Feedback and Social Threat
Most of us find the prospect of a feedback conversation daunting at the best of times, even in the context of a friendly relationship. Hearing someone say “Can I give you some feedback?” is almost guaranteed to elevate our heart rate and raise our blood pressure. These are common signs of a threat response, a cascade of neurological and physiological events that occur when we encounter a situation that we perceive as threatening. Neuroscientists have determined that we respond to threatening social situations in the same way that we respond to actual threats to our physical safety and have coined the term “social threat” to describe these experiences. David Rock is an executive coach who’s made an extensive study of recent neuroscience research to understand its implications for organizational life, and he developed the SCARF Model to characterize interpersonal situations that are likely to trigger a social threat.
SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness (i.e. the extent to which we perceive others as members of our social group) and fairness. Whenever our status, certainty, autonomy or perception of fairness is diminished, we’re more likely to experience a social threat. And an encounter with someone we perceive as unrelated is also more likely to trigger a social threat.
Given these factors, it’s unsurprising that a feedback conversation can be so stressful. Someone presuming to give us feedback is (at least momentarily) occupying a high-status position, and we may feel “demoted” as a result. We don’t know what feedback we’re about to get, so we’re immediately put in a state of uncertainty. Despite our discomfort, we’re likely to feel obligated to listen, so we have less autonomy. These factors are at play in almost every feedback conversation, and if we feel less connected with the other person or if we don’t believe their feedback is fair, then we’re certain to experience the conversation as a social threat.