The Negative Feedback Paradox

Let me start with a confession:I never liked receiving negative feedback, and have spent the largest part of my professional life ignoring it.

I found ignoring negative (or perhaps I should euphemistically say ‘corrective’) feedback to be quite easy. Depending on the situation, I either did not take the person who gave me feedback seriously (‘that is rich – from him?’), comforted myself that the feedback concerned only a minor issue in the grand scheme of my behavior (and that other aspects of my behavior would compensate this), or convinced myself that the person giving me feedback did not understand the context in which I acted the way I did or said the things I said.

It was not until I hit a serious roadblock in my career, that I started to see the fact that systematically ignoring feedback was not necessarily a great idea. 

Since that time, I moved on from rejecting feedback to grumpily accepting it, and recently to even being grateful for it. Grateful, because the business world is getting more and more complex and negative feedback can be a great pointer to find our way in this complexity (although, if I am really honest, I still strongly prefer positive feedback).

The feedback paradox

If receiving negative feedback was not something I relished, I found issuing negative feedback often much harder.  

Ever since I took on managerial roles, I started to realize how difficult giving feedback was. That remained the case even after I took all the best practices on board (‘immediately after the event’, ‘based on data’, ‘separate the behavior from the individual’, ‘sandwich negative messages between two positive ones’ etc.). I am still haunted by memories about my attempts to delicately breach difficult messages to some of my direct reports, only to be met by defiant responses like ‘What do you mean?’, ‘I have absolutely no idea where you are coming from’, ‘That is total nonsense, who told you this?’, etc.

The paradox I discovered was that people who need feedback the most, are often the ones that are the least receptive to it. As a result, they will also receive less feedback or no feedback at all. 

The sad thing is that people who are feedback-resistant do not learn, and in today’s business world that is a real problem. The reason is that nowadays success, or even mere survival, in business, is increasingly connected with learning agility.

How to deal with people who have feedback resistance?

The most effective strategy I found is to provide negative feedback to people who are resistant to it, is to capture them at the moment where the behavior you want to address, poses difficulties for them.

The most successful case of a turn-around I ever witnessed was with a direct report of mine. His problem was that he failed to adequately prepare himself for meetings with senior leaders in the company we worked for. When he was confronted with this during or after meetings, he tried to get away with this behavior by arrogantly claiming the topics he had not adequately prepared were not important anyway…

Every time I tried to gently coach him to adapt his behavior, he looked at me with a mix of empathy and disdain, and, in a condescending voice, started to say something along the lines of ‘I understand where you are coming from, but …’. (yes – It takes one to know one!). 

One time he came desperate to our weekly 1:1 meeting because a senior leader in the company had publicly dressed him down because of this behavior. After he told this, I first was silent for a full minute. Then I told him: ‘I am not sure what to say. I am not sure how meaningful it would be to give you feedback. We had this conversation so many times, and so far you never seemed to be interested. Therefore I am not sure if we should spend any time on this’. The combination of the crisis with the senior leader and my hesitation to help him finally did the trick; ever since that time he refers to our conversation as a ‘life-changing event’.

Negative feedback is a gift…

If you find dealing with negative feedback difficult, it might be an idea to consider it as a present from the person delivering the feedback. Just like you would throw a present away immediately, do not immediately reject well-intended negative feedback, but consider it as a free of charge learning opportunity.

Success! You're on the list.

2 thoughts on “The Negative Feedback Paradox

  1. jeremybohall 22 June 2020 / 11:49

    Excellent desciption of the feedback paradox. I’ve been guilty of being hesitant to give and receive feedback but have found your observations to be true as I’ve intentionally grown in this area. I love your conclusion of considering feedback a gift.

  2. Dirk Verburg 6 September 2020 / 15:37

    Thank you so much for your kind comments Jeremy. Fully agree with you: it is definitely not easy!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s