When Feedback Causes Distress

Boss Reprimanding Employee“Useless! What else can you not do?” My former supervisor said to me one day on the job in front of a customer. They had asked me to complete a task I wasn’t familiar with, and I needed some help. The outburst was not the reaction I was expecting or needed. I was taken aback and left the room in tears. After the customer reported the incident, this person apologized profusely and explained that they were having a bad day.

Unfortunately, it happened again soon after. This time they said it was my fault and made it clear that I was replaceable. That exchange left me feeling humiliated, angry, scared, and doubtful about my skills and abilities. Not surprisingly, I left the job soon after, but the damage had been done. I think we can all relate to having a terrible boss or two in our career or experiencing similar situations with a peer or even a client.

Recently I listened to a webinar called “Feedback Matching” by Glade Holman, LearningBridge’s founder. He provided insights on how the lens we use to give feedback shapes how the recipient receives it, and helpful tips on how to deliver the feedback to the capacity of the recipient to receive and act on it. Feedback has the power to produce certain reactions and outcomes that could be either energizing or draining to the recipient, but Glade emphasizes that being aware of the Developmental Stages of Feedback Receptivity could help us see that giving feedback is not a one size fits all situation. I would like to share some takeaways from the session and how my own personal experiences shaped how I gave feedback when I became a supervisor myself.

Distress versus Eustress

The feedback I received from my supervisor was more destructive than helpful. It caused me much distress and made me dread going to work. I was walking on eggshells around this individual, and that toxic environment affected my work and mental health. While that job left me with a strong desire never to treat anyone like that, it also made me very fearful of any potential feedback coming my way. There is a lot of power and influence behind a manager’s feedback, and the lens they use when giving it can really make a difference in an employee’s work and career path. Feedback that causes distress could leave the receiver feeling defensive, demoralized, and defeated.

The opposite side of that coin has the receiver feeling eustress toward your observations. They come out of the conversation excited, energized, and grateful that someone is looking out for them. This circles back to the idea of generative feedback, which creates more energy than it consumes and powers beneficial change. We hear stories all the time of places with high turnover and terrible bosses, but what holds more meaning are the stories where employees stay with a company or team for years because of the supportive leadership and the fulfillment they feel in their role.

Match Your Recipient’s Capacity to Receive

Friendly CoworkersThe unfortunate experience with my former supervisor taught me what kind of leader I did NOT want to be. It reminded me of the importance of boosting the confidence of my teammates and not demeaning or disrespecting them with my words or actions. The Developmental Stages of Feedback Receptivity that Glade highlighted in the webinar reminded me how I should alter the way I give feedback, depending on who I was speaking to. There was a time when I was in “Stage 1” (Low Confidence). I constantly wondered if I could do the job, “Am I doing OK?” and “Do I belong here?”.

My new manager was patient and very encouraging as they walked me through new processes and offered help along the way. Being in that position myself helped me better recognize when others might be in that same stage. It helped me grow as a supervisor and strengthen my bond with my team so that we could trust each other.

Glade also reviewed three other stages and how to identify people in those stages. While each one is very useful and can help you modify how you deliver your feedback, I can very much relate to being in Stage 1. That may be why I find it extremely helpful to identify others who are in that stage. (Note: You can sign up to get updates and be notified the next time we offer this or another webinar.)

Leadership Development Is a Process

Working with various personalities is not something we can avoid on the job. Leadership development is an ongoing, imperfect process. I still have much to learn on how to manage a team, but I have certainly learned from different managers, mentors, colleagues, and clients I’ve worked with. It is not fun to hear about other people failing, nor is it fun to experience failure ourselves. At the end of the day, we are humans first and employees second. We all have goals and dreams and make mistakes like everyone else. However, as we grow and mature as individuals, we do not need to fear receiving feedback. We should also be willing to provide it with the right motivation, so that others can receive the benefit of our experience, be encouraged, and better fulfill their career aspirations.

Related article:
Six Guiding Principles for Receiving Feedback