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The Science Of Why Feedback Is So Miserable

The Meaning Of Education

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” – Ken Blanchard

About five years ago, I began reading books about the brain. I was most fascinated by why we really behave the way we do as humans and that introduced me to a new world of neuroscience. Now, as I reflect on this journey of reading and thinking about different researches on this subject, I realize that there are a couple of big ideas that have changed the way I think about what it means to be in a complex world. Just one idea that has a great deal to offer as we think about how to increase our agility and resilience amid this complexity.

Big idea: Our brains are exceptionally well-designed for a reality different from the one we live in.

Our brains are still wired to be hyper-attuned to threats, and nearly as well-attuned to rewards. This orientation derives from a time when hyper-attunement was critical for our very survival. Responding quickly to a threat to our physical safety is the best thing a person can do. The problem is that, today, most threats are social, not physical, and the same response that once worked so well, can often drag us down. We humans base our decisions on many of the same pro-social, consensus impulses. We make polite chitchat at work, even in our most antisocial states, so others will see us as friendly. We avoid talking to the attractive stranger because something deep and ancient in us registers the possibility of rejection (threat) as a matter of life and death. When neuroscientists conduct brain scans of people exposed to social threats, such as a nasty look or gesture, the resulting images look just like the scans of people exposed to physical threats. Our bodies react in much the same ways. Our faces flush, our hearts race and our brains shutdown. No matter if we are giving a speech to thousands or coming face-to-face with a tiger, our body’s response is the same: We want out.

We are constantly in surveillance mode – reading our environment for threats and discerning them with great speed. This is happening so quickly that our conscious brain often doesn’t have time to get in on the conversation and remind our unconscious brain that these threats are not necessarily real. We find ourselves making decisions and judgements that do not serve us or others well.


  • We quickly judge someone as an enemy (because our brains want to judge friend or enemy in an instant), assign them a label of “other” and are no longer open to what they say. This happens without our conscious awareness.
  • We perceive a relatively minor piece of what we interpret as negative feedback as a major threat, and connect entire stories about the feedback giver (our boss, perhaps) and the impact of the feedback, deciding (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that our job is on the line. That response will then start a series of actions and thoughts that are anything but helpful, and are possibly quite damaging.

Now that we know that our brains are hyper-attuned to threats, we can therefore agree that our brains operate on a Negative Bias also called Negativity Bias.

What is The Negativity Bias?

Have you ever found yourself dwelling on an insult or fixating on mistakes? Criticisms often have a greater impact that compliments, and bad news frequently draws more attention than good. The reason for this is that negative events have a greater impact on our brains than positive ones. Psychologists refer to this as the negative bias (also called negativity bias), and it can have a powerful effect on your behaviour, your decisions, and even your relationships.

So, the Negativity bias is our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily, but also to dwell on these events. This means that we feel the sting of a rebuke more powerfully than we feel the joy of praise.

Examples of Negative Bias

Do any of these situations and events seem familiar?

  • You received a performance review at work that was quite positive overall and noted your strong performance and achievements. A few constructive comments pointed out areas where you could improve, and you find your fixating on those remarks. Rather than feeling good about the positive aspects of your review, you feel upset and angry about a few critical comments.
  • You might be having a great day at work when a co-worker makes a funny comment that you find irritating. You then find yourself stewing over their words for the rest of the workday. When you get home and someone asks you how your day was, you reply that it was terrible – even though it was overall quite good despite that one negative incident.
  • You had an argument with your significant other, and afterward, you find yourself focusing on all of your partner’s flaws. Instead of acknowledging their good points, you ruminate over all of their imperfections. Even the trivial of faults are amplified, while positive characteristics are overlooked.
  • You humiliated yourself in front of your friends years ago and can still vividly recall the event. You find yourself cringing with embarrassment over it, even though your friends have probably forgotten about it entirely.

From the above, we can see how feedback triggers a threat response in our brains. This threat response is meant to keep us alive.  Most people want to grow, especially at a personal as well as professional levels but they can’t take feedback. The challenge is that your growth is directly proportional to your ability to receive feedback and also give it in a way that will minimize a threat response.

My Neuro-Talks and Neuro-Conscious Training Programmes help leaders and those they lead in creating a better workplace environment for growth by empowering them with the science of giving and receiving feedback. If you really want to be a champion, then, let feedback be your breakfast.

Veli Ndaba is a Neuro-Conscious Leadership Speaker and Trainer, Life & Business Coach, Motivational Speaker and Author of four books (You Are Born to Win, Your Dream is Calling You and SWITCH ON! And Set Your Soul On Fire!), Newspaper Columnist and Entrepreneur. To book him to speak at your next event or to help you and your team unleash your greatness, contact him on, or +27 83 304 9773