Yes, in theory, performance reviews are supposed to be an opportunity to receive valuable feedback and improve in your job, but in execution, they’re often more of an awkward waste of time. As Science of Us has previously reported, research has shown that most companies rate most of their employees as average or just above average — with hardly anyone at the bottom or the top — for fear of discouraging them or allowing them to rest on their laurels.
But unfortunately, this is one of those times where we have to blame ourselves as much as the system. As psychologist Robert Nash, a lecturer at Aston University in the U.K., explained in a recent column for the BBC, even when we do have a chance to listen to some real, meaningful feedback, most of us won’t take it. “None of our options really seem very appealing,” he wrote. “Failing to reach our goals makes us feel bad, but so does hearing critique that could help us to achieve those goals.”
And in fact, Nash explained, we’ll go out of our way to deflect it, using any one of a number of strategies: We misdirect, pointing out the weak points of someone who outperformed us while playing up our own strengths. We discredit, attacking the judgment of the person who’s giving us constructive criticism. We put our blinders on: Students who get a bad grade on a paper will stuff it away without reading the professor’s notes in the margins; patients will put off making doctor’s appointments to protect themselves from receiving health advice they don’t want to hear; workers will keep conveniently forgetting to put that review on the boss’s calendar.
It’s a frustrating but natural instinct, in other words, to run away from information that could help us make a positive difference in our own lives. But there’s a way to overcome that instinct, Nash explained: Before you go soliciting feedback, remind yourself of all the things, related or otherwise, that you like about yourself:
Perhaps the solution to this dilemma is to reflect on why we feel so positively about ourselves in the first place. Indeed, research suggests that people are more open to receiving diagnostic medical feedback … if they first think about the positive traits they most value in themselves, and remember past occasions when they demonstrated those traits. This finding fits with the broader, perhaps predictable, picture that people who already experience high self-esteem are generally better than their less-assured counterparts at seeking feedback from others.
“It might help,” he concluded, “to put on some emotional armor beforehand, ensuring that our positive self-regard can stay intact.” It’s turning that misdirection strategy on its head: You may need work in areas x and y, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that you’re still pretty great at z — which makes the rest of it an easier pill to swallow.