these difficulties to their own incompetence or negligence, provoking mild shame rather than intense anger. In contrast, other people do not assume a sense of responsibility whenever problems arise. Instead, they ascribe these difficulties to the incompetence or negligence of other individuals, evoking anger. As research indicates, after individuals express the word "I", they tend to assume responsibility when problems arise& their anger thus dissipates (Neumann, 2000;; see also Curbing anger and aggression).

Step 3. Supervisors should refer to the extent to which this person is liked, but do not discuss their competence immediately. They could say "I didn't mean to offend you. I know how much people like you here". Anger dissipates when individuals feel connected to a team, but rise when they feel superior.

Obviously, some people act aggressively after they are criticized. They are especially inclined to act aggressively if they perceive themselves as superior on various attributes. This sense of superiority evokes a sense of confidence in conflicts. Even informing someone they are attractive increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior (Webster & Kirkpatrick, 2006).

Conversely, individuals are disinclined to act aggressively if they feel a sense of connection with other people. Aggression tends to compromise the benefits of these connections (Twenge, Zhang, Catanese, Dolan-Pascoe, Lyche, & Baumeister, 2007).

Step 4. Supervisors should ask employees to delineate their feelings as precisely as possible, with questions like "How would you describe their emotions now".

In some instances, when individuals express negative words or labels, the intensity of unpleasant emotions can dissipate That is, somehow an emotional event, if coupled with a negative word like "pain", activates a region in the brain called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region inhibits brain regions associated with intense emotions, such as the amygdala. Presumably, this ventrolateral prefrontal cortex evolved to enable individuals to reflect upon emotional issues objectively and systematically (Tabibnia, Lieberman, & Craske, 2008).

Inspire change

Ensure employees can implement these changes

Step 1. Supervisors should invite employees to consider the precise time, place, or context in which they will initiate some course of action.

Sometimes, people may spontaneously imagine the precise time, place, or context in which they will implement some change, called an implementation intention. When this time, place, or context arises, individuals experience an immediate urge to enact the intended behavior. This urge is experienced, even if individuals had not attempted to remember the behavior. This practice is effective, however, only if individuals chose this behavior themselves. This practice is not effective if individuals felt obliged to engage in this behavior (Powers, Koestner, & Topciu, 2005;; see also Implementation intentions).

Step 2. Supervisors should ask employees to identify three obstacles that could obstruct these efforts and some approaches to override these impediments. Because three impediments can be readily identified, individuals unconsciously assume that other problems might arise& their complacency declines.

People typically underestimate the time that is needed to complete tasks at work. Hence, they do not grant themselves enough time to implement changes& their intentions and plans often remain unfulfilled.

This problem does diminish if these people had been asked to uncover three factors--and not too many fewer or more than three factors--that could impede their performance.

Specifically, employees can readily identify three factors that could hinder their performance. Consequently they assume that many other factors could also impede their performance, diminishing their complacency.

In contrast, people can readily identify, for example, ten factors that could hinder their performance. Hence, they assume that few other factors could obstruct their progress, evoking complacency (Sanna & Schwarz, 2004 & see also The planning fallacy).

Step 3. Supervisors should encourage employees, most mornings if possible, to enact two behaviors that seem challenging or unnatural. Two activities that demand effort and concentration in close succession mobilizes energy later.

After individuals complete one challenging task--a task that demands considerable concentration or discipline--their capacity to complete another challenging task soon afterwards dissipates. Nevertheless, after individuals complete two distinct challenging tasks, their capacity to complete another challenging task soon afterwards does not dissipate and can even improve. Somehow, after individuals complete two distinct tasks that demand concentration and discipline, they anticipate, perhaps unconsciously, they might need to complete more challenging activities later that day. A form of mental energy is thus mobilized, and effort or exertion is maintained, called learned industriousness (see Converse & DeShon, 2009 & see also Ego depletion).

Ending the meeting with learning goals

Step 1. Supervisors should ask employees which values they feel supervisors or managers should pursue more vigorously in the future.

