There’s a curious thing about people. All of us are driven in some way or another to achieve – we want to run faster, be more creative, win more awards, cure more illnesses, earn more money. But here’s the thing: if you want to help us reach our individual potentials by pointing out how we’re doing and where we could improve, if you want to offer warm words of wisdom, constructive criticism or “360-degree feedback”, then think again. Most of us would rather not hear it.
Our fragile egos are partly to blame. We all want to meet our own expectations of ourselves, and so being critiqued – or even just the prospect of being critiqued – can present an enormous threat to our self-esteem and positive sense of identity. Yet as decades of psychological theory and research have demonstrated, people have endless cunning tactics at their disposal for remaining positive in the face of criticism.
For this reason, rather than us welcoming feedback with open arms, our first response is often a defensive knee-jerk. These reflexes serve to make us feel better about ourselves and yet, almost paradoxically, they also shine an unflattering spotlight on our insecurities, character flaws, and unpleasant attitudes.
Ignorance is bliss
The art of deflecting feedback requires being adept with selective attention and self-deception techniques. Many people will cautiously fish for compliments, for example, innocently seeking feedback only from supportive allies, and only on matters in which they know they excel. But perhaps the simplest deflection technique is to avoid hearing feedback at all. We observe this “fingers in the ears” reaction within the education system, where students sometimes fail to even collect or look at the advice they receive on their assignments. And in the world of public health, we see that people will go to great lengths to avoid visiting their family doctor, rather than risk being advised to lose weight or stop smoking, or given other unwanted home truths.