Why do some people respond poorly to feedback?

Why is it that poor performers are often highly defensive to feedback and high-performers are often quite self-critical and open to improvement?

I think there are three biases human beings have that help to explain this phenomenon.

The first of these is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which explains that the less competent people are, the more confident they are in their abilities. Their incompetence does not leave them feeling doubtful or cautious.

Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence and belief in themselves. The less they know, the more likely they are to perceive themselves as an expert in their field or a high-achiever.  

Conversely, the more highly-competent people are, the more self-critical they tend to be. High-achievers tend to always be looking for ways to improve. It’s a great irony, isn’t it?

Confirmation bias also plays a part here. Low-performers tend to pay attention to experiences that validate their opinion of their abilities, than evidence to the contrary. They explain challenges as caused only by other people or outside factors.

So, when confronted by someone giving feedback that is contrary to their opinion of themselves, some respond poorly.

Human beings’ negativity bias doesn’t help either. Here people are paying more attention to the negative feedback, ignoring any positives, and assuming the worst intentions of those who are giving constructive feedback.

Yes, it’s possible you might have a sociopath for a boss. But it is more likely it is part of their role to give feedback, to have team members heading in the same direction, and help others to improve their performance.

Before we get too superior, these biases apply to all of us. We can all be guilty of thinking we are more capable or informed than what we actually are. We all have a bias towards noticing those experiences that validate our beliefs or view of ourselves. And it is easy to assume the worst of others.

It’s a great strength when we can acknowledge our imperfections and areas for growth. This makes us more approachable and gives us something we can work with. But it is a great weakness when we believe we are perfect and it is only others who need to change.

Being defensive to feedback makes it harder for people to sort difficulties out with us. If we don’t take the feedback on board, we will continue frustrating others or making the same mistakes.

Years ago, I remember one presentation I did which received some very harsh, but accurate, feedback. Afterwards, I was complaining to a colleague about how bad I felt about it. He replied that we learn nothing from our successes. It is primarily from our failures that we learn the most.

I don’t know any perfect people. So, we all need to be more humble, self aware, and open to feedback.

We can acknowledge our strengths and successes, of course. But when we assume that we are not as clever or capable as we think we are, most of the time, we are likely to be right.


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