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How to increase your emotional intelligence for better feedback

Learn more about why so many people fear giving and receiving feedback and how you can improve your own emotional intelligence for better workplace feedback.

Last updated

18 Aug 2022

Reading time

14 min


How to increase your emotional intelligence for better feedback

Does giving one-on-one feedback to fellow team members feel natural or is it something you avoid at all costs? If you're a manager or team lead, do you encourage feedback about yourself or do you shy away from requesting 360-degree reviews? If asked to ‘manage up,’ do you feel confident in offering feedback to those who are more superior in title or would you rather run in the opposite direction?

We sat down with Dr. Hayley Lewis, HALO Psychology founder, coach, and HR Most Influential 2021 and 2022, to learn more about why so many people fear giving and receiving feedback, what emotional intelligence is, how you can improve your own emotional intelligence, and what role both psychological safety and emotional intelligence play in workplace feedback. 

Why do people fear giving or receiving feedback?

It's common to feel stressed, anxious, and even fearful when giving and receiving feedback. This could be while delivering critical feedback to a team member, after receiving an impromptu ‘Let's check in’ message from a supervisor, or even during preparation for a formal review. And while everyone understands how this feels, it's sometimes difficult to articulate why it feels this way. 

But if feedback is meant as an opportunity for personal and professional growth, why do we so often cringe at the thought of it? 

Dr. Lewis offers three explanations:

1. Negative anticipation is associated with poor past experiences

When preparing to give or receive feedback, there's a tendency to mentally anticipate or ‘play out’ how the conversation will go. Sometimes, Dr. Lewis explains, this anticipation can spiral and become exaggerated in our heads, rooted in previous, bad experiences

For example, consider a negative interaction with a former manager or even as far back as getting reprimanded at school. As a consequence, this ‘getting into trouble’ mindset can put us on edge, induce anxiety, and incite a feeling of fear before the conversation has even taken place.

"Do you remember the Jerry Springer show?" Dr. Lewis asks. "It's like that in our heads sometimes when we think about feedback. We imagine that there's going to be this huge eruption from the other person, and it makes us fearful." 

2. Organizational culture makes feedback a big scary thing instead of a regularly practiced skill

People may also fear giving and receiving feedback because their organizational culture frames the process in an intimidating way. So rather than being a regularly practiced skill that's organically woven into and honed during daily work, it's instead presented as an add-on to a role, something that requires a course or specialized training. As a consequence, the feedback process feels much bigger and more intimidating than it usually ends up being. “It's important to demystify this narrative,” says Dr. Lewis, “and instead frame feedback as a natural part of our day-to-day work. To normalize it.”

3. A lack of trust and transparency promotes a psychologically unsafe organizational culture

It has been well researched how people working in psychologically safe environmentstend to be more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with colleagues, and suffer less stress. Chip away at this trust and transparency, however, and this once-thriving environment could turn into a fear-based culture.

"Sometimes, it's not realistic to offer feedback in an organization if you do not feel psychologically safe," says Dr. Lewis. Particularly when offering upward feedback, it's essential to assess your fear and acknowledge if the organization's work culture isn't the right environment. "You have to ask yourself: are you in a safe team culture? Or could giving feedback be dangerous for you?"

Why does creating a culture where everyone is responsible for giving feedback (not just the highest-paid people in the room) matter?

While it's common practice for managers to give feedback to their reports, it's becoming increasingly popular for reports to ‘manage up’ and provide feedback to those who are superior in title. Creating a trust culture where everyone is responsible for feedback may be challenging for organizations but successful execution can offer several benefits: 

1. Feedback becomes normalized

According to Dr. Lewis, one of the key benefits of developing a trust culture where everyone is part of the feedback process is that it removes the fear from the process. Why? Because if everyone takes part, regardless of title, role, or organizational hierarchy, it normalizes the process. "Suddenly, it becomes part of daily conversation," says Dr. Lewis. "It doesn't become this big thing."

2. Psychological safety improves

When feedback is normalized, this further helps establish a trust culture and maintain a psychologically safe environment, where employees act from an empowered place and not out of fear. "There's a misconception that psychological safety is soft and fluffy," says Dr. Lewis, referring to research done by Professor Amy Edmondson. "But the reality is, psychologically safety is also about how you navigate the tough stuff, as well as being able to give feedback to each other—including your boss—without the fear that there's going to be backlash."

3. Employees develop and strengthen skill sets 

As if decreasing fear and improving psychological safety in the workplace wasn't enough of a thumbs up for developing a trust culture for feedback, another key benefit is that it creates an opportunity to develop and strengthen new skill sets within the team organically. For example, strengthening core emotional intelligence (EQ) skills like self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation, and social skills, which can be applied both in the workplace and at home.

What is emotional intelligence (EQ)? How does this differ from an intelligence quotient (IQ)?

