Feedback, Stress, and Safety

Some of the most successful people working in safety advocate feedback as a way of making the workplace safe.  While I think a good share of these people are simple minded and mentally enfeebled, I think most, if not all are good intentioned and a handful, really know what they are talking about.  But how important is feedback really? And when “experts use that term, what exactly are they talking about?  Since so many people prattle on about feedback, let’s start at the very beginning. Whether it’s the obnoxious driver waving a middle finger or the smiles of flirty waitstaff, people are forever providing us with information about our behavior and this practice is called feedback.  Ideally, feedback is given to us to help us to improve our relationships, but as often as not, feedback is provided to make the speaker feel better without regard to whether or not the feedback is accurate, welcome, or in anyway useful.

Intentional Feedback

 Most of us would like to think that our feedback is well thought out and intentional—that is, provided deliberately with a clear and distinct message.  Intentional feedback is often used to boost worker performance, encourage workers to work more safely, or generally follow the rules and avoid stirring the pot.  Recognition programs are a simple form of feedback; the program is a way for employers to tell the recognized employees to keep up the good work.  Even though we strive to only provide intentional feedback, and may even believe that we are being successful, too often we also provide unintentional feedback.

Unintentional Feedback

We communicate with more than just our mouths; in fact most of the messages we send out are non-verbal.  Some nonverbals are conscious decisions—the style in which we dress and the way we wear our hair, for example.  We send far more nonverbal messages unconsciously and sometimes these messages get us into trouble.  Take for example the employee of the month who is perceived as a lying, backstabbing little toady but the rest of the worker population.  In selecting this employee to be recognized you are sending the message that you want all employees to be lying, back stabbing little toadies.  But it doesn’t have to be that extreme.  Suppose you over do it and praise all the time.  To  the high performers you come off as condescending and patronizing and to the mediocre performer you have just endorsed all his or her behavior desirable and undesirable alike.

But unintentional feedback goes far deeper than over praising, and can be dangerous in any situation, and deadly in safety. Sending a clear message (and not sending mixed signals) on a safety issue is essential, but it is something that many safety professionals just plain screw up.

Providing Feedback

Before providing feedback we need to recognize that there are right ways and wrong ways of giving this information to someone else.  The first rule of providing feedback is to focus on behaviors, not attitudes. Unfortunately, many people are seemingly unable to make the distinction between who we are as people and how we behave. We feel what we feel because of chemical electric signals that run through our brain.  If the stimuli that our nervous system picks up are such that the brain tells us to be angry, we will be angry.  If it says we should be happy, we are happy.  Barring chemical imbalances, psychological illness, or a malfunction of the brain, this is how life works. Contrary to what many believe, we cannot control our emotions (we can control how we behave in response to our emotions, but there is scarce little we can do about our brains being awash in chemicals).

That is not to say that we are hapless victims of our internal chemical plant.  While we may not be able to control our emotions—how we feel—we can certainly control our behaviors—how we act on what we feel.  Oft-times people provide us feedback on our emotions instead of on our behavior.  The result of this muddied feedback is that oft-times people say things like “you have a shit attitude” rather than “I find it upsetting when you use that tone of voice when speaking to me.” The first statement is unproductive and stress producing for a variety of reasons.

First, the first statement attacks the essence of whom we are as human beings.  After all, where doe attitudes come from?  What people frequently describe as an attitude is the physical manifestation of our emotions.  And where do our emotions come from?  Emotions—though many are loath to admit it—are created by chemicals in our brain.  Where do the chemical in our brain come from?  Our brains produce these chemicals—completely involuntarily—in response to external stimuli.  So when someone tells you that you have a shit attitude, they are essentially saying that your emotions are shit, and (continuing the logic stream) that you have shit in your brain.  This feedback isn’t exactly the kind of “up with people” sentiment that is likely to put one at ease, rather it elicits a “circle the wagons” response that churns out more chemicals and heightens our stress level.

Perhaps the most common form of feedback is silence.  Silence could also be described as the absence of feedback when feedback is expected.  Silence is appropriate for the times in life where we want everything to stay the same.  “If you weren’t happy, why didn’t you say something?”  Silence is often an excellent tool for remaining cool when your emotions are raging, but silence is a short-term fix.

Often we use silence as a flight mechanism, we don’t want to fight, so we mentally extricate ourselves from the situation by remaining silent, rather than providing more direct feedback and potentially provoking further attack, we remain silent and let things simmer.  Silence should be used sparingly; it hurts relationships as we ascribe sinister motives to the person from whom we receive no information.  As our brains have only partial information with which to determine whether or not we are in danger we react as if the silent ones are hostile to us.  Many an employee inaccurately assumes that his or her boss doesn’t like him or her simply because the employer has not provided enough reassurance to the contrary.

Years ago, I had a job that required a heavy travel schedule, which in turn meant that I had very little contact with my boss.  Soon I became convinced that my boss was out to get me, and that—despite constant praise from my customers, and positive performance reviews—I was in imminent danger of being fired.  It is interesting to note, that even though I was fully aware that my paranoia was a direct result of a lack of feedback from my boss, I was unable to shake my raging paranoia; my subconscious was far stronger than my intellect. (Not something of which I am especially proud; let’s just say I don’t have it on my resume.)

We also may become paranoid if the majority of the feedback is silence.  If we feel out of the information loop, our brains, craving information with which to protect us, manufacture threats and plots against us.  Again the brain’s “better safe than sorry” response prepares us for greater and greater threats that may not exist.

Another form of feedback is criticism.  Criticism is the practice of sharing negative information about us without any other information.  Criticism is essentially an attack—someone tells us that what we are doing is bad, wrong, or otherwise undesirable.

Repeated criticism hurts relationship; a big surprise—we tend to dislike people who continually remind us of how stupid we are, how much we need to improve, or how foolish we’ve acted.  As we are in close proximity with people who criticize us, we are increasingly likely to employ a fight/flight response.  If we spend enough time with the person and our fight response is engaged it is highly likely that we will lash out at that person either overtly or covertly.

An overt aggressive response can take the form of a verbal blow up or in extreme cases physical violence.  Take for example the case of the worker who is continually criticized by his boss.  Day after day the boss knit picks about the quality of the work.  One day the criticism becomes too much and the employee explodes in a flurry of obscenity, he tells the boss in dubious anatomical accuracy into specifically which orifices the boss can stick this month’s status reports.

The aggression is far more likely to be covert.  In the previous example the employee became overtly hostile as his fight/flight lever got switched to fight.  In a far more likely scenario, the employee becomes passive aggressive.  Instead of obscenity and creative anatomical body packing the injured employee takes the fight underground.  Graffiti gets sprawled on bathroom walls; deadlines get “innocently” missed; key information is not conveyed and the employee engages in malicious obedience.  Passive aggression, doesn’t relieve stress, however, and in many cases leads to guilt as our stress level subsides.

Sometimes criticism triggers the flight response; instead of fighting we flee.  The flight response manifests itself in a phenomenon called escape and avoidance.  In other words, we—often without realizing it—will quickly excuse ourselves from the company of the person who over criticizes us (escape) or, when we are able, avoid contact with the criticizer altogether.   My ex-wife and I like to play a little game we call “what’s wrong with Phil”.  The game begins with her saying, “you know what’s wrong with you?”  As much as I love this game (I actually lettered in it in high school.) I find myself saying, “You know how I love this game, and how I thirst for information to help me on my road to development, however, I have pressing business elsewhere.”  It comes as no surprise that I don’t want to listen to an attack on who I am as a person, but any response short of fleeing the scene is likely to provoke more, and escalated criticism.

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