Can You Hear Negative Feedback?

by | Oct 4, 2017

Last week, while cleaning out my file cabinet, I came across 20 years of my work performance reviews. From the early days of Forrester Research to my last role before Ceatro Group at PRTM (now PwC Advisory) and a few in between, there, in black and white, were all my accomplishments, all my issues, and all my foibles.

But let’s only focus on the accomplishments. The only reason I would have printed and saved all these reviews is to record how amazing I was at my jobs for when my personal museum opens. It surely wasn’t so I could spend a Saturday afternoon reading about all the ways I could have done better.

There were entire pages and columns of things I did well. I was pretty much a rock star in every job I ever had. It was so spot on. Those reviewers really got me.

Oh, the negative stuff? Yeah, there were also pages and columns of that. Sure, ‘growth comes from learning’ blah, blah, blah. (If I bought in to that I would have fixed it then, right?) All that negative stuff is just someone else’s opinion and not that valid.

And therein lies the problem.

We have trouble hearing the things that don’t align with our view of ourselves or our worldview. We dismiss those things as not valid or we dismiss the person giving the feedback as not important or not accurate. If we believe it to be true it means our view of ourselves or our view of our world becomes shaky. That’s really hard.

However, and I know you saw this coming, it is essential to growth, to getting unstuck, and to achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself. Once you listen to it and accept it as real, valid feedback, you can choose to address what you’ve learned or choose not to address it. That is up to you and your goals (and perhaps your therapist.) However, when you opt not to hear it or you invalidate it immediately, you deny yourself the chance to do better next time (even if it just means avoiding that person.)

You Are Still You At Work

As we’ve previously written about, our inability to hear negative things about ourselves doesn’t stop when we go to work. We bring that with us and it makes for some very expensive mistakes – failed product launches, lost opportunities to correct experiences, massive misses on customer needs assessments, prolonged product glitches, customer attrition, employee attrition, cost leakage, lost revenue, and sometimes some lawsuits.

Here are a few examples:

  • When presented with competitive research that explained a long existing company’s declining customer base, the leadership invalidated the research once they realized it demonstrated their lack of innovation was helping the competition, preferring to believe it was a research methodology issue.
  • Last year a very popular food company ignored a high volume of direct customer complaints of illness tied to a new and expensive product change, going as far as telling the customers that they were wrong and delaying taking action, which resulted in a significant, serious, and costly recall and PR issue.
  • The Wall Street Journal recently covered two substantial product launch failures at established businesses. In both cases, upon launch, the target market told the companies something they could have learned if they were willing to ask and listen: “Nope. We aren’t going to pay that much for that new feature. It doesn’t offer us enough value.”
  • While advising a start up founder on his go-to-market strategy and launch plans for a potentially marketing-changing solution we learned that he refused to do any research into the true market need or size. He had bet so much on his heart, money, and reputation on his idea and his understanding of the market, he just wanted to launch and hope for the best.
  • Recently a hospital executive told us that when he shares the monthly patient satisfaction results with his staff they accept and embrace the positive feedback and yet attempt to disprove the negative feedback. Every month he has to reprove that the results are sound in order for them to address the improvement opportunities.
  • When confronted with reports of repeated bad customer experience situations, like field service technicians not showing up to consumers’ home appointments or call center agents hanging up on consumers or not calling back to close the loop on service issues, we often hear executives and managers ignore the data and say something akin to “Those are one-off situations. Those rarely happen.” This is especially true when the problem is hard to solve.

These examples are a few of many.

We prefer to be patted on the back. We prefer to believe we are doing well, especially at our weakest times. It is easier to not hear customers, not collect feedback, not hear that your great idea has flaws, not correct issues, and not listen to whistle blowers than it is to hear it, sit with the discomfort, and figure out how to change that which is blocking your success.

A professional performer recently told me that ‘taking notes’ from the director or stage manager after rehearsals and performances is part of the job. Taking notes has two parts – hearing them and correcting the issue in your performance. If you get a reputation for ‘not taking notes well’ it could kill your career. It is an essential skill that all performers must perfect if they want to survive.

Though I’ve since shredded the first 10 years of reviews (just to save space, I swear,) reading 20 years of reviews in one afternoon and making myself read the often-similar constructive feedback was (torture) a great reminder that I too need to get better at taking notes.