 EQ, also referred to as ‘emotional intelligence’ or ‘emotional quotient,’ can be described as a person's ability to validly reason with emotions and use those emotions to enhance thought. For example, a manager with high EQ may have a strong ability to empathize with colleagues, accurately perceive others' feelings, manage their emotions, and ‘read between the lines.’ They are likely in tune with their team's overall morale and can effectively advocate for team needs based on these more nuanced perceptions.

This is in contrast to the more traditional and historically studied IQ, or ‘intelligence quotient,’ which is a score derived from standardized tests designed to measure a person's reasoning ability. For example, an individual with a high IQ may have a strong capacity for logical reasoning, analysis, word comprehension, math skills, thinking abstractly, and drawing data-based conclusions.

While a significant amount of research already exists on how IQ influences key life outcomes, there is an increasing amount of research dedicated to studying how EQ affects success within the workplace. For example, EQ has been found to predict leadership effectiveness, even when accounting for IQ and personality. Another study found that a high EQ, specifically understanding and managing emotions, was strongly correlated to leadership behaviors of senior managers.

What are the main characteristics of emotional intelligence? How can I improve my emotional intelligence?

According to Daniel Goleman, a leading psychologist who has popularized the concept of EQ, there are five key components: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation, and social skills. But what do these look like in real life? And how do you improve upon these skills? Let's take a deeper look: 

1. Self-awareness = know thyself

Dr. Lewis describes self-awareness as our "ability to look inside and reflect upon who we are, our internal emotions, our strengths, our weaknesses, and acknowledging those head-on." Additionally, she explains, self-awareness is the ability to perceive the impact our emotions and actions have on others. 

Ways to improve self-awareness:  

  • Ask for constructive feedback such as a 360-degree review to get a multi-faceted perspective on your skills 

  • Try (accurate) EQ self-assessments to identify your strengths, as well as areas that may need some improvement 

  • Keep a journal, as even just a few minutes of daily reflection can help you feel more aware and spot patterns in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors 

2. Self-regulation = manage yourself

"Self-regulation revolves around our ability to control our reactions and responses," says Dr. Lewis. For example, controlling an angry reaction if someone gives feedback that upsets you. Expressing emotion is beneficial and critical for self-growth, but it profoundly matters how you express this. In other words: express yourself but don't wreck yourself.

Ways to improve self-regulation:

  • Pause or slow down when experiencing strong emotions such as anger. Take a moment to mentally check-in and, if necessary, give yourself space 

  • Meditate or try mindfulness techniques to calm your mind and improve awareness of thoughts and feelings 

  • Employ cognitive reframing to reinterpret a situation and change your emotional response—for example, viewing setbacks as new opportunities rather than failures

 3. Empathy = awareness of others

Empathy is considered one of the most critical elements of emotional intelligence. It describes the ability to understand how others are feeling, see things from others' perspectives, and pivot your actions and responses based on this information. As the saying goes, individuals who demonstrate strong empathy don't judge others before walking a mile in their shoes.

 Ways to improve empathy:

  • Practice listening to others and actively think about how you might feel if you were in their situation, with their circumstances

  • Talk to new people, particularly those who are different from you, to expand your horizons and diversify your perspective

  • Share your feelings as a way of being vulnerable to build trust and understanding with others

4. Motivation = guide yourself

Motivation is a behavior that is driven by internal rewards, not external rewards such as fame, money, recognition, and acclaim.  On a challenging day, motivation may look like picking yourself up and reminding yourself that temporary setbacks are part of the process. On a successful day, motivation may look like celebrating a win or making progress towards a big-picture goal.

Ways to improve motivation: 

  • Set small, measurable goals and think in steps, not leaps

  • Find an accountability partner to keep morale and motivation high

  • Celebrate your wins, regardless of how small they may seem 

5. Social skills = engage with others

Social skills are how we communicate, listen, and connect with others. For example, active listening, persuasiveness, and verbal and nonverbal communication are social skills we employ daily to help manage conflict, engage with others, and influence those around us. Ultimately, social skills help pave the way for building solid and meaningful relationships with others.

Ways to improve social skills:

  • Be aware of your physical body language, as crossed arms or frowns may indirectly signal unapproachability and deter people from engaging with you

  • Learn conflict resolution to effectively resolve challenges between team members, colleagues, or stakeholders

  • Praise others when credit is due, as positive reinforcement can help develop a strong sense of loyalty and bonding, particularly during complex team challenges 

As a manager, how can I apply emotional intelligence when giving (critical) feedback? 

Giving feedback, sometimes critical feedback, is an inevitable part of being a manager. 

And while it may initially feel uncomfortable, leaning into your emotional intelligence while simultaneously applying some strategic preparatory steps will help ease the process and set you up for success. Some tips Dr. Lewis offers are: 

1. Lead with empathy

"A key place to start when preparing to give feedback, particularly if you're giving feedback that could be seen as critical, is with empathy," says Dr. Lewis. In other words, really think about putting yourself in the other person's position. This means taking time to think about the conversation and the person as an individual.

