Sock it to me

Really enjoyed this NYT “Smarter Living” feature on the great difficulty for most people in hearing negative feedback.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue that I am far better than average at taking negative feedback.  Not because I’m special; but because I’m an academic.  You want to get published?  Then you will get plenty of negative feedback and you need to use it in a constructive manner.  A huge part of doing your job right is soliciting negative feedback and using it to become better.  Though, this is strictly in the academic publishing domain, I’d like to think my necessary thick skin there, carries over to other domains.  But I’m probably wrong.  Anyway:

We’ve all been there: Your boss asks for a meeting, and you know it’s not going to be great. You messed up a project, or dropped the ball on a presentation, or whatever else goes wrong in the modern office, and it’s time for you to hear about it.

The anxiety leading up to that meeting is almost paralyzing, and you already can tell that this conversation is going to wreck your week.

But what if we could train ourselves to crave that negative feedback? And that instead of anxiously worrying about those meetings, we could excitedly anticipate them?

This is the idea behind a fascinating episode of the TED podcast “WorkLife With Adam Grant” that dives into why we hate hearing negative feedback.

When we’re confronted with it, Adam explains, we have a physiological response: We tense up, our breathing gets shallower and our ego becomes so threatened it begins to limit the information that is let into our brains. We regulate to avoid taking in harsh critiques.

Interesting argument for why we hate negative feedback:

Essentially, it’s because all of us are so awful at delivering negative feedback. It’s a self-reinforcing vicious circle that trains us to avoid what would make us better at work and in life.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because a few months ago we talked about seeking out people who will give you unvarnished, honest and, most important, genuinely helpful feedback.

The solution to this problem on both sides — whether you’re receiving the feedback or giving it — boils down to trusting that everyone is participating in good faith.  [emphasis in original]

When you’re delivering negative feedback, do so honestly and openly, and frame the conversation as a difficult-yet-necessary means to an end of improving the receiver’s performance (and mean it!). Don’t sugarcoat it, either. Those “praise sandwiches” in which we surround a bad review with halfhearted, superficial compliments don’t help either side.

And, you know what, again, I’m pretty sure that I am far better than average at giving negative feedback.  It’s also a huge part of my job so I’ve got a lot of experience at it.  There’s the academic writing side where that is a critical feature of peer review, plus, of course, grading.  And I think in both cases the audience for the feedback generally does understand that you are acting in good faith, so that really helps.

So, this is the part where you tell me what I’m doing wrong with my blog (I know– more!) and how it should be better :-).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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