When employees consider the values that managers should embrace, they experience a state called self affirmation. That is, after individuals reflect upon their most important values, they feel a sense of integrity. This state has been shown to direct the attention of individuals to broader goals rather than immediate concerns. Because immediate concerns diminish, the likelihood of rumination abates as well (Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg, & Dijksterhuis, 1999;; see also Koole & Coenen, 2007 & see also Self affirmation theory).

Step 2. Supervisors should discuss with employees goals and targets they will pursue over the next month. They should emphasize they will primarily evaluate the extent to which employees attempt various approaches or develop knowledge--instead of than whether these attempts were successful or not.

Some targets are more likely to enhance performance and resilience than are other targets. For example, employees are sometimes asked to specify three to five strateges they will apply to enhance their progress or three to five skills they will acquire. Alternatively, employees may be asked to specify tangible outcomes they would like to achieve, such as elevated levels of customer satisfaction. When individuals direct their attention to strategies and skills, instead of outcomes and performance, they become more absorbed in their task, enhancing their performance. They also feel they can modify their core qualities--and thus become more receptive to feedback (see Latham & Brown, 2006 & Robins & Pals, 2002 & see also Goal orientation).

Behaviour outside meetings and discussions

Step 1. Throughout the year, supervisors and managers should seek advice from employees--particularly employees with whom they have yet to form an enduring, candid relationship.

Individuals are generally altruistic--and able to withstand strident criticism and unforeseen change--only if they experience a sense of connection to their team or organization. This sense of connection emerges only if they feel respected& that is, they need to feel their status or standing is elevated. When individuals have not formed a solid relationship with their supervisor or manager, they perceive themselves to be low in status.

Interestingly, these individuals are particularly likely to perceive themselves as low in status if their supervisor presents an inspiring vision of the future. These individuals feel this vision is intended to challenge their own values. They are also especially likely to perceive themselves as low in status if their supervisor promises incentives, implying they would not perform suitably without these potential rewards. Nevertheless, they do feel more respected, and thus become more inclined to assist, if their advice or opinion is sought (Sparrowe, Soetjipto, & Kraimer, 2006 & see also Fostering altruism and cooperation).

Step 2. After, and not before, trust is established, supervisors and managers can present an inspiring vision of the future. First, this vision should highlight how the goals and objectives of the team or department are unique, diverging markedly from rivals. Second, supervisors and managers should demonstrate how this vision extends, rather than disregards, developments that have been forged in the past.

Step 3. This vision should also imply the idiosyncratic preferences or innovative practices of individuals should be embraced. Uniformity should not be demanded.

Step 4. Each person in the team or workgroup should be assigned a unique role or responsibility.

People, in general, experience a profound need to belong as well as to feel distinct. These two motives often contradict each other. That is, to fulfill their need to belong, individuals typically comply with the norms and conventions of some team. This compliance compromises their capacity to remain distinct. Fortunately, researchers have demonstrated a series of principles that can be applied to fulfill both of these needs simultaneously, enhancing team commitment and cohesion (for a review, see Hornsey, & Jetten, 2004).

Three principles are particularly effective. First, individuals seek teams or collectives that embrace a unique vision--a vision that deviates from mainstream practices. This vision satisfies their need to remain unique, but within a team context. Second, individuals seek teams that embrace individuality. Individuals thus feel they can express their idiosyncratic preferences, while aligning to the norms of their team. Third, individuals seek a unique role--to ensure they can contribute to a collective pursuit, while maintaining a distinct identity (see also Optimal distinctiveness theory).

In addition, the vision should not only be unique, but should maintain continuity with the past. When the vision seems contiguous with the past, individuals do not perceive their environment as erratic. They experience a sense of stability. This stability tends to encourage individuals to seek growth and development. When individuals seek growth and development, they are more willing to withstand the difficulties and complexities this pursuit entails. They accept criticisms and change (see Carstensen, 2006;; see also Socioemotional selectivity theory).


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