The role of stories in feedback

feedback product leaders stories Sep 01, 2021

It’s that time of year when many managers and employees are going through the dreaded performance review process. The idea of giving or receiving anything less than “you rock” puts many of us into a tailspin of anxiety and stress. In the past, when I was getting ready for a performance review, I would stress about it for at least a week ahead of time. Even if I was a rock star for 90 percent of the review, the only feedback I remembered was the 10 percent which was constructive.

While feedback conversations are intended to help us grow, research by Columbia University neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner shows that giving feedback only succeeds at improving performance 30 percent of the time. In other words, 70 percent of the time feedback is not having an impact on an individual.

Our reaction to constructive feedback is due to our fundamental nature as human beings. Our brain’s primary function is to minimize danger and maximize reward to keep us safe from any perceived threat. Feedback is considered a threat to our brain. The rumination we feel when we receive feedback is the reality of our brains protecting ourselves.

The power of story

Stories can help with the feedback process. Stories turn feedback, which makes us ruminate, into contextual feedback that helps us learn and grow. Stories add an emotional element that provides clarity.

Here are two examples of feedback I have seen given to a leader. Which one resonates more with you? Which one would help you learn?

Feedback without a story: At last week’s presentation, you spoke too much about the detailed features; you need to talk more about the value.

Feedback with a story: When you presented to our key customers last week on the new security capability, the audience seemed to get a bit lost in the feature details. I saw a lot of ‘blank looks’ on their faces, which indicated confusion. The feature detail is needed. However, you may want to first present the ‘why’ behind the feature first. In this specific case, the audience needed to understand the value of improving security and increasing performance first. Once the audience understood this value, you can then go into some of the feature details.

In this example, how would you process the feedback without the detail? How does it differ when you read the feedback with the story and details? You may not like hearing the feedback in either case. However, when it’s presented as a detailed story, it is easier to understand what happened and how you can improve.

Why would giving feedback in the form of a story help with learning and growth? Let’s review how we process stories. If I gave a presentation on climate change with facts and figures and hooked up the audience to fMRI machines, I would see some activity in the brain. Chances are, the audience would remember just a small amount of the information I presented. But if I gave a presentation about the fires in California, caused by climate change, where families were driving through fire-ridden roads, there would be significantly more brain activity. Each of us would remember the story and feel the emotions the families were experiencing. Take a look at the two pictures below. Which one would trigger emotions and understanding?

Source: Climate Central

Source:  CNN

When feedback is given without a story, our brain will make up its own stories. From the example above where the feedback on the presentation was given without a story, we could easily start thinking:  

  • Are all of my presentations not effective? 
  • Do people hate coming to my presentations? 
  • Does everyone think this?
  • Will I get fired?

How can stories be leveraged as part of the feedback process to reduce the threat response and make it more rewarding to help us learn?

When giving feedback:

  • Tell specific stories, including context. Indicate a particular instance observed. For example, instead of saying you need to improve your communication skills, say “at the meeting last week, you spoke a bit too fast, and the audience became confused.” The more specific the example, the easier it is for the brain to process and learn from the feedback.
  • Tell personal stories. Relate feedback to one of your personal stories. Show your vulnerability through a story. It will help the receiver of the feedback feel that you have been there in a similar situation.
  • Remember the emotion tied to the story. Most of our communication is not actually what we say. It is how we say it. We all know the frustration when receiving well-intentioned feedback where the tone of the giver was one of anger, frustration, exasperation, or negativity. For feedback to be a learning experience, be positive. You want the receiver of the feedback to see it as coaching to inspire improvement, not to dampen spirits. Tell the story with a mindset of positivity and learning. Pretend you are Yoda from Star Wars.
  • Stories should be specific and accurate. When telling the story about the action, do not fill in the gaps with things you assume. Be specific, but only based on what you remember. Focus on what the individual does versus what you imagine they did. For example, “You talked considerably during the project meeting. This prevented me from bringing up some key issues to the project” versus “You talk too much.”
  • Come from a place of kindness. We often give feedback not based on real insight, but based on our insecurities. Check your motivations to ensure the feedback will help the person grow and learn. Is the feedback you are giving true or is it full of negative emotion? A study of 400 manufacturing employees examined negative feedback on employee motivation to improve performance. They identified feedback delivery as a critical factor. Employees were most motivated to improve when they received constructive feedback that was respectful.
  • Don’t tell too many stories. Although feedback through stories will help us learn and grow, too much of it may decrease our performance. If we are given constant constructive feedback with stories, our performance may decrease as we become anxious about everything we do. Studies conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina found that the more feedback a participant received, the lower his or her ongoing performance. 
  • Tell stories through recognition. There is nothing more satisfying than learning and receiving recognition for this learning. Use storytelling as part of both feedback and recognition. First when giving feedback, leverage stories on how the employees can improve. Then, once you have seen the improvements, use stories to recognize the person. This creates emotion and excitement in the mind of the receiver when they can see the learning and growth cycle. It may also motivate them to reach out for more feedback to learn and grow.

When you are receiving constructive feedback:

  • Listen to the story. When receiving feedback, your brain wants to go into fight or flight mode immediately. Instead, listen to the story being told. Quiet the mind so you can be the observer of the story to understand the feedback.
  • Reflect. Once you receive the feedback, ask yourself a few questions:
    • Can you think of other examples when you may have seen a similar pattern in different situations? 
    • Act as the observer of the story. Look at what happened from the eyes of the giver of the feedback.
    • Reread the story multiple times to understand the learning that can come from it.

Stories stick with us. They provide emotion and connection to events. When we wrap stories around feedback, it has the potential to reduce the threat response and enable us to look at feedback from a different vantage point. Learning replaces an emotional reaction.

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