How 360-Degree Feedback Can Lead to Pain

September 14, 2016 by Sandra Mashihi

“Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, and acquaintance or a stranger.”

-Franklin P. Jones

At an organizational level, a poorly constructed 360-degree feedback process can lower engagement and employee morale.

At an individual level, poorly-delivered feedback can be perceived as critical, evaluative and judgmental, leading to social pain and emotional distress. Amazingly, these stressors are physiologically identical to physical pain at a neurobiological level.

For example in a 2010 study, DeWall and colleagues conducted experiments around the neurobiology of emotional and social pain1. In the first experiment, individuals took either 1000mg of the pain reliever acetaminophen or a placebo pill every day and were asked to report on their social pain. Those who took acetaminophen showed a significant decrease in social pain and hurt feelings.

In a second experiment, individuals took pain reliever or a placebo daily for three weeks. At the end of the three-week period, the test participants played a computer game designed to elicit social rejection while researchers monitored brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They found that acetaminophen (Tylenol) actually reduced neural responses to social rejection in brain regions associated with the distress of social pain, as well as the emotional component of physical pain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula).

The findings of these experiments suggest that the emotional pain that employees may feel after receiving feedback is actually felt the same way as if they were experiencing physical pain.

Coach’s Critique: 

In my coaching practice, I often come across clients that are seeking to find a way to cope with the hurt feelings associated with negative feedback. I had one client that had been given feedback from her manager that she is not a “people person” and not “liked” within the organization. Clearly this is not the kind of constructive feedback that we hope to get from a 360-degree feedback evaluation.

My client was demoralized to say the least. She had become not only doubtful about her job, but about herself, and who she is to people, including her friends and family. She had to worry about saving her job while figuring out how to digest a belief that she had a personality flaw. She was dealing with the psychological effects and physical effects as well.

I still wonder if this manager realizes my client feels PAIN every time she sees her boss. How was this individual supposed to improve when she was so down on herself? Perhaps managers and leaders should rethink the impacts of providing undue criticism and feedback to their employees. Apparently, every word of feedback has an impact. Unfortunately, in some cases, 1000 mg of Tylenol may simply not be enough to relieve the pain…

  1. Dewall, C.N, MacDonald, G., Webster, G.D., Masten, C.L., Baumeister, R.F.,
    Powell, C., Combs, D., Schurtz, D.R., Stillman, T.F., Tice, D.M., & Eisenberger, N.I. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 21, 931-937. []

Dr. Sandra Mashihi is a senior consultant with Envisia Learning, Inc. She has extensive experience in sales training, behavioral assessments and executive coaching. Prior to working at Envisia Learning, Inc., She was an internal Organizational Development Consultant at Marcus & Millichap where she was responsible for initiatives within training & development and recruiting.. Sandra received her Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology from University of California, Los Angeles and received her Master of Science and Doctorate in Organizational Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology.

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  1. did u know that in the USA there are 50,000 visits to ER, 10,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths attributed to acetaminophen.
    ginder is just as effective as is tumeric.

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