2. Reverse-engineer your conversation

Rather than focusing on what could happen or could go wrong, structure the meeting based on what you want to happen. For example:

  • What primary message do you want the person to take away from the conversation?

  • How do you want the other person to feel after your conversation?

  • What action do you wish for the other person to take?

Use these prompts to structure your meeting, taking care that your responses are specific and focused to avoid any miscommunication, limit distractions, and prevent the conversation from getting off track.

3. Take the time to prepare

This may seem obvious, but too often, Dr. Lewis says, managers find themselves in back-to-back meetings with little time to prepare in advance. Even if it's just 15 minutes, give yourself the time to outline key talking points and to get in the best headspace beforehand.

10 signs ready to give feedback

Practice non-judgemental listening

Practicing non-judgmental listening might also seem obvious, but Dr. Lewis stresses this skill is crucial for establishing trust. (It also happens to be a common pitfall she sees middle-managers struggle with.) Don't presume you know why a person has done something a certain way, said a certain thing, or behaved in a certain way. Ask questions without placing blame, inquire in the spirit of curiosity to understand, and, most importantly, listen.

5. Lean into self-regulation

"I'm going to call it out," says Dr. Lewis. "Sometimes we don't particularly like a person that we're managing. We're human, and we can't like everybody—but we have a job to do as a manager and have to put those feelings to one side." The trick? Honing self-regulation. Be aware of your feelings and preconceived notions going into the meeting, work to control them during the conversation, refer back to your main messaging if things go awry, and remember that this is a professional duty of your role as a manager.

Sometimes, even with the most practiced preparation and eloquent delivery, having difficult conversations end up being precisely that: difficult. During times of duress, Dr. Lewis emphasizes that it's important to remember that you can only own your portion of the conversation. "You can't take responsibility for how the other person receives it." If things do get particularly heated or confrontational, consider taking a short pause. Go for a walk or grab a cup of coffee together. Sometimes a small breather can reset the tone of the entire conversation.

Sketchote - difficult convos

How can I apply emotional intelligence when offering feedback to a manager or ‘managing up’?

There's a common saying that people don't quit their jobs; they quit their boss. A survey at Facebook took this concept and turned it on its head, stating, ‘People don’t quit a boss—they quit a job. And who’s responsible for what that job is like? Managers.’ 

Oftentimes, managing up can feel even more intimidating than receiving feedback. The key to acing this conversation, says Dr. Lewis, is to again lean into your emotional intelligence, specifically your empathy and social skills:

1. Establish rapport early within your relationship

A big part of effective upward feedback is establishing a trusting relationship with your manager before the conversation occurs. Lay this groundwork early on so you're familiar with each other as colleagues and on a personal level. What are their hobbies? Interests? Do they have kids? A few unique insights can do wonders for establishing long-term relationship rapport, which will serve as a critical foundation when the time comes to give upward feedback.

2. Understand their managerial goals and challenges

Lean into your empathy and consider what roadblocks or benchmarks they are facing as a manager. What would make their lives easier? What is their definition of success? What is their top priority this quarter? By demonstrating an understanding of their position, you further establish trust within your relationship. Additionally, understanding their goals and stressors may help you know, on a personal level, why your manager is making certain decisions or acting a certain way.

3. Consider their preferred communication style

If you have feedback to give to a manager, particularly critical feedback, consider how they would prefer to receive it. In-person? An email or text? During a video call? Additionally, consider what kind of information they respond to. Data? Anecdotes? Also, think about how to begin the conversation. For example, do they enjoy some chit-chat before diving into a dialogue, or do they always get straight to the point? While subtle, these nuances can influence the effectiveness of your message, and ultimately, how the feedback is received.

Again, evaluating your psychological safety when offering upward feedback is important. Sometimes, your current environment may not lend itself to this practice, and if that's the case, it's ok to acknowledge it. Perhaps there's a larger conversation that needs to take place instead.

How do I begin exploring my emotional intelligence? 

Tackling emotional intelligence may feel a bit overwhelming or confusing. It might also feel difficult to know how to start exploring and assessing your emotional intelligence. That's ok, says Dr. Lewis, who offers three practical ways to get started: 

  • Self-reflect. Write down what you believe to know about yourself: your strengths, weaknesses, and values. Based on this self-assessment, identify a priority area you think you may need to work on and set some goals for improvement. 

  • Request 360 feedback. Take the baseline of what you know about yourself and compare it to how others perceive you. Identify a priority area where there may be discrepancies and set goals for improvement. 

  • Work with a coach or someone similarly impartial who will help identify your goals and keep you on the road to improvement.

 Don't forget to track your progress and reflect, even if it's just for a few minutes each week. Improvement may feel slow and imperceptible, but it will build and evolve with time. 

Thanks so much to Dr. Lewis for taking the time to chat with Hotjar!

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