How to Give “Ego Friendly” Feedback
Sharon Mulligan
March 18, 2019

One of the most important communication tools we have as leaders and managers that enable us to motivate and engage our teams is the art of giving and receiving feedback. However, for feedback to be effective it needs to be skillfully given otherwise it can actually do more harm than good. Over the years I have heard many stories of badly delivered feedback that served more as a demotivating factor than anything else. This brings me to the importance of an approach to feedback that I call Ego Friendly feedback”. This is a term I use to describe feedback that lowers resistance and defensiveness and increases openness in the receiver who can then consider the feedback. It is especially important when the feedback is challenging and difficult to digest. This often happens during performance reviews as well as in the course of regular day-to-day interactions at the workplace. The way feedback is received depends upon a number of factors, including whether the feedback is positive or negative, the way the feedback is given and the manner in which it is perceived and experienced by the person receiving it. Giving Ego Friendly feedback is not only essential for managers and leaders. It is an effective tool that we can all benefit from and apply at work and in our personal relationships.

Our response to negative feedback does not depend entirely on the way the feedback is given. It is also dependent on the strength and health of our ego. Our self-esteem or sense of self-worth, also known as our “ego”, is psychologically guarded by a shield mechanism that is similar to the physical immune system that protects us from disease and illness. When we receive messages that we perceive or experience to be threatening to our ego, we automatically activate our psychological defense system to shield our ego from the impact of the threat. This is often the case when we receive negative feedback, in other words, feedback that in some way or another points out something about our behaviour that can be improved or changed. Such negative feedback could be about something that we have done or said, our performance and capabilities and particularly about us personally.

People with strong egos are better positioned to take negative feedback because rather than seeing it as a threat, they see it as information about themselves that they can evaluate, learn and grow from, and even reject if necessary. Such persons also approach life and work with a humble yet internally confident disposition that lends itself to a “work in progress” attitude. In other words, they know and accept that they are not perfect and that there is always room for improvement. This knowledge sits comfortably with them. Receiving feedback therefore becomes an opportunity for growth and change. On the other hand, people with fragile egos are more prone to feeling threatened and so respond defensively to negative feedback. This is because their ego cannot afford to entertain the notion that they are less than perfect in what they do and who they are.

In my view, there are two types of fragile egos: the “vulnerable” ego and the “guarded” ego. People with a fragile ego deep down tend to be unhappy with themselves and with who they are. Negative feedback from external sources therefore finds fertile ground for self-criticism and self-deprecation. For example, feedback that may be meant merely as an observation about a presentation that could have been more concise, can be perceived as a confirmation of a general sense of inadequacy. The person therefore generalises the feedback given and hears the feedback as being about him/her whole self and not about an aspect of the presentation.

People with heavily guarded egos however come with a different “packaging”. They will immediately refute negative feedback and are quick to defend against or attack the person who gives them this feedback. These people often come across as wanting to be always right or expecting to have the last word. They often find it very difficult to offer an apology. While such people may be judged as acting superior, internally they too may be guarding themselves against their ego fragility and insecurity while masking it with an air of superiority.

Whether our ego is healthy or fragile, we all have defense mechanisms that are there to protect our sense of self from distress. This is a normal and healthy function as long as the defense mechanisms or “ego shields” as I like to call them, are not activated by the slightest form of negative feedback or are not one’s habitual response to feedback. Once the ego shield is activated, it is highly unlikely that we can be open to the feedback in a way that we can consider it and learn from it.

Typically, there are four main types of Ego Defense Shields. The first is the Trust Shield. Do I trust the source of the feedback with respect to his/her competence and intention? In other words, can I feel reassured that the person giving me the feedback is doing so in my best interest? The second shield is the Credibility Shield. Does the person giving me the feedback have the credentials, experience, knowledge and competence to give me feedback in the particular areas they are addressing? The third is the Truth and Fairness Shield. Is what the person saying true and are they being fair? For example, if I receive feedback that a report I produced did not contain enough detail, my Truth and Fairness Shield may be activated if I was not given a reasonable amount of time to write the report or if the expectations of what was required of me were not clear. The final shield is the Perceived-Self Shield. How far from the way I regard myself does the feedback fall? For example, if I see myself as an excellent communicator and after a meeting, I am told that my interventions were vague and unclear, that feedback falls very far from how I see myself and may therefore be more likely to activate my Ego Defense Shield.

Knowing about ego strength and what activates Ego Defense Shields will help us in two ways. First, when receiving negative feedback, we can check how we are responding to it emotionally and internally before responding to it, rejecting it or accepting it straight away. It will also help us to keep the feedback in perspective. The second benefit of this knowledge is that we can formulate and express our feedback to others in ways that are more likely to encourage openness and consideration of the feedback rather than provoke resistance and defensiveness. The following are eight feedback principles we can practice at work and in our personal relationships to ensure that our feedback is as “Ego Friendly” as possible.

  1. Always address a person’s action or behaviour rather than label the person. So, if a team member has produced a shabby piece of work, tell them that their work fell below the required standard of accuracy and provide examples rather than just tell them that they were careless and negligent.
  1. Own your feedback as your opinion, observation or perception rather than refer to other people. So, if you think that a person’s negative attitude is having a demoralising impact on the rest of the team, tell them what you think and feel and do not simply say that all the team is annoyed by their attitude.
  1. Validate the person receiving the feedback by asking them for their opinion, their version of what happened, what caused them to behave the way they did and their reaction to the feedback. Avoid presenting your feedback as set of unquestionable facts that cannot be discussed.
  1. Give very specific examples of what you mean and avoid generic statements such as “You always do this” or “You never do that”. Bear in mind that offering people generic statements tends to immediately trigger off an “example of an exception” to your statement in order to shoot it down, refute it and prove you wrong.
  1. Refer to recent events or occurrences so that the person receiving the feedback can easily relate to the behaviour you are referring to rather than having to rely on your memory of it.
  1. Describe the behaviour and its consequence on the team, the workplace, the company etc. rather than judge the behaviour as right or wrong, good or bad. So, pointing out that when a team member does not follow procedural timelines, the work process risks falling behind and affecting others is better than just saying that it is not good to ignore procedures.
  1. Express your understanding of the person or situation before offering your feedback. For example, showing a person that you appreciate how pressured they are before asking them to try to be more methodical in their work will help the person feel that you appreciate their reality and as a result are more likely to be receptive to the feedback and to cooperate.
  1. Avoid the famous “feedback sandwich”. Traditionally, we were taught to sandwich negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback. In my view, this only serves to dilute and contaminate both the positive and the negative aspects of the feedback. Furthermore, the initial positive feedback becomes the “drum roll” heralding the negative feedback and the positive feedback at the end of your statement will feel like just a “mop up”. The alternative, and in my opinion, better way is to offer doses of positive and negative feedback on a regular basis, keep them independent of each other, with a frequency bias towards positive feedback. This means that your team will see you as someone who appreciates effort, positive behaviour and good results while at the same time skilfully giving the necessary constructive negative feedback when needed.

Using these practical tools and techniques when giving feedback can go a long way towards making it easier for individuals to be open to what you have to say. It is also essential to know your people well. This way you can formulate your feedback in the best possible manner making it less likely that you unknowingly activate people’s Ego Defense Shields when giving feedback. Giving feedback skilfully becomes an important motivational tool for managers and leaders that enables employees to know where they stand with respect to their performance and progress in their role. Furthermore, in whatever role you are, it is important that you always remain open to feedback and encourage people to offer you candid observations about your skills and behaviours. This will help you to maintain a high degree of self-awareness such that you know what your challenges for personal and professional growth are